Swans Commentary » swans.com June 3, 2013  





by Paul Buhle & Dave Wagner


Movie Review



Copperhead, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Screenplay by Bill Kauffman, based on a novel by Harold Frederic. Starring François Arnaud, Billy Campbell, and Peter Fonda.


(Swans - June 3, 2013)   Bill Kauffman, a vigorous antiwar activist ambiguously on the rightward side of American politics, jumps right into the thick of it in the opening scenes of his screenplay for Copperhead, the new Civil War movie by the director of Gettysburg (1993). Kauffman's protagonist, an antiwar farmer in upstate New York, is heard reading aloud to his sons in the spring of 1862: "Benjamin Wade, a Republican of Ohio, says anyone who quotes the Constitution in the current crisis is a traitor. But listen how a Democrat paper in Ohio gave it right back to him: 'Such an abolitionist should be hung until the flesh rots off his bones and the winds of Heaven whistle Yankee Doodle through his loathsome skeleton.'"

The language is fair warning of what's to come. Copperhead, which opens June 28, is the rare movie (maybe even the only one) that portrays a Peace Democrat as a sympathetic character even though he refused to choose between two of the vilest institutions of human invention, war and slavery. If anyone was suited to write this kind of narrative, it is Kauffman, a hometown radical who detests wars in proportion to the nobility of purpose their supporters claim for them and large corporations in proportion to the destruction they bring to the independence of actual established communities.

There is this exchange early in the film that is worth quoting in full. Avery, a Lincoln Republican (Peter Fonda) addresses Abner, a Peace Democrat (played by Billy Campbell of the AMC TV series The Killing).

Avery: I don't want to see politics tear this community apart. Abner: It already has. Avery: It's you Democrats who've rent this country asunder. Abner: It's Abraham Lincoln, and he's a Republican... Closing down newspapers, putting critics in prison, enlisting your boys to fight in his unconstitutional war. Avery: Well, what would you have President Lincoln do? The Rebs fired first -- Fort Sumter. Abner: He should have let the South go, as they would not have harmed us. Avery: Not harmed us? Why, they've split the union in two, just so they could keep black men in bondage. Abner: I am not a slaver. I've never even seen a slave. But the Constitution says it's none of New York State's business what Dixie does. Avery: But these slavocrats, they're not satisfied with their little corner of the country. They want Kansas and Nebraska and New Mexico. Good land, they want to steal Cuba, too. How does that fit with your Constitution? Abner: I'm not a party man. I'm no expansionist, neither. I don't want Cuba. Hell, I don't even want Texas. But I do not want my boys dyin', and I don't want the Constitution dyin' with them.

Abner's worst fears come to life when a son is seduced by war fever, contracted in part by his desire to impress the daughter of a Republican neighbor. Community, family, and church are divided. Even Abner's livelihood is put at risk when the creamery confects a reason not to buy his milk.

This is a movie with a script that is for a change equal to the complicated politics of the dangerous moment it explores, when the outcome of the Civil War was far from certain. There is a determined effort to be fair to both sides of this argument, although it must be said that Kauffman's characterization of the third side of the historical triangle-that of the abolitionists -- lacks any comparable generosity. An abolitionist is rendered in cartoon-like strokes, suggesting (many times over) that those who demanded an immediate end to the misery of the slaves were fanatical personalities so abstracted from their senses that they could not deal with real humanity in front of their noses, including their own children. This a device, not possessing the dignity of an argument, and all too familiar to the mainstream treatment of John Brown and others from the 1870s to the 1970s.

For the most part, Copperhead is told respectfully. The story unspools at a rural pace. The tone is that of an older BBC production, with lingering shots of farm life and an emphasis on the work -- milk production, a sawmill operation, draft animals bobbing down dirt roads. There are crane shots of fields, barns, and trees uplifted by violins and flutes as they climb the updrafts of pastoral memories, all to insist that it is the community, more than any individual, that is the center of the picture. The politics of the narrative reveal how the life of a particular time and place has come under attack by alien ideologies -- Yankee-style state capitalism, Southern slavocracy, and sympathizers of John Brown.

