Civil Liberties

No Gods, No Generals, Just People

A Civil War drama debuts.


This weekend sees the debut of Copperhead, a movie set in upstate New York during the Civil War. It was directed by Ron Maxwell, who has several Civil War movies to his credit, and it was scripted by Bill Kauffman, a former Reason staffer who still occasionally contributes to the magazine.

Kauffman is also a longtime friend, so I can't claim to be an unbiased observer here, but I like the movie. It's very different from Maxwell's last Civil War picture, Gods & Generals, which didn't impress me as much: I thought the battle scenes in that one were filmed with flair, but things tended to get stiff and heavy-handed when the characters spoke instead of shot at each other. The new film, by contrast, shows no battles at all but has plenty of believable human-scale interaction. The parts the L.A. Times reviewer dismissed as "a rambling, drawn-out set up" were the parts I liked best: comfortable (and, later, not-so-comfortable) sequences that give texture to the town and its citizens. And despite the absence of battle scenes, it's unmistakably a war movie, in the same way that The Deer Hunter is a war movie even when it's showing you Pennsylvania instead of Vietnam.

Kauffman has posted a long and interesting article about his film's aims and origins at Front Porch Republic. Here's an extract from that essay, discussing the Harold Frederic novella that was the basis for the picture:

In every incarnation it sold poorly, as Frederic's work usually did. But then The Copperhead hit none of the expected notes. It catered neither to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" Northern righteousness nor "Dixie" Southern romanticism….There is an unblinking, unsentimental honesty to The Copperhead and Frederic's other stories of the War. The fanfare and spangles, the soaring rhetoric and battlefield heroism: you'll find none of that on his York State homefronts. We are shown, instead, a little world pockmarked, drained of life, even, by what—and who—is absent. Young men leave communities of which they are essential pieces. Some return intact but irreparably altered; some stagger home shattered; others make the trip back in pine boxes. The normal rhythms of courtship are disrupted. The interdependence of small farms, crossroads shops, and little Protestant churches is unraveled, and we are given to understand that things will never be the same.

And here's another section worth highlighting:

Typically, in a story of a dissenter, the author flatters himself and the audience. The deck is stacked; the cards are marked. Every right-thinking reader or viewer is confident that of course he or she would be at the side of this poor recusant who is being persecuted by narrow-minded peasants or clerics who deny that the earth orbits the sun or that man is a product of evolution or that the world is older than six thousand years or that the simon-pure prisoner who is about to be lynched is innocent. But really: is any pose more cheaply purchased than standing—at a very safe distance of years—with Galileo or Scopes?

Smugness is detestable. Only a complacent idiot enjoys burning strawmen or crowing over his moral superiority to the benighted. Harold Frederic does not let the reader bask in his own sanctimony. It's so easy to say that you're for free speech; that you honor the First Amendment; that though you may not agree with so and so who says such and such, you'll defend to the death his right to say it. Well, here's Abner Beech, an Upstate New York farmer of 1862. He thinks this war between the states—this hallowed war, this bloodletting out of which modern America was born—is an unconstitutional atrocity. He despises the soon-to-be martyred Abraham Lincoln, who by most 21st-century lights is the greatest American hero. Abner stands up and speaks his piece—his peace–during time of war.

Okay, Mr. Free Speech. Are you willing to defy the mob and defend Abner?

It's not so easy.

You can read the rest here, and you can see where the movie is playing here.