Solemn, well researched, intellectually admirable, and beautifully photographed, Copperhead focuses on an aspect of the Civil War that has never been shown before—the war on the home front, seen through the eyes of a fair-minded, churchgoing Northern pacifist who refuses to take sides and pays a high price for his unpopular ideals. The third film in a Civil War trilogy by producer-director Ron Maxwell, it succeeds at times, and there is plenty to look at and think about. Surprisingly, in the long haul, it is just too dull for its own good.
Having already explored the historic figures and dates of the big events in two previous epics, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, Mr. Maxwell, working on a smaller scale, now tells the story of the little people who provided the footnotes to the history-book battles. Set in upstate New York in the autumn of 1862, the film centers on an honest dairy farmer named Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), who puts the Bible and the U.S. Constitution above the obsessions of Abraham Lincoln. Abner is one of a small group of peace-loving Yankees who oppose slavery but refuse to be labeled. Such men were neither Democrat nor Republican, Southern rebels nor Union abolitionists. They were freethinkers who defended their right to dissent, forbidding their sons to join a war that enlisted children as soldiers. They were controversial, and as the war piloted its way to massive graves, imprisoning newspaper editors for their opinions and trashing civil rights in general, they were branded traitors. Abner is not a slaver. He’s never seen a slave. He belongs to no political party. His family, his farmland, his beloved state of New York, his friends and his community mean more to him than the Civil War.
His beliefs are enough to carry him along above the herd awhile, until his own son Jeff falls in love with the schoolteacher daughter of his worst enemy, the rabid abolitionist Jee Hagadorn (a lusty performance by esteemed Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen). When local shopkeepers boycott his dairy products, Abner’s world starts to crumble, but the perils escalate when neighbors shun his family and burn down his farm. To break his heart, his son defies him by leaving home to join the Union Army. But even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Abner continues to voice his dissent, paying a terrible price for the freedom promised by American democracy.
Based on the novel by 19th-century historian Harold Frederic, Copperhead has a screenplay by Bill Kauffman that resonates with astounding facts and observations. The natural settings of New York in 1862, filmed at Kings Landing Historical Settlement in New Brunswick, Canada, are so unfiltered through the lens of time that you could swear the Civil War was still taking place within firing distance. From the stark house paints to the bucket benches and redware milk jugs, the sets are authentic, filled with priceless antiques. The cinematography has the museum quality of colonial oil paintings. On the negative side, the pace is so funereal and the music so sonorous that it begins to seem like a silent film. Despite shades of Shenandoah and Friendly Persuasion, the subplots in Copperhead about the Civil War conflicts that tore villages apart and pitted fathers against children, wives against husbands, and congregations against their ministers do not always sustain interest.
My reservations about Copperhead are outweighed by the noble intentions that inspired it. If every war has more than one side, this story of one man who dares to stand against the tide of history has a contemporary relevance that remains uncontested.
Written by: Harold Frederic and Bill Kauffman
Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Starring: François Arnaud, Lucy Boynton and Casey Thomas Brown
Running time: 120 mins.
Rating: 2.5/4 stars