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 Swordspoint Productions, Directed by Ron Maxwell, In select theaters nationwide

The final episode in Ron Maxwell’s Civil War trilogy (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) takes us to upstate New York in spring 1862, when the North’s internal divisions over the war are coming to a boil. Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a Democrat, insists the war is an unconstitutional Republican coup; he is labeled, as antiwar Northerners were, a Copperhead. “Blessed are the peacemakers…is that still in the Bible?” he asks. One townsman speaks for many when he declares, “A Copperhead is a snake.” This growing enmity is the movie’s main theme.

At its heart is a Romeo-and-Juliet pair in a bucolic setting of parlor sing-alongs and church meetings. Thomas Jefferson Beech (Casey Brown), Abner’s son, loves Esther Hagadorn (Lucy Boynton), a staunch war supporter from an antislavery family. Conflict escalates when the local preacher attacks leading Democrats as satanic, and the community boycotts Beech’s dairy and timber businesses. Even son Jeff turns his back, enlisting in the Union Army. Events take fairly predictable turns, ending in violence.

Copperhead’s actors are good enough. But its strengths are beautiful cinematography and a meticulous attention to historical detail: white pine landscapes and crystal lakes, intricate mill works, blacksmith tools, clothing, even the New York Tribune feel authentic. Still, the movie is basically a costume melodrama, so its take on internal Northern strife—a truly thorny issue well worth a look—is often less telling than it aspires to be. Jee Hagadorn comes off as a thundering cartoon William Lloyd Garrison who dismisses his daughter’s worries over her boyfriend by exulting in the Emancipation Proclamation. Abner Beech, faced with broken business deals, declaims, “This is what happens when you tear up the Constitution,” which makes him seem less tragic than blinkered.

Copperhead can be genuinely moving. Jee’s son Ni goes south to find his friend Jeff Beech, badly wounded at Antietam, and brings him home, only to discover his own father dead and the Beech house burned down. Ni delivers a moving eulogy on love thy neighbor that should echo meaningfully in today’s divided America. But even moments like that can’t keep the movie from frequently seeming contrived.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.