‘Copperhead’: Ron Maxwell’s new movie scores with fresh Civil War view

Billy Campbell stars as the Copperhead, a man seen as by his neighbors as a poisonous Confederate sympathizer. Photo: The copperhead snake is a deadly rattler, giving its name to a Civil War faction

VIENNA, Va ., June 28, 2013It is hard to believe there could be a new take on a 150-year-old war, but Ron Maxwell has delivered on that promise with “Copperhead” out in theaters late this week.  Most people know Yankees and Rebels fairly well, but very few are familiar with the term “copperhead,” and it is this group of individuals that the movie focuses.

Copperheads were Northerners who supported an immediate peace with the Confederacy and were dubbed “copperheads” by their pro-war opponents, in an attempt to paint them as untrustworthy and poisonous Confederate sympathizers. In an era when most people were definitely on one side or another, this made them both suspect and unpopular.

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Copperhead poster

Abner Beech (played by Billy Campbell) is one such man, letting the rest of the country go by while he raises dairy cows and sells milk and butter to his neighbors in “The Corners,” his area in upstate New York. And these neighbors are not willing to let him be; they intend to make him suffer financially and personally. 

The characters are all strong, opinionated people. His main opponent is “Jee” Hagadorn, (played by Angus Macfayden, best known for his portrayal as Robert the Bruce in “Braveheart”) big, pompous and over-zealous in his viewpoint and out to destroy Abner.

One family problem exists: Abner’s son, Jeff (played by Casey Thomas Brown) is in love with “Jee’s” daughter, Esther (played by Lucy Boynton), despite the objections of the warring neighbors.

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When Jeff decides to go to war for the Union, Abner is apoplectic and “Jee” is furious that his daughter loves a Democrat sympathizer. The twain is never to meet, it appears.

The movie is dark in many places as feelings, emotions and actions take dangerously different turns in which no one can really win. Boys go off to war and return either grievously injured or in a pine box. Newspapers are searched daily to find who is missing and who is dead. Families reach out to each other in mourning. Coming at the midway point of the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the 1861-1865 conflict, the story reflects the time perfectly.

Director Maxwell’s attention to detail of the period is depicted during the barn dance scene as a young man named Ray Hare steps up and sings a beautiful a cappella solo to the suddenly quiet crowd. Actor Ciaran Macgillivray provided his own clear voice to the song in a memorable spot performance. He was one of the original members of The Cottars, a Celtic band from Nova Scotia.

Ciaran MacGillivray

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It is not a movie to take lightly; it takes its subject too seriously to be viewed in any other manner. Lucy Boynton plays the role of Esther well, supplying just the right combination of shy girl and a young woman terrified she will lose her lover.

Jeff is by turns devoted to her and yet determined to go fight. Though named for Thomas Jefferson, his anger forces him to demand his family refer to him as “Tom” so as not to be confused with Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President.

Esther’s visit to Abner Beech to warn him of the fired up feelings of the neighborhood in response to his bonfire celebration of a Democratic victory at the polls brings a strength to this young lady’s character not seen earlier in the film.

Her warning takes wings when the crowd of neighbors arrives late at night, threatening to tar and feather Abner, their final act of vengeance against their local copperhead, like the poisonous snake of the same name.

If the scenery at the preserved farm, which is actually in New Brunswick, Canada, is lovely, the music is outstanding.  Aside from a couple of well-known hymns (“Abide with Me,” and “How Firm a Foundation”) and other songs by Stephen Collins Foster, we hear those created by composer Laurent Eyquem. The closing credits feature one of the prettiest lullabies ever heard, Foster’s “Slumber, My Darling.” And the orchestral music demands the viewer’s attention for its melodic creations.

There are twists and turns along the way before the movie comes to its conclusion, including some excellent thoughts by Jeff, which suggest that the warring factions need to think more of peace and its benefits. It is a beautiful, poignant conclusion to a movie that has kept us guessing all the way through.

Director Ron Maxwell

The story itself is taken from a book of similar stories written in 1894 by Harold Frederic, and the movie sticks amazingly to the original tale and its message that war and dissent can literally tear a town apart.

Maxwell has done an outstanding job of presenting how the war affected families other than those we normally see in the North or the South, belonging to a different genre than films like “Gods and Generals” or “Gettysburg.”

There are no military battles shown, only an early scene of the young men of the area marching off to war. It bears out the theory that these farmers have as much to lose as the soldier on the battlefield. It begs the question if any war is worth the cost and if there is any such thing as a “civil war,” an oxymoron to say the least.

After a premiere at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, Pa. on June 27, 2013, “Copperhead” will be at local theaters and well worth the two hours to see it.

Whether you have mentally sided with the North or the South, this story develops a whole new vantage point from which to view the war’s exigencies. Maxwell has certainly kept his promise as well as keeping the viewer on the edge of his seat in this film, the third of his Civil War trilogy.

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 MBoltz2846@aol.com  


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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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