Produced by Swordspoint Productions
Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
Screenplay by Bill Kauffman
Distributed by Brainstorm Media
What makes a good war story? Cannons, bombs, bloody bodies, and bounding heroes? Stephen Crane’s short story “An Episode of War” demonstrates it can be achieved by other means. It fully registers the madness, horror, and folly of armed combat in 1,600 words punctuated with but a single rifle shot.
Crane envisioned a young lieutenant in the process of dividing coffee rations, using his sword to apportion the beans into mathematically equal amounts for distribution among his squads. At the completion of this innocent and, one may say, peaceful effort, a sniper’s bullet hits his arm. The contrast between the lieutenant’s “great triumph in mathematics,” as the narrator describes his coffee apportionments, and war’s fundamental irrationality couldn’t be starker.
War is always the enemy of reason.
I was reminded of Crane’s literary economy while watching Ron Maxwell’s new Civil War film, Copperhead. Based on Harold Frederic’s 1894 novel of the same title, it couldn’t be more unlike Maxwell’s earlier Civil War films, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. They were full-scale war movies filled with thousands of men marching bravely, if blindly, into rifle and cannon fire. In Copperhead events take place in Upstate New York in 1862, far from the Mason-Dixon line. We hear of the battles at Sumter and Antietam but do not see them. Following Frederic’s lead, the film focuses on what the war did to people’s minds many hundreds of miles away from its front lines.
Starting slowly, Maxwell establishes a soft, bucolic setting in which his characters are living their uneventful lives. Strife, however, is at hand from the first frame. In the opening scene we see six young men in the distance walking home from a hunting expedition. As they come toward the camera over a grassy knoll, their laughter and conversation are barely audible at first. Then, as they come into range, we hear one talking about the war far away. It may be over any day. Another disagrees, saying it’s likely to spread. Should they join the troops before it’s over? One of them asks, Why? To defend the Union, another quickly replies. Still another questions what the Union has done for them that they should leave their homes and loved ones to defend it. And so the narrative’s issue has been raised casually, almost lightheartedly. In the village church, however, it takes on a far more invidious cast when the preacher sweepingly indicts all those who have stood against Lincoln and his war. He pictures them as the seven heads of the beast in the Book of Revelation. One among his congregation, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), isn’t having this slander from the pulpit. He rises to leave the church, but, before he passes through the front door, he turns to ask the preacher a question: “Blessed are the peacemakers. Is that still in the Bible?”
We soon find out that Abner has become the target of his neighbors’ wrath. Abner chalks it up to war fever, an infection that turns otherwise sensible people into ravening loons.
Once an honored member of his community with a thriving business selling milk and lumber, Abner finds himself increasingly ostracized for the crime of speaking his mind regarding Mr. Lincoln’s war. Abner is convinced it’s unconstitutional as well as evil. In his mind, Lincoln is a politician who has abused his power in order to serve the economic interests of the North and his own political ambitions. Furthermore, he’s doing it at the expense of lives, principally those of young men, many of them mere boys. For saying this out loud, Abner has been dubbed a Copperhead, the name invented to denigrate as poisonous those who resisted the call to action against the Southern secessionists.
Not all in his community are given to name-calling, however. Avery (Peter Fonda), the village blacksmith, a man of learning like Abner, is honestly concerned about the fate of America should the states be allowed to break apart. “Doesn’t the Union mean anything to you?” he asks Abner.
Abner equably but firmly replies, “It means somethin’. Means more then somethin’. But not everthin’. My family means more to me. My farm means more . . . York state means more. Even though we disagree, Avery, you mean more to me.”
This passage is not in the novel. Bill Kauffman, Maxwell’s screenwriter and a former corresponding editor of Chronicles, has interpolated these words into the narrative, assuming Frederic must have been as committed to localism as Kauffman is himself. I think he’s right. Why else would the novelist have created the character Jee Hagadorn, the wildly obsessive abolitionist whose fervor for the war leads him to chastise his son’s decision not to volunteer for military service, and to slander Abner every chance he gets? Hagadorn is an example of all those good folk who commit themselves to causes of which they know little, other than that speaking in their favor makes them feel good about themselves. These are the kind of folk we’ve recently seen taking to the streets chanting their earnest desire that justice be done to the memory of the unfortunate Trayvon Martin, a young man about whom they know little more than what they’ve been told by professional race baiters and their handmaidens in the compliant, ratings-mad media. As Dickens dramatized in Bleak House, it’s often easier and more consoling to cry for distant strangers than to care for the folks next door—or, in Mrs. Jellyby’s case, her own children. Shouting solidarity with the world’s oppressed does wonders for one’s self-approval, especially when one doesn’t have to bear the inconvenience of meeting the supposedly disadvantaged face to face. Hagadorn’s tears for African slaves about whom he knows nothing are unstinting. As for his son and his neighbor Abner, he has only stony contempt. As played by Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen, Hagadorn is at once ridiculous and dangerous. In the novel, he becomes a pathetic figure whose unthinking passion for abstract justice brings down calamity not only on Abner but on his own family. In the film, Kauffman and Maxwell have taken Hagadorn’s fate a good deal further, apparently to dramatize the danger such men pose to others and themselves. They also wanted to draw unmistakable parallels to our time.
It’s not really surprising that the film reflects current events. We’re always in a state of war of one kind or another. Those who presume to know better have always hectored their lessers to get with the correct political agenda—or else. Many of these moral generals turn their self-proclaimed wisdom into profitable careers. In our day, these solons are called commentators. Some of this tribe have ulterior purposes, but whether they do or not, they’re all adept at generating and capitalizing on political fevers.
Ten years ago we saw what such a fever could do to our citizenry.
We had reached the eve of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. People both left and right had increasingly supported this adventure. Still, there were quite a few who were arguing against it, principally the paleoconservatives, whose name was coined whimsically by Thomas Fleming and Paul Gottfried to distinguish the remnants of the Old Right from the self-described neoconservatives. Leading neocon bloviator David Frum took the next step. Paleoconservatives were, he lamented sorrowfully in the pages of National Review, unpatriotic and possibly subversive. The rest is history. The Iraq war was founded upon the lies of neoconservatives who couldn’t wait to embroil our country in a Middle East engagement that they hoped would lead to America establishing a permanent defense of Israel. Those who got in the way of their agenda, even if they were merely questioning its practicality, were labeled hopelessly naive, at best, and rank traitors, at worst. The neocons’ strategy worked. The country was rushed into an unnecessary war that cost no one knows how many lives—hundreds of thousands, at the least, to say nothing of the untold economic consequences that will be with us and the Iraqis for decades to come. Meanwhile, the same liars are trying to foment war against Iran and involve our forces in the Syrian crisis. War fever isn’t a spontaneous affliction. It requires the steadfast efforts of professional inoculators who are always bent on dissolving the natural defense of the body politic: rational discourse.
Maxwell’s film does an excellent job of portraying the plight of a thoughtful man hedged about by an unreasoning community. Campbell plays the part admirably. His laconic, square-jawed determination makes his character at once convincing and highly sympathetic. But it’s Macfadyen’s portrayal of a half-mad abolitionist that brings the narrative home. With his eyes rolling and his voice running through several octaves at a go, he perfectly embodies the caricature of men who in their ferocity aspired to be caricatures of that exemplar of unreasoning, the weird John Brown, whose unspoken presence hovers so threateningly over this narrative. Of course, it hardly needs mentioning that the Browns and Hagadorns of history have eternally proved valuable to the behind-the-scenes boys of this world.