If you’re tired of men in tights and things exploding this summer, you might want to check out Copperhead, a new movie delving into issues of the Civil War. This is the third film about the Recent Unpleasantness directed by Ronald Maxwell. 1993’s Gettysburg told the story of the seminal battle while 2003’s Gods and Generals attempts to explain the viewpoint of the South. I have not yet seen Copperhead, which is set in the North and explores the effects of the war on those who stayed behind.
I spoke with Maxwell via phone about his new project:
“Basically, when I was making the other two movies, what I came to understand over those decades was that those two movies together became an exploration of why good, ethical, moral men choose go to war. That’s a big question. My father was one of those men. He enlisted and chose to go to WWII. I’ve never met a more ethical man than my father. Over the decades, when I was grappling with that, the men that I chose to follow were really honorable men. I wasn’t exploring the base morals of why people go to war. ….bad stuff goes on in any war. But I was concerned with why the good men were in the war. That’s what makes it tragic, that really good men were involved in this.”
Copperhead, however, is concerned with the other side of the coin: “Why good decent, moral, ethical men choose not to go to war that other good men did decide to go in. As we know, there were people on both sides of the Mason Dixon line who thought the war was a tragic mistake.”
“Copperhead was a term of contempt, insult and division that was hurled at people who were against the war in the North.”
Set in rural New York, the leading character Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) is a copperhead, or at least accused of being a copperhead.
Maxwell sees the questions of the Civil War as still being explored today: “The issues that the Civil Was was supposed to have settled, it may have settled them legally, slavery was abolished. But the underlying issues are still there: Free speech.International sovereignty.”
We say we are for free speech. “It’s something that we revere in our society. It’s protected in the Constitution. Speech is protected. But when we’re suddenly confronted with it, some people don’t find it easy to accept.”
“The Civil War is the kind of crystalizing, huge tragic event that explefies this tension.”
Copperhead also explores issues of faith.
“Abner Beach has Biblical foundations for his views. He says to congregation, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers. Is that still in the Bible?'”
But the faith issues go even deeper. “In 1862, this was an entirely Christian community of believers. They go to the same church. But they interpret their duty as Christians differently.”
How citizens of the same nation, readers of the same Bible, and followers of the same God so differently interpreted Scripture and holiness that the only recourse was gruesome war is one of the great puzzles of our shared history.
If you see Copperhead, let me know what you think. It’s rated PG-13 “for a disturbing sequence” and opens June 28.