Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity, and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences. … for those Americans who lived in and through the Civil War, the texture of the experience, its warp and woof, was the presence of death.
— Drew Gilpin Faust
In the living room of his house in Rappahannock, Virginia, filmmaker Ron Maxwell brings up the 2008 book from which that quote is drawn: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. We’re talking about the costs of the war Maxwell—director of “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”—has made a career of interpreting. “All of the numbers are being revised upwards” since Faust’s book came out five years ago, he says—by 20 percent in 2012 alone.
His new movie concerns those Northern Democrats who adjudged the costs too high and called for a settlement with the South. They were dubbed “Copperheads” by their opponents and likened to the venomous snake. It was a name they accepted, and now it’s the name of the new film. Produced and directed by Maxwell and written by antiwar populist historian (and TAC columnist) Bill Kauffman, “Copperhead” is about a small town in upstate New York where divided opinions about the war threaten to tear the community asunder. Based on an 1893 novella by Harold Frederic of Utica—whom Maxwell calls the “Charles Dickens of upstate New York”—it focuses on two families, one Copperhead and one abolitionist.
It is a film about the Northern home front: there is not a single battle scene or slave, though characters returning from the South talk of both. “The whole point is that the war intrudes on the people where they are,” Maxwell says.
“Copperhead” opens in 1862 to six boys traipsing across a field and talking about a distant war. In time two will be killed in battle, two will be maimed, and two will survive unscathed, albeit only in the sense that they’re unwounded. The movie is narrated by one who stayed behind, an orphan named Jimmy (Josh Cruddas), who lives with the Copperhead Beeches. The father of the family, Abner Beech, is according to Kauffman “neither a doughface nor a congenital contrarian: he is, rather, a Jefferson-Jackson agrarian in the Upstate New York Democratic tradition.”
Abner’s son, Jeff (Casey Brown), named after his political icon Thomas Jefferson, is in love with Esther (Lucy Boynton) the daughter of the town’s most fervent abolitionist, Jee Hagadorn, played powerfully by Angus McFayden. In an early scene Esther renames her suitor Tom since his other name evokes the traitorous president of the Confederacy.
As Jeff and Esther grow closer, the rest of the town, led by her father, turns against the Beech family. First it was just Jee. Then, to quote Harold Frederic, “there came to be a number of them—and then, all at once, lo! everybody was an Abolitionist—that is to say, everybody but Abner Beech.” The once peaceful town falls sick with war fever and Abner is accused of everything from disloyalty to watering down the milk he sells. In one memorable scene the pastor of the town’s one church lists notable Democrats as the seven heads of the Beast from Revelation. Abner, not normally one for needless provocation—the boys in the beginning of the film only remember him resorting to violence once in their lives—walks out quoting the Beatitudes: “blessed are the peacemakers.”
In the midst of it all Jeff joins the Union army—rebelling by enlisting—to impress his future wife. So as not to spoil the movie, suffice it to say that things get worse before they get better, though on the last page of the novella Esther comes around to calling him Jeff again.
“Copperhead” is the first sympathetic take on the Northern dissenters from the Civil War in recent popular culture. We are all abolitionists in retrospect, and you need only look as far as the New York Times’ sesquicentennial remembrances to get a feel for the Copperheads’ tarnished reputation—they are “peevish and bordering on paranoid,” prone to “mystical thinking.”
Needless to say, the film’s writer and director disagree. In one of his books Kauffman describes the opposition as “honorable and deep-set in the old American grain.” Some Copperheads were indeed guilty of plotting to overthrow or withdraw from the Union, but that was not characteristic of the movement as a whole—in the film, the Beeches’ only formal expression of any political opposition is in voting for Democrats. (An act that, to be sure, almost causes a riot.)
After Maxwell’s expensive, logistically intense earlier work—which involved many historians, the consent of national parks, and thousands of reenactors—his next project after 2003’s “Gods and Generals” had to meet three strict criteria, he says. It had to “absolutely motivate me as a filmmaker,” it had to have a novel angle on the war, and it had to be economical to produce. The planned sequel to “Gettysburg” featuring the conclusion of the war is often discussed but, being another costly war epic, only meets one of Maxwell’s preconditions. “Copperhead” meets all three.
“I find it obscene that we have to, for the twentieth time in a motion picture, see the prolonged, agonizing death of Abraham Lincoln,” says Maxwell. “Spielberg does it again in his beautiful style, he’s the filmmaker of our age. But how many times do we have to be dragged through that hagiography? … The untimely death of any man is to be deplored, but what about the other seven hundred thousand?”
For Kauffman the affinity with the subject matter is even deeper. “Over the years I’ve written about anti-expansionists and loco-focos and populists and people who wanted to save the small rural schools, people who opposed the Interstate Highway System and all sorts of stuff like that,” he says, quoting William Appleman Williams’s injunction to “let us think about the people who lost.” Abner Beech is a man who lost. Moreover, Kauffman’s first novel, Every Man a King, was consciously working in the regionalist tradition of which the author of “Copperhead” is a part, and the screenwriter admits that “as an upstate New York patriot, it’s really exciting to me that we have Harold Frederic, who I think is a great American novelist, reintroduced to a lot of people who haven’t heard of him.”
