Civil War period pieces are always a bit tricky, with filmmakers usually feeling the need to find a balance between education and entertainment. On one side of this scaled spectrum sits Glory, Cold Mountain, and more recently, Lincoln. On the other end, there’s the History Channel, with programmatic tendencies that are informational, but usually less entertaining. (Last year’s Hatfields & McCoys mini-series was the exception to the rule.) The new film Copperhead, adapted from Harold Frederic’s 1893 novel, The Copperhead, focuses on a largely untold story from the Civil War, but leans more toward TV docudrama than full-blown feature.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Ron Maxwell, whose previous Civil War dramas include Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003)—and the 1980 teen flick Little Darlings with Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal—Copperhead is inspired by events in upstate New York in 1862. Copperheads were Northerners who vocally opposed the Civil War and wanted to settle with the Confederacy for the sake of peace. Named after the poisonous snakes that strike without warning, Copperheads were considered traitors by the vast majority of Northerners who backed the Union.
In the film, dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) is an outspoken critic of the war, and often cites the Constitution to exercise his right to speak and vote accordingly. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with his community: His family is ostracized, his business is boycotted, and even his son Jeff (Casey Brown) distances himself from the family. Jeff has another, more dramatic reason for opposing his father. He’s fallen in love with Esther Hagadom (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of the hardline Union supporter Jee (Angus Macfadyen), who just so happens to be Beech’s idealogical nemesis. To win Esther’s and Jee’s favor, Jeff joins the Union army and is promptly declared missing in action at Antietam.
All the pieces of a feature period drama are accounted for: a courageous man standing against adversity for what he believes; a Romeo-and-Juliet romance; and a lesson in a little-talked about chapter of American history. Unfortunately, the mix doesn’t work because the script is riddled with clichés. Abner, played admirably and earnestly by Campbell, gives Forrest Gump a run for his money, citing his right to oppose the war at anyone who’ll listen. It’s not that he’s pro-slavery—he just doesn’t want to see the young men die in a senseless war. As far as he’s concerned, the South could secede, and it wouldn’t change his life a bit. Jee is a much darker character, an anti-slavery zealot who unflaggingly speaks for the majority—but uses Bible verses to incite violence and stir emotions against dissenters. The correlation between the politics and narrow-mindedness of then and now is unnecessarily overt.
Despite good performances throughout the film, the pacing of Copperhead is slow, with many long takes and establishing shots that seem a bit over-indulgent, as if to remind viewers that they’re watching an “important, yet little-known, historical drama.” The score, a bit obtrusive at key moments, only reinforces this point. The film’s ending, as well as the fate of its characters, comes as no surprise to anyone. The film feels like it’s been done before—and it has. But sadly, this is a history lesson not worth repeating.
Director: Ron Maxwell
Writer: Bill Kauffman (screenplay), based on the novel by Harold Frederic
Starring: Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Fonda
Release Date: June 28, 2013