Directed by Ron Maxwell, 2013, 120 minutes
The value of director Ron Maxwell’s (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) latest Civil War offering is that it deals with a topic frequently overlooked in most Americans’ education about the Civil War—Northern Democrats who opposed the war for various reasons. Some of them just didn’t like war. Many of them— including protagonist Abner Beecher—didn’t see the point of abolition. Others were downright militant and collaborated with Confederate operatives.
Based on journalist Harold Frederic’s 1893 novella The Copperhead, the film revolves around the disintegrating relationship between Beecher, portrayed by Billy Campbell (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) and his neighbor Jee Hagadorn—the leading abolitionist in their upstate New York village— played by Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood). Not surprisingly, their fallout brings disastrous results both to their families and to their community. Beecher in the film is depicted as a little kinder in his attitude toward slaves than Beecher in the novella, but such meddling with original material is not unusual.
More troubling is that this film suffers from the same pacing issues that plagued Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Devices meant to set background moods or build suspense induce tedium instead. Over-the-top acting by a few of the supporting characters is distracting and glaringly contrasts with the better actors’ performances. Fans of Showtime’s The Borgias will recognize François Arnaud, and Peter Fonda makes sporadic appearances, but his character seems mainly to be the vehicle through which others tell their stories. And there are some historical slips (one character marvels over the “20,000 dead at Antietam,” for example) that will make purists cringe.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.