Friday, July 26, 2013

Copperhead: A Glimpse through Time at Anti-War Conservatism

If there was ever a day when a steep ticket price was well spent, it was the day I saw Ron Maxwell’s bold creation, Copperhead.  Based on Harold Frederic’s novel of the same name, Copperhead is a movie not simply about the American Civil War, but about the war’s deep and far-reaching impact on a small town in rural New York.  This movie shows how war is very real to the civilians of a belligerent power who live their daily lives far from the battlefields.  I can think of no better candidate than the director of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals to have made such a powerful film.

(Everyone knows Gettysburg is a masterpiece.  Gods and Generals received a colder reception because the film was scattered.  In my opinion, it was severely over-edited for time.  See the extended, nearly five-hour director’s cut on Blu Ray and the movie will be redeemed.)

Copperhead reminded me of a combination of The Patriot and Good Morning Vietnam.  Reminiscent of The Patriot, the film’s characters talk a great deal about the Constitution, the founding fathers, and the principles of individual liberty that make America great.  Like Good Morning Vietnam, there was very little violence and the film primarily focused on the strains imposed on the daily lives of rural New Yorkers as they grow weary of the war.  Maxwell did very well in deviating from his modus operandi of long films saturated with epic battles and high death tolls.  This film gives the audience the same disturbed reaction to violence as they would have watching a soldier evaporate in a cannon blast or get shot in the lower abdomen, but it inflicts this very human reaction instead through dramatic performances of weeping Gold Star mothers, of worried sweethearts, insecure siblings, and sleepless fathers.

During the first few minutes I was quite unimpressed with the exposition and the realistic performances of, well, simple folks in the country who lead unexciting lives.  I thought at first that it was too hokey, that Hollywood was trying to paint a Norman Rockwell painting.  Then I remembered reading memoirs of Civil War soldiers—on both sides—who talked about another state being the farthest away from home they’d ever been.  Then it hit me: America was a very different time back in 1862.  Most people really did live ordinary lives and indeed never ventured far from home at all.  The film was on point!  Once I grew comfortable with the characters and the actors’ performances, I felt right at home watching the movie.

The lead actor Billy Campbell, who plays the protagonist Abner Beech, the anti-war “copperhead,” certainly carried the performance.  Commanding equal respect is Campbell's counterpart Angus Macfayden, playing the leading warhawk Jee Hagadorn.  Augustus Prew, playing Jee Hagadorn’s son Ni, lends an exceptionally powerful performance towards the end of the movie (but I won’t spoil it for my readers).  Peter Fonda plays a minor role in the film as the only pro-war neighbor who treats the anti-war Beech as a human being.

Billy Campbell as Abner Beech
Copperhead touches on multiple themes that are ever relevant to America, especially in this era of the Global War on Terror.  The first is the idea of America as a nation made by immigrants.  This certainly holds true for the two leading characters, the anti-war Abner Beech and the hawkishly pro-war Jee Hagadorn.  Both men are immigrants—Beech from Ireland and Hagadorn from Scotland—who moved to America, fell in love with the ideals that make America great, and who worked exceptionally hard and prospered to become members of a working upper-middle class.  Both men are devout Christians and their American patriotism is clearly unwavering.  However, their ideas of liberty and patriotism differ greatly, and that will be a major source of contention.

Next, and more importantly, are the timelessness of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the controversy surrounding civil liberties in times of war.  Abner Beech openly voices criticism of the Lincoln Administration’s waging of what he views to be an unnecessary war.  He criticizes the waging of the war which was hitherto undeclared (as it would remain throughout its life).  He has a problem with the way thousands have been imprisoned without a warrant or a fair trial, as the Administration suspended habeas corpus.  He makes it clear that he’s deeply offended at the way the leading Republican warhawks and militant abolitionists cry that to criticize the government during a time of war is treason, and that any man who talks about the Constitution, the limited powers of government, and the Bill of Rights must be a Confederate sympathizer and therefore hanged.  In relation to modern events, it truly bothers me that prisoners of war detained at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center have been held without charges or without a trial, and that American citizens have been assassinated abroad rather than brought to trial for treason.

