When it comes to movies, it’s not often that a story is so compelling and inviting to Tenthers. Ron Maxwell’s latest film, Copperhead, is both, and it’s done in such a beautiful way.
Set in the rural countryside of up-state New York during the early years of the War Between the States, the film tells the story of northern opponents of Abraham Lincoln and his war – the Copperheads. The film is based on Harold Frederic’s short story, originally published in 1893. It is a brilliant production that stays fairly true to the original. That it brings to light an all-but-forgotten and important history in such a fine manner makes it even better.
In terms of overall film production Copperhead is well worth seeing in theatres, provided you’re near one showing (it’s currently in limited release). The production design is very well done, and it’s clear that locations were carefully selected, as the sets are fantastic. Much of the shooting was done at the King’s Landing Historical Settlement, in New Brunswick. One scene in particular takes place in an old saw mill that really stands out for its rawness and authenticity. None of the buildings appear to be newly made, an attribute not always found in historical pieces.
The costumes are impressive as well. They look more like someone’s real clothing than something straight from the wardrobe department. The collars are stained, the white shirts are sullied, and the boots are worn. Some of the clothing is ill-fitting and much of it does not match other pieces of an actor’s costume, adding to the realism. There aren’t many sets of clothes, indicating the people aren’t blessed with the sort of material wealth we are today.
This scarcity in general and the primitive lifestyle by today’s standards really stands out. Thinking as an economist, one can’t help consider the devastation brought on by the war. Even the simplest of things, such as trade being cut off between neighbors is devastating, not to mention the total destruction the actual fighting brings. There are no battle scenes, a rarity for films of the period, but this makes the story all the better. There are no heroes, there is no one to lionize. War is depicted as the ugly, inhuman blight that it truly is.
In the story, Jeff Beech volunteers for the Union army against the wishes of his father, Abner Beech. The elder is a devout Democrat and staunchly opposed to the war, and to president Lincoln. To its great credit, this anti-Lincoln element runs throughout, and virtually nothing good is said of the man. The leading abolitionist in town, “Jee” Hagadorn, celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation wildly. This prompts a conversation regarding the righteousness of the war. While he makes a principled, well-reasoned argument against the war and the proclamation on legal grounds, Abner didn’t make the most important argument of all.
Along with being unconstitutional, Lincoln’s famous order freeing the slaves wasn’t grounded on altruism or the realization that slaves were both “a man and a brother.” Thomas DiLorenzo argues quite persuasively in his books The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked that the proclamation was intended to be a war measure. Furthermore, Lincoln’s order freed only those slaves not under the control of his army. Indeed, the proclamation excludes those areas of the confederacy occupied by Union troops, including the states of Maryland and Kentucky, and lists particular Parishes of Louisiana exempted from the order. In fact, it was the 13th Amendment that truly freed all of the slaves, and it wasn’t ratified until well after the ceasefire at Appomattox.
Hagadorn’s own son, ”Ni,” takes more after Abner than his own father, and opposes the war as well. Some of the most powerful dialogue in the film takes place in conversations with “Ni,” whose full name is Benaiah, after Israelite King David’s noted general. This troubles the senior Hagadorn, who so wishes his son would fight in the Union army. This intra-family conflict captures well the spirit of the republic torn apart by war. In a pivotal scene, ”Jee” admonishes his son to live up to his namesake and take up the sword. “Ni’s” reply is that “there’s too many folks carryin’ swords; not enough pulling plows.”
Perhaps some of the greatest anti-war rhetoric takes place between Abner and “Ni.” While movies often depict the tragedy and injustice of war, none that I know of are so critical of the ones personally waging war – the soldiers. Those ultimately responsible for the murder and destruction of fellow human beings and their property aren’t spared blame by Abner Beech. He condemns the soldiers of the Union army – including his son – for tearing apart the lives of so many innocent people. Current estimates place the military casualties of the war at nearly 750,000 killed. The number of civilians killed and displaced was significant, especially after the northern armies began waging total war against the South.
The movie relates other acts of tyranny that Lincoln visited on the people who opposed his war of aggression. Abner is aghast that newspapermen outspoken against the war are being jailed, along with others critical of the violence. When he and his fellow Democrats, few as they may be, walk into town to vote in the election of 1862 they’re met with intimidation from the Republicans, who attempt to invalidate their ballots. Such was common during the war, and Union troops were responsible for much of this behavior.
The constitution and the Bill of Rights were ignored almost entirely, and the outcome of the war permanently altered the nature of the union. A voluntary association of states effectively became a single entity, grounded on coercion, and much of the federalism that defined the United States ended in May, 1865. To accomplish this the president assumed near dictatorial powers, a precedent which subsequent executives have used as the basis for their own despotism. It was for this very reason that many opposed the war, even if they despised the institution of slavery as well.
The Copperheads, as portrayed by Abner Beech, had an unspoken motto: follow the constitution. Every issue, every time. No exceptions, no excuses. For this reason Copperhead is an instant classic among Tenthers. Visit the official website to find a theatre playing Copperhead in your area, or view it On Demand or Amazon Instant.