In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Movie Review: Copperhead

Recently my younger son and I went to the theater and saw the new movie Copperhead (official site; see also Facebook page and page on the Internet Movie Database). It is produced and directed by Ron Maxwell, who gave us the celebrated films Gettysburg in 1993 and (the somewhat less celebrated) Gods and Generals in 2003. But in my opinion, Copperhead stands even above those films in the quality of its production, acting, score, authenticity, and the power of its message. It's been in limited release thus far, so you may have to hunt for a theater to see it in (click here for links to lists of theaters, on-demand sources, and other viewing options). But the effort is thoroughly justified.

Ron Maxwell
In a recent interview, Maxwell explained that "In retrospect, looking back on it, I think the first two films [Gettysburg and Gods and Generals], taken together, are a cinematic meditation on why good men — honorable, ethical men — choose to go to war. . . .  The film Copperhead, which takes place during the same time, and with the same conflict, the American Civil War, explores cinematically why good and honorable, ethical, moral men choose not to go to war."

Copperhead is based on the 19th-century novel The Copperhead by Harold Frederic (1856-1898), who was born and raised in Utica, New York. Both the novel and the film are presented as based on actual events that took place in upstate New York in 1862 and 1863, during the first half of the American Civil War. The main character, dairy farmer Abner Beech, opposes the war being waged by President Abraham Lincoln in the name of preserving the Union. Like other Northern "Peace Democrats," Beech is contemptuously labelled a “Copperhead”--a poisonous snake--by those who ardently support the war and regard his stance as unpatriotic and even treasonous. Peace Democrats like Beech accepted the label, reinterpreting the copper "head" as the likeness of Liberty, which they cut from copper pennies and proudly wore as badges.

A cartoon appearing in Harper's Weekly, February 28, 1863,
disparaging Peace Democrats as "Copperheads"
 Some historians suggest that Copperheadism represented a traditionalistic element in the American population, alarmed at the rapid modernization of society as promoted by the Republican Party, and hearkened back to "Jeffersonian" and "Jacksonian" Democracy for inspiration. While nominally supporting the Union, Copperheads strongly opposed the Civil War, for which they blamed radical abolitionists, and sought immediate peace with the Southern states, whether they stayed in or out of the Union. They regarded the policies of President Lincoln and the Republican Party as arbitrary and tyrannical, and in direct conflict with the letter and spirit of the United States Constitution. Given Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, arrest and detention without trial of thousands of suspected secessionists in the border states, and other war measures of debatable legality--including, perhaps, the Emancipation Proclamation--there may have been more than a little merit in their position.

Billy Campbell as Abner Beech
But the film Copperhead does not dwell so much on legal issues, politics, or even the Civil War, as it does on how such contentious matters can divide a community and turn neighbors--and even members of the same family--against each other, with tragic results. Most of the people in the rural village where Abner Beech lives strongly support the Union effort against the South, especially Jee Hagadorn, an ardent abolitionist and father of the young lady Esther that Beech's son, Thomas Jefferson Beech, is courting. Neither Abner nor his neighbors are hesitant about expressing their opinions--more or less civilly, at first, but with increasing rancor as the film goes on. Peer pressure and a festering conflict between him and his father eventually impel Tom (or Jeff, as Abner prefers), to enlist in the Union army.

Marching village recruits off to war
In the months that follow, the villagers crowd anxiously around posted boards listing the names of local soldiers killed, wounded, and missing in action. They try to go about their daily work, but tempers fray as emotions build, and the village nearly plunges into a civil war of its own when neighbors confront each other while assembling to cast their votes in the contentious general election of autumn 1862. Not long after, Esther Hagadorn visits the Beech home seeking news of Tom on the very night that torch-wielding villagers, enraged by Abner's stubborn, outspoken Copperheadism, converge on the house--with potentially terrible consequences for both the Beeches and the Hagadorns. Only in the end do the neighbors confront what their once-peaceful community has become, and start mending the wounds.