Beech’s counterpart, Jee Hagadorn, is a zealous warhawk and abolitionist, convinced that subduing the Southern rebellion and freeing the slaves is God’s work, even if done by the bloodiest means.  Hagadorn embodies the holier-than-thou type of Christian whose kind still saturates the ranks of the Republican Party.  Like those in the GOP who wish to “turn the Middle East into glass,” Hagadorn wants every Southern rebel and every Southern sympathizer in the North to be killed.  These are the type of misguided Christians who would so quickly throw out the New Testament commandment “Love thy neighbor” in exchange for the Old Testament mantra of annihilating a nation’s foes.

Hagadorn makes Beech out to be a Copperhead—a Confederate sympathizer, named after a species of venomous viper snake—when that is, in fact, farther from the truth.  Beech never sympathized with the Southern rebellion, and as a secret member of the Underground Railroad, he abhors slavery.  He votes Democrat—this was back when Democrats gave a damn about the Constitution in its entirety—because he favors the restoration of habeas corpus, of civil liberties and Constitutional limits to government powers, and a peace settlement for bringing the Southern states back into the Union without bloodshed.  He also believes that there are peaceful ways to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of slavery.  Most would call these conservative stances, and it certainly compares with the anti-war conservatism discussed in the film's screenplay writer Bill Kauffman’s book Ain’t My America (a book well reviewed by libertarian author Jeffrey Tucker).

Behind the scenes on set with the Director (center)
Where Beech differs from his Republican contemporaries is in his view that war is not worth keeping the Southern states, and that the glorious Union isn’t made by enforcing its territorial integrity south of the Mason-Dixon line, but in the idea that the federal government must follow the Constitution and defend the liberty of the States and citizens who choose to remain in the Union.  This view is by no means pro-Confederate, as Jee Hagadorn’s son Ni will demonstrate with a daring venture (which I won’t spoil), but rather stands bold and independent in being simultaneously pro-Union and anti-War.

This brings us to the most important and most powerful theme of the film: “Love thy neighbor.”  Beech makes it clear that the Southern rebels may not want to rejoin the Union even if a peace settlement is offered, and that they may buy into their own version of hyper-nationalist pro-war propaganda and genuinely hate the Union.  However, unless Southern armies were to go North and wage a total war on Northern citizens, the North has no moral standing to inflict the same violence on the South.  As a Constitutionalist and a devout Christian, Abner Beech believes in the idea of just war, and he doesn’t see the subjugation of the Southern separatists as a just war, given that the Americans were once separatists from their British overlords.

Beech genuinely loves his neighbors.  Unlike Jee Hagadorn, who writes off the entire Beech family as scum—even Abner’s son Jeff, who enlists in the Union Army—Abner shows no hostility towards the Hagadorns and even has Hagadorn’s daughter Esther as a guest at his family’s table.  At one point Beech says to his pro-war self-appointed enemies in church, “Whatever happened to ‘Love thy enemies’?  Is that still in the Bible?”  The concept of loving our neighbors is made the strongest at the end of the film in a powerful oration by Ni Hagadorn, and that performance genuinely moved me.  “I’m ‘a say it again: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR!”

For some odd reason, many critics have given Copperhead lukewarm-at-best reviews.  I have to heartily disagree with them.  Copperhead was well done, genuinely moving, and it was worth my time to see.  I plan on owning it when it’s released to home video and hope someday to show it to my children when I teach them to love their neighbors.

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Movie poster courtesy of  Film and set images courtesy of  All images are the property of Copperhead The Movie Ltd. 2012 and are used in accordance with Fair Use law and to promote this great flick.  Quit wasting time, go see it!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Zach, for your informative review of a civil war era film that sounds intelligent; that for once does not glorify the massive and unjust slaughter and destruction that took place. The warmongers of today will not like it, since it will challenge the pervasive worship of Lincoln; will challenge the false notion that the war was about making people free, when in fact it was about stopping people from seceding. I am excited to see the film, all the more because it is based on first-hand accounts of Harold Frederic, who lived through it.