Copperhead is Truly the Civil War Film for Today
- Debbie Holloway Contributing Writer
- 2013 28 Jun
Release Date: June 28, 2013 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence)
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Cast: Peter Fonda, Lucy Boynton, Casey Thomas Brown, Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyn
You might think a Civil War film following so closely on the coattails of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln would be one to pass up, but you'd be wrong. Granted, Lincoln was a masterful peek backwards in history to examine the Civil War from the perspective of our nation's leader. But while Lincoln held audiences in pseudo-suspense as the President campaigned for votes to pass the 13th amendment, Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead examines a hitherto silenced and passed-over portion of American history.
Maxwell knows a thing or two about Civil War films; you may have seen his earlier work in epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Mercifully, Copperhead isn't four hours long, but it nonetheless tells a desperately important story, specifically for politically active Christians.
Copperhead takes place in a small corner of New York State in 1862, when the Civil War far to the south was starting to creep into the lives of northerners in a more tangible way. We meet two very different families. First we have grumpy Jee Hagadorn (Angus McFadyn, We Bought a Zoo), a loyal abolitionist sympathizer who supports the Republican efforts to end slavery and preserve the union. His devoted daughter Esther (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter) shares his sentiments, even requesting that her beau cease to go by his nickname "Jeff" so that she won't have to be reminded of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis.
Jee's foil is Abner Beech (Billy Campbell, Gods and Generals), a much more reserved Democrat who staunchly opposes the War on constitutional and humanitarian grounds. He is disgusted at the enormous death toll that the War has brought about, and wants to keep his own sons from such a grisly death. "My family means more to me," Abner explains, "than any Union."
Abner Beech is a "Copperhead," a northern dissenter mistrusted by his abolitionist peers. Similar to the way many southerners refused to own or mistreat slaves, and disagreed with the South’s secession, many northerners like Abner were fiercely against the War. Minority factions are rarely featured or even mentioned in retellings of great historical events, and Copperhead pulls back the curtain to zero in on such dissenters.
The drastically different religious and political worldviews of the Hagadorns and the Beeches collide when young Jeff Beech (Casey Thomas Brown), Abner’s son, begins to seriously court Esther Hagadorn. Both young people struggle to reconcile their affection for each other with their loyalty to their respective family's convictions. As the film progresses, and tensions in the community rise between war-supporters and Copperheads, it becomes increasingly clear that dehumanizing those with whom we disagree can have deadly consequences.
The most tragic - yet perhaps most relatable - aspect of the film is that every character is a Bible-believing Christian… and yet the community splits into two distinct factions that show less and less respect for each other as the story progresses. When Hagadorn sees that his daughter is falling for his rival's son, he plainly tells her, "If you marry him, you will kill me," thereby placing his personal political convictions above the happiness of his adult daughter. Likewise, when Beech's son enlists in the War in a last-ditch effort to impress Esther and her Republican father, Beech refuses to say goodbye to him or mention his existence in the ensuing months.
It's interesting to note that both sides are technically "right." The President's objective to preserve the Union was a noble one, and the gruesome institution of slavery sorely needed to end. On the other hand, opposing the War on constitutional grounds was also noble, and demonstrated great respect for the States' Rights that our founding fathers so greatly respected. The cause of peace is always a good one. Who could fault Abner for his admission: "I'm no party man. I don't want Cuba… I didn't even want Texas. But I don't want our boys dying." Abner then touches on a core element of Christ's ministry when, during a heated sermon where the local preacher likens anti-war figures to the seven-headed beast in Revelation, he stands and questions poignantly, "'Blessed are the peacemakers.' Is that still in the Bible?"
Still, both sides heartbreakingly continue to miss the point in so many ways. Because of their differing priorities and convictions, they are unable to see that they all desire the good of the country and the good of God's Kingdom. The majority of the community begins to distrust and ridicule the Beeches for their differing political slant. Suffering rudeness and distrust then breeds a bitterness and hate in Abner Beech that is every bit as reprehensible. The two sides of the community begin to look upon each other as the enemy in a chillingly relatable parallel to today’s political climate.
"Fight, fight, fight. That's their answer to everything," exclaims one frustrated and ridiculed Copperhead trying to explain the actions of an abolitionist.
Likewise, a judgmental abolitionist tells his son, "It shames me… to see you loafin' around… when others are doing the Lord's work." His son replies, "I didn’t know the Lord’s work was killin.'" "There’s a time for everything," his father insists. "Now's the time for carrying the sword." Thoughtfully, the boy muses, "There's too many folks carrying the sword. Not enough pulling ploughs."
The ideological disagreement could have ended there. But alas, the conversation continues when the father elevates his political ideals over his own son: "You’re a sore disappointment to me, boy. A sore disappointment."
This is the core of Copperhead. This is the conversation that still takes place in living rooms across the United States today. Though the terms "democrat" and "republican" are used in this movie, come to the film with an open mind; come to the film with the recognition that all parties involved are just trying their best to do the right thing. Unfortunately for all of us, it's terribly easy to turn "trying to do the right thing" into "ridiculing and demonizing everyone with whom I disagree." How very, very important it is to remember the simple, childlike phrase: love thy neighbor.
After all, even the passage detailing the warlike Armor of God tells us that,
"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood."
- Drugs/Alcohol: none
- Language/Profanity: mild, infrequent swearing
- Sex/Nudity: Young couple shown kissing multiple times
- Violence: much discussion of death, war, and mutilation, a group of men fist-fighting, a very destructive fire, suicide (implied, dead body briefly shown)
Debbie Holloway is Assistant Editor for Family Content at Crosswalk. Recently married, she lives in Henrico, Virginia and is an avid writer, reader, and participant in local community theatre.
Publication date: June 28, 2013