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Copperhead takes place entirely in a small farming village in New York State. Based on the novel by Harold Frederic, and inspired by real events, the film centers around dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a well-respected townsmen and church member. As "Union" becomes the cry of the North, Abner's anti-war democratism becomes a source of tension in the community. Abner is what Unionists derisively called a "copperhead," a name that originally came from the Liberty-head-studded copper pennies that antiwar/anti-slavers wore as lapel pins. But loyal Unionists happily make use of the double meaning, and as one abolitionist in the film put it, Abner Beech is a Copperhead. And a Copperhead is a snake.

Prejudice grows as the church starts preaching a holy war gospel and Abner's son starts courting the daughter of the town crazy, Hagadorn—a hell-fire and brimstone abolitionist and crusader for the Union. And so the town, far from any battlefield, grows divided and even violent as ideologies clash and threaten what is sacred to each side.

The film itself suffers from the normal symptoms that plague low budget films. The acting is a bit spotty, but Angus McFayden as Hagadorn (known as Robert the Bruce from Braveheart) and Augustus Prew as his son Ni give solid performances that make up for what's lacking elsewhere. Director Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) carefully portrays a complex moral dilemma, avoiding the temptation to secure our sympathies firmly on one side or the other.

This pastoral American parable is strewn with Biblical language as both sides conflate their political agendas with their religion. Abe Lincoln is either a saint or a heretic. Abolitionists are ...

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July 2013

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