They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Director Ron Maxwell had good intentions when he made Copperhead. Based on a novella by Harold Frederic, Copperhead tells the story of Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a farmer in upstate New York who opposes Lincoln’s use of force against the rebellious South, which he believes to be unconstitutional. Maxwell sets out to tell a story about the home front in the American Civil War, and perhaps to explore the issue of legitimate dissent in wartime. Unfortunately, Maxwell’s good intentions are undone by a flawed execution, and Copperhead ends up bloated, preachy, and times, hard to sit through.
To begin with, Maxwell has set himself a tough challenge. There have been dissenters in every American war, but the Civil War was fought to end slavery, so turning dissenters into sympathetic characters is easier said than done. Beech says that slavery is wrong, but the fact is that slavery will be preserved if he gets his way. This is a handicap for the movie to carry, and Copperhead never overcomes it.
It does not help that there is simply not enough story here to fill up a two hour movie. At times this feels like an hour of episodic TV padded out to two hours. Much of the padding consists of characters talking, with great sincerity about their feelings regarding the war, slavery, the Constitution, and how they feel about how other characters feel about these topics. At times, this makes the movie feel almost as long as the Civil War itself.
Another problem that results from Maxwell’s good intentions is his commitment to authenticity. He means well, but ends up creating a barrier between the movie and the audience. Visually, Copperhead is a beautiful film. Maxwell gives us gorgeous countryside and beautiful old farmhouses and churches. Kate Rose’s costumes are outstanding, and make the actors look like they have stepped out of old photographs of the period. The younger actors in particular, though attractive and interesting, are not given the sort of phoney Hollywood glamour look that mars a lot of period drama. There are long, loving scenes of people working at blacksmithing, in sawmills, and in kitchens, and to a degree the slow pace of the movie may be intended to capture the slower pace of life on a nineteenth century farm. But the period dialog can be a bit much, and the religiosity may be a huge barrier for many in a modern audience. There’s a lot of scripture quoting, and a lot of characters using the Bible to justify their beliefs and actions. Granted that the Civil War was to a large extent a religious war, but this may be off putting to a modern audience. Less might have been more.
Maxwell assembles an excellent cast. . Billy Campbell, as Abner Beech, delivers a powerhouse performance. He can wear the period costume like it’s his everyday clothes, and he can deliver the period dialog like it’s his natural manner of speech. Watching him hold on to his dignity and decency in the face of mounting hostility from some of his neighbors may leave you thinking of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart. Peter Fonda is quiet, understated, and arresting as Avery, a blacksmith who disagrees with Beech, but remains on good terms with him and never lets political differences turn personal. If Campbell is the heart of this movie, Fonda might just be its soul. Angus Macfadyen, as a venomous and fanatical abolitionist, manages to humanize a thoroughly unpleasant character. He doesn’t see himself as a villain, and Macfadyen’s performance never descends into moustache twirling villainy. He remains a character, and not a caricature.
With this kind of talent on hand, Copperhead feels like it should have been a better film. But the leaden pace, the sermonizing, and the lack of much of a plot until far to late in the movie serve to dig a hole that Copperhead never quite climbs out of. And perhaps the message, though well intentioned, is a little off as well.
Abner Beech seems perfectly sincere in his opposition both to slavery and to the war. “I don’t want out boys dying”, he says, “And I don’t want the Constitution dying with them.” But of course the Constitution didn’t die, although it picked up an amendment ending slavery, which was what caused the war in the first place. Beech doesn’t do anything to aid the Confederate cause, he just holds beliefs with which his neighbors disagree. But Macfadyen and others cannot accept this, and you realize that clearly this isn’t going to end well. In the end, Maxwell tries for a message of tolerance and loving one’s neighbor. That’s a worthy message, perhaps especially today, when America is once again mired in a long and difficult war about which Americans do not all agree. But perhaps there is another message that ought to be heard, one that Abner Beech needed to hear, and one that today’s antiwar protestors could stand to hear as well. You can be sincere in your opposition to the war , want what you truly believe is best for your country, speak and act with the highest of motives, and still be dead wrong.