The story benefits from Kauffman's clarity about his own views, an improvement on the Harold Frederic novel on which it is based. Frederic (1856-1898) was a German-American whose family was part of an 18th-century migration of the Rhineland Palatines (Pfälzer), to New York's Mohawk Valley. But the Frederics remained behind when other Palatines moved south to the land of the welcoming and politically sympathetic (i.e., pacifist) Quakers. Frederic was certainly aware of his German origins (he wrote a biography of Wilhelm II), but in The Copperhead his farmers are assimilated and their antiwar views are by and large personal.

In Pennsylvania, the sentiments of the German farmers were of necessity much sharper. Here, too, the military draft was deeply resented, and it was also resisted. In the summer of 1863, the feds drafted 618 men in Columbia County, but only a quarter of that number showed up. Some of the reluctant recruits were no doubt mindful of the ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania at the outset of the war that the draft violated the state constitution. Among the resisters were those who resented Lincoln's order that the court's decision simply be ignored.

During the last year of the war, Pennsylvania German farmers seemed to be surrounded by invading armies. In early 1864, the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania Dutch country for the third time, holding Chambersburg to ransom, then burning to the ground the city and nearby farms. In late 1864, a thousand Union Army troops marched into Columbia County with the announced purpose of suppressing a rebellion. They were under orders to seize a mountaintop fort that was reportedly defended by cannons and manned by 500 deserters, draft evaders, and Confederate sympathizers. It all turned out to be political hysteria of the familiar US variety -- traitors behind the lines!

Another film set in the 1860s was released earlier this year that deals with that theme, namely Tim Burton's mysterious and never dull Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Here it's not the abolitionists who are given creepy cartoon form but the southern slave owners. In Burton's interesting conceit, they are members of the great army of the undead who survive on the blood of others. Lincoln is the first American super-hero, and enters politics to kill as many vampires as possible with his silver-bladed axe.

Even granting the premise as an innovative plot mechanism, Burton's is much the more conventional of the two films, at least when it comes to the familiarity of history and politics. Still, Vampire Hunter touches upon something that has yet to be sufficiently explored, even in the vast (1,300 biographies so far, and growing strong) literature on the Rail-Splitter and orator of the Gettysburg Address. Every vampire hunter is after some demon, and in a considerable number of earlier Creature Feature films of Hollywood -- before the Blacklist came crashing down -- the evil exists in the society itself. Lincoln, in real life pretty much a free-thinker (non church-goer) before elected president, became an Old Testament theologian as war leader. Hesitantly at first, and then with all his energy and eloquence, he resolved to root out Slavery as the ultimate sin of the nation. There could be no other rationale for the oceans of blood spilled, the uprooting of the slave system (with the avid participation of the slaves themselves), and the enrollment of African-Americans as soldiers. Lincoln, seen in the nineteenth century as the "first American," a larger-than-life figure, re-emerges as the scourge of today's Republicans and others still holding onto some updated version of white supremacy.

There is one sign of a struggle for, if not subtlety, then at least ambiguity, in Burton's narrative. One of his characters is a northern copperhead, and while he, too, is a vampire, he is aware of the evil lurking in his DNA. He struggles against it, even becoming an ally of Lincoln, although one who can never be trusted entirely. What this all might mean will perhaps become clearer with the fullness of film scholarship or remain forever murky in the gray zones between the dollar values of entertainment and the popular efforts at a kind of public education.

Perhaps the surprise is that the movies even took up the question of the Peace Democrats, ambiguous but real predecessors of those today who will not sign onto the big package of the War on Terror. Yesterday's Peace Dems were likely to be racists or at least opponents of the day's anti-racists, today's Peace Dems the anti-racists. In terms of civil liberties, continuities seem to survive all else.


Dave Wagner and Paul Buhle have collaborated in a handful of books on the Hollywood Blacklist.
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About the Author

Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 3, 2013