Interview with Ron Maxwell, director, Copperhead, a Civil War parable

Is a man who doesn’t support abolition or secession a patriot or a traitor? Photo: Billy Campbell stars in "Copperhead"

VIENNA, Va., June 17, 2013 — From the man who gave us “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg,” now comes another Civil War-based movie, Copperhead.

“Copperhead” has been in production for over a year, will be seen in a special premiere in Gettysburg, Pa. on June 27 and then open in theaters across the country. For those who are unfamiliar with the term “Copperhead,” it refers to an individual who eschewed both abolition and secession, and whose main desire and purpose was in seeing that the Union was kept intact and the Constitution protected.

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Ron Maxwell, director.

Thus director Ron Maxwell introduces us to Abner Beech, a dairy farmer in upstate New York, who has no interest in fighting in the war and no concern that Southern states have seceded.

He merely wishes to be left alone, to take care of his family, raise his dairy cows, and let his life continue as it always has.

A Family Divided in Loyalties

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Being a Copperhead in upstate New York is not acceptable, and Beech soon learns that his neighbors have all turned against him. Some, including one of his own sons, have even turned all the way around and have joined the Confederate Army.

Most have marched off to war with the Union troops.

Rather than be tacitly allowed to maintain his chosen status, Beech finds that everyone in his extended neighborhood is against him, a situation that will ultimately end in an explosion of ill will and outright hatred by his long-time neighbors.

Maxwell chose for his shooting location a beautiful old estate in New Brunswick, Canada, called King’s Landing Historical Settlement, a lush farm, which fits in perfectly with the story he tells. Evocative of upstate New York in the mid-1800s without, as he said, “capsizing the budget,” it is picture perfect.

“That place made “Copperhead” possible,” he said. “To build even a tenth of it from scratch would have pushed us into the $50 million range or beyond.”

The cast is also memorable. For the main protagonist Abner Beech, he chose Billy Campbell, whom many readers will remember as Sela Ward in the ABC drama, “Once and Again.” He was also seen as Abraham Lincoln in the National Geographic Channel’s docudrama, “Killing Lincoln,” based on Bill O’Reilly’s novel of the same name.

Campbell can bring to the Abner Beech character the ability to be stalwart, purposeful and yet still articulate his love for his family and his country.

In an interview with this reporter, Maxwell recently recounted, “What has remained unsaid, and what Civil War films never fully show, is that within each society, North and South, there were many factions. You had Southerners,” he said, “with no interest in owning slaves or seceding from the Union. 

“To the North, you had differences of opinion that were just as fractious, even violent. Not everybody who hated slavery or loved the U. S. Constitution was willing to send their children off to die or be maimed in a bloody battle,” Maxwell explained. “That fascinating reality is the force driving ‘Copperhead.’”

Abner Pays a Price

Portrayed by Angus Macfadyen, who hails from Glasgow, Scotland, Jee Hagadorn, the main antagonist of Beech and another farmer, is so angry that he stirs up a boycott against Beech’s products and urges that the family be shunned. An anti-slavery zealot, he despises the Beech family. The only fly in the ointment is that his daughter has fallen in love with Beech’s son, producing further difficult situations as father turns against son.

The drama’s stellar character is bound to be Beech’s neighbor Avery, who is played by Peter Fonda of “Easy Rider” fame. Avery is a strong Lincoln man and desirous of getting Lincoln’s position across to those around him without starting another war.

Maxwell’s chosen shooting area in New Brunswick is a beautiful section of Canada and on a true working farm with all types of animals. Maxwell, when asked if Canada had any version of the American Humane Association–which is mandated to have a presence on any film shot here along with its imprimatur (always at the end of the credits)–he said that there was a full working staff there, who made sure the animals were in top notch condition.

Piglets cannot be disturbed during the filming

Maxwell and the Piglets

An example, he said, is that one day they were to shoot in a fantastic, old, original barn, when the barn man came up and told him there was a sow in there with some twelve little newborn piglets.

Should she get upset at any noise or interruption to her life, he noted, “She would probably eat all the babies.”

That was all Ron Maxwell had to hear. Instantly he called cast and crew together and announced the shooting would be moved to a different part of the farm.

“If I heard of one little piglet being sacrificed for this movie,” he said, “I would have been very upset, and it didn’t happen!”

“Copperhead” is a film built upon wtxg?the Civil War, with which we all are familiar, but from a perspective that has not, to my knowledge, been considered before in a motion picture. In keeping with its unusual theme, the music used in the film is perfect, incorporating several known and some unknown songs by Stephen Collins Foster and other lesser known period pieces, as well as old standards like “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

At one point toward the movie’s end, Maxwell relates that Avery (Fonda) says to Abner Beech (Campbell), “Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?” Beech replies, “My family means more to me. My farm means more. Even though we disagree, Avery, YOU mean more to me than the Union.”

“Copperhead” is not only an unusual tale of the Civil War. It is, perhaps, a parable for our own time as well.

It would take someone of Ron Maxwell’s caliber to do that unique type of magic this film needs. Maxwell always does his homework and research, which explains why his films have been so successful.

Read more of Martha’s columns at  The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times. Follow her on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email at  

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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