Kauffman’s favorite scene in the film has the same charming admixture of localist anarchism and literary worldliness that makes his own books so entertaining. It’s an exchange between Abner and Avery, a minor character who might be called the town’s spokesman for the Union, played by Peter Fonda (an eclectic reactionary himself), recalling his father in “Young Mister Lincoln.” After Abner goes on about Lincoln’s tyrannies—imprisoning dissidents, shuttering newspapers, conscripting young men—Avery asks him, “Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?” Avery replies: “It means something. It means more than something. But it doesn’t mean everything. My family means more to me, my farm, the corners means more. York State means more to me. Though we disagree Avery, you mean more to me than any Union.”
“That to me is the most poignant scene in the movie,” says Kauffman. “Maybe that’s just because I guess there’s a little bit of me in that particular disquisition.”
When talking about the story of “Copperhead,” both Kauffman and Maxwell are quick to invoke political ideas, so it’s a dimension that’s hard to ignore. “Obviously in one sense it’s an antiwar movie,” Kauffman says, “but if there’s a political point to the film, it’s a defense of dissent, which sounds sort of innocuous. ‘Well that’s really brave.’ But in fact films, books, theater, pieces of art, when they treat the subject they’re almost always cheating. They stack the deck, and the author flatters himself and the audience because the dissenter is always someone with whom all right-thinking people of our age agree. It’s this ‘Inherit the Wind’ bullshit, you know? It’s a cheat.”
We don’t automatically identify with Abner because he dissents from “what’s probably the sacredest cow in American history,” says Kauffman. “In that sense it’s provocative, and it’s meant to be provocative.”
“Our proclivity is to identify with the dissenter, except here the dissenter has been essentially discredited by our history,” Maxwell says. “Our official history and our received wisdom, right or wrong, is the reality. There’s a big monument on the Mall to Abraham Lincoln, he’s seated there like Zeus in a temple. So to anyone who was in the North, the Southerners were just the enemy; but anybody in the North who was against Lincoln’s war had to be either misguided or a traitor.”
The question is whether filmgoers are willing to be provoked in this way, and much of that depends on their impression of how fair the film is being to both sides. “They’re only willing to be challenged by it if the challenge is emotional and personal,” says Maxwell. “As soon as you get into any kind of didactic, manipulative scenario, an audience will reject it. I would reject it.”
The Harold Frederic novella takes itself a good deal less seriously than this movie does—it’s downright funny in parts—though the filmmakers’ circumspection makes sense in light of the sensitive subject matter, and they’re at pains to be evenhanded toward both sides. Jee, as he’s written, is a “real caricature,” says Kauffman. “We humanized him, or Angus McFayden did, who’s tremendous in that role. Jee is absolutely right about the central moral question of the age: slavery, its immorality, the need to abolish it decades ago. But he has subordinated all that’s nearest and closest to him to an abstraction.
“Abner too, to a lesser extent, suffers from Jee Hagadorn-ism, depicted most harshly in the scene when he’s getting on his soapbox again, talking about ‘tearin’ up the Constitution, making every house a house of mourning,’ and it doesn’t occur to him that his wife is sitting in the same room and thinking about her own son who’s gone, quite possibly dead. At that moment, he’s an all-forest, no-trees guy.”
Now at the tail end of a long career, Maxwell has decamped from the hubs of the film industry to the heart of Civil War country in the northern Shenandoah, on top of a mountain. He tells me about his childhood in Clifton-Passaic, New Jersey, and the “profound sense of loss” brought about by accelerated technological and cultural change.
The places that formed him as younger man are now unrecognizable. The people have moved and the landmarks are gone—the Zeta Psi frat house where he lived as a student at NYU’s old Bronx campus, gone. The Jewish community center where he used to direct plays, gone. “Garret Mountain, where we used to have picnics. Half of the mountain has been sheared away as a quarry.”
The old Metropolitan Opera House, where he first saw Wagner’s “Ring” cycle: a “jewel, a world jewel! It had the best acoustics of any room on earth, it was renowned for its acoustics, Caruso sang there, Zinka Milanov sang there. Great conductors performed there. Razed to the ground and an ugly skyscraper put up!”
The appeal of “Copperhead” very much stems from this sense of loss, and just as Kauffman and Maxwell’s life experiences and artistic pursuits drew them to the story, the average American movie-goer is primed to… not really get it. Roger Ebert wrote in his rather unkind review of “Gods and Generals” that it was a movie for people who do things other than watching movies, like reenact Civil War battles. That’s true enough; but then, who is this one for if it doesn’t even have any battles?
If nothing else, the film is a reminder that the Civil War began a process of centralization and upheaval that continues today, and to resist it is neither futile nor racist. If Lincoln’s modern critics often downplay the racial animosity his opponents tapped into, Kauffman writes, “the eulogists of Father Abraham … gloss over the extent to which the Civil War enshrined industrial capitalism, the subordination of the states to the federal behemoth, and such odiously statist innovations as conscription, the jailing of war critics, and the income tax.”
“The meaning of the war had come to inhere in its cost”—to cite Faust again—even in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which presumed to weigh the “blood drawn with the lash” against the “blood drawn by the sword” on the scales of divine justice. To question whether anyone has the authority to commit human lives to such a calculation is to know Abner Beech.
His kind of patriotism begins at home; it’s built of stronger stuff than a “Mission Accomplished” banner and can’t be embodied in a jobs bill. To the extent that those local affinities still hold power, the message of the film’s ending is hopeful. It takes a tragedy—and I won’t tell you what it is—but the fever in the Corners breaks. The community comes back. And to the extent that they don’t, we might nonetheless remember that to love thy neighbor is still a subversive act.