Ron Maxwell is the auteur of the Civil War, director of the epics “Gettysburg” and “Gods & Generals.” His new film, unlike those, contains no battle scenes, and it’s much shorter. Its screenplay—adapted from a 19th-century novel by upstate New York author Harold Frederic—is by Bill Kauffman, himself an upstate New York author of one novel and such nonfiction works as Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map.
“Copperhead” is exactly the film its makers’ biographies would lead you to expect—it’s about what happens when a small town in upstate New York, called the Corners, is riven by the passions unleashed by the Civil War. There are no slaves or Southerners in the movie. This is strictly the tale of one community in York State and how the faraway fighting turns neighbor against neighbor.
Northern Democrats who opposed the war were called “Copperheads”—snakes—by the war’s supporters. The film’s conflict is framed between ideological poles represented by two characters: Jee Hagadorn, a Bible-bashing abolitionist, and Abner Beech, the titular Copperhead whose Bible is the Constitution. Religion and politics are inseparable here: funerals and Sunday services bring the townspeople together, while the minister preaches war from the pulpit. For Hagadorn—who contrives to ostracize and silence Beech—the war is a crusade: only blood will wash away the nation’s sins.
Neither of these characters is very satisfying. Hagadorn is played forcefully by Angus Macfadyen but as a caricature of a mad zealot. Beech is simply unreflective—that’s how he’s written, not how Billy Campbell plays him—and audiences not already sympathetic to his antiwar localist worldview won’t find its presentation conscience-pricking. For one thing, it fails to engage in the slightest with the moral case that Hagadorn makes—or could make, if the character weren’t a parody.
But Beech and Hagadorn aren’t the heart of the film. They’re there to create conflict; the characters who must live with that conflict aren’t those at the ideological extremes but the ones caught in the middle. Above all that means the Beech and Hagadorn children. Jee’s son, Ni Hagadorn, is by the standards of his time a coward. His father tells him he’s a grave disappointment. Ni won’t fight—he won’t enlist in the war, nor does he shun his Copperhead neighbors or repudiate his father. Yet he’s no coward at all: midway through the film he heads south into the warzone to find his missing friend, Beech’s son Jeff (or Tom).
The conflict that tears apart the country and the Corners cleaves an individual’s identity as well, as Thomas Jefferson Beech—“Jeff” to his father—becomes “Tom” to the Hagadorn family, whose daughter he courts. She insists he abandon the name that recalls the traitor Jefferson Davis, and he does. He also enlists in the Union army, betraying his father’s principles for the sake, ultimately, of different kind of union—the marital kind. His father refuses to see him off or hear mention of him once he’s gone to war.
Esther Hagadorn, meanwhile, has her father’s principles but none of his hatred. She reads Beech’s antiwar literature, disagrees with it, but respects her neighbor anyway. Women in each family show us just how similar Abner Beech and Jee Hagadorn really are. Hagadorn rhapsodizes about the Emancipation Proclamation even as his tearful daughter begs him to tell her what he’s learned of the missing Jeff’s fate. In a parallel scene, Beech recounts in obsessive detail the horrors of the war he opposes, oblivious to the effect on his wife, whose son has been lost in that war.
Neither Hagadorn nor Beech actually puts community above ideology: Hagadorn, for all his talk of brotherhood, has no charity for his neighbor, while Beech, who says the Corners means more to him than any Union, fails to support his own son when Jeff enlists. It’s the Constitution—abstracted to some sort of Platonic form—that Beech loves most, not the flesh and blood friends and family around him.
It’s an intriguing scenario, set amid an overlooked precinct of American history, populated by characters whose flaws ought to permit a nuanced exploration of difficult themes. Indeed, all these things make the film worth seeing. But “Copperhead” is a movie that doesn’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to be. The title, the source material, and the far more sympathetic portrayal of Beech than Hagadorn all peg this as a pro-Copperhead movie. But the non-Copperheads—the younger generation with more ambiguous views of the war and more personal, less ideological motives—supply all of film’s inner drama and interest.
The filmmakers recognize that there’s a difference between community and the Copperhead cause, and this is mostly a film about community. But Maxwell and Kauffman don’t go far enough, to the point of highlighting how even an anti-nationalist localism is still an “–ism” that in practice can be antithetical to community. That’s a point that comes across in some of Beech’s actions, but it’s muted while Hagadorn’s excesses are amplified.
Beech’s actual community does not, in fact, subscribe to Beech’s idea of states’ rights and localism. The problem with Beech’s dissent is not that he’s outvoted and out of step—the movie includes an election scene, and Beech’s side prevails statewide—it’s that even Beech puts abstractions about neighborliness above real neighborly behavior. Tellingly, he refuses to support Ni’s search for his son.
It’s not hard to imagine the basic pattern of the film playing out in the same way if the ideological poles were reversed: if an abolitionist faced ostracism and adversity from a community self-righteous types who claimed they only wanted to follow the Constitution and stay out of war. But if the pattern itself is the problem, then a mere change of ideology—from Unionist to states’-rights secessionist—is not an answer. The real hero of the film, in that case, is not the Copperhead but a Hagadorn: Ni or Esther.
The point of community is not that you’re among people who always think as you do—that’s called a cult—it’s that you love and owe loyalty to your neighbors even when you profoundly disagree on the most important matters of politics, religion, or culture. This doesn’t mean local loyalty is the highest or only good. (There are limits: you don’t have to remain loyal to a band of cannibals.) But it is a good that, to exist at all, must take precedence over almost all abstract principles.
There’s a difficult question here that latter-day localists, constitutionalists, and libertarians, no less than proponents of today’s ideological wars, must sooner or later confront. Even though “Copperhead” is not entirely successful at bringing out this difficulty, there’s still more to think about here than you’ll find in any special-effects-driven summer blockbuster. This is a thought-provoking and well-made film, one well worth seeing.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.