Jee Hagadorn confronts Abner Beech
No capsule summary of a film's plot can adequately convey its power, though. In Copperhead, sights and sounds work together with the intimacy of the small village to make the viewer feel as if he or she is right there among these modest working people, sharing their passions and their fears. Though the story is set in upstate New York, the film was shot in the countryside of New Brunswick, Canada and particularly Kings Landing Historical Settlement.  I could recommend several venues in upstate New York where the movie might have been shot with at least equal faithfulness to the time and place being portrayed, so I'm not sure why New Brunswick was chosen (lower taxes comes to mind). Nevertheless, that location seems to share much with rural east-central New York in terrain, vegetation, and climate. I've traveled about that part of the state, now live in a west-central farm/college town in New York, and  grew up in a small western-New York town, and felt while watching the film that I was witnessing life as it must have been like right there where I had lived. The movie is filled with scenes of common people at their daily tasks, carried out just as people would in the mid-19th century--milling lumber; caring for livestock; gathering crops; building and repairing homes; attending to business in their little stores and workshops; attending church services and singing hymns; eating together around the table. From my own experience in living history, the costuming appeared to be thoroughly accurate and made the actors and the time they were portraying come vividly to life. The lighting and cinematography are gorgeous and bring the viewer right into story, so that you can almost smell the woods and fields and feel the warmth of the setting sun. The musical score, while not presenting any really memorable themes, was quietly beautiful and lent great dignity to the way of life carried on by the people of the village.

A domestic scene  from Copperhead
 Though most of the leading actors in Copperhead (including Billy Campbell as Abner Beech and Angus Macfadyen as Jee Hagadorn) have respectable filmographies, none is a household name--except Peter Fonda, who turns in a nicely understated performance as the blacksmith Avery. All of the acting is skillful and authentic, and much of it very poignant. Many of the actors are young and just getting started in film, but give wonderfully passionate and sensitive performances. The relative obscurity of the cast is an advantage, in my opinion, as we can interact with the characters as portrayed and without the baggage that big names inevitably carry to the screen.

Esther Hagadorn and Tom Beech
Some have criticized Copperhead  as "slow-moving," especially early in the film, but I think such care was necessary to introduce and fully develop the characters and the film's sense of time and place. The pace of life in a small, rural, 19th-century community was itself slow, and the character of the people emerged only in the measured rhythm of their daily lives. Much action and sudden, high emotion early in the movie would have run against its carefully crafted texture.

The central theme of Copperhead is what can happen to ordinary people when we let our differences ripen into hatred, and forget the counsels of brotherhood and compassion on which our Lord meant our lives together to be based. The lesson is exquisitely presented in James Chapter 3:
[T]he tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. . . . But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. . . . For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.  And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.  (James 3:5-10, 14-18)
Would that people today take this teaching to heart!  The tenor of our times is remarkably similar to that prevailing mid-19th century America. We are riven with fear, conflicting values, political faction, corruption, and controversy, which paralyze government and make enemies of neighbors and even family members. Instead of reaching out to and caring for each other as unique, priceless children of God, we seem more intent on "winning" the "culture wars,"  whichever side of those we happen to be on. We are divided and pitted against each other by self-serving media, interest groups, politicians, and professional grandstanders. Our country seems every day on the verge of a real, not just a figurative, civil war. In this poisonous climate, we do well to reflect on the lessons presented in a film like Copperhead.  I urge everyone to see it.

Abner Beech embracing his sons.


Anonymous said...

What a moving, and eloquent, review this is! I've yet to see 'Copperhead', and hope it comes to another theater in my area soon.

I'd no idea that it was based on a novel by Harold Frederic, from Utica, NY. The book I'm most familiar with by Frederic is 'The Damnation of Theron Ware'.

It would have been great, had Maxwell been able to film 'Copperhead' somewhere in Upstate New York. Still: New Brunswick will do in a pinch, I guess. THANKS for the excellent review!

The Tom and Donna Johnson Family said...

After reading your review, I will make a point to see the movie- it's so important to support worthwhile projects such as this- thank you.

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