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 either setting the oppressed free or leading them like sheep to the slaughter. Young men who join the troops are either fighting in the Lord's army or else sowing discord and killing their brothers.
American culture has been particularly prone to both apotheosizing our politics and romanticizing our wars since its conception. I'm reminded of two classic American novels—The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and The Blithesdale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Blithesdale, Hawthorne writes of a character, Hollingsworth, who is so obsessed with his ideals of social reform that he entirely neglects his own moral compass, while The Red Badge of Courage is a realistic meditation on the ugliness of war. And as Abner's son says in Copperhead, "There's the war you read about in the newspaper, and then there's the war that really is."
Abner sums up well the theme of film when he says, "Blessed are the peacemakers. Is that still in the Bible?" Acknowledging both the evils of slavery and the evils of war, Copperhead challenges an idealized American history and warns of the dangers of idolizing causes, reminding us that there is a delicate balance to be maintained between conviction and compassion. In an age in which the rise of technology has resulted in a loss of value on physical presence, Maxwell reminds us that there's still something to be said for love of "neighbor."
At the end of the day, Copperhead may not be a great film, but it's a great story. It reminds us that the gospel transcends party lines, and it humbles us: we too are capable of allowing our zeal for justice to eclipse our love of neighbor. The two ought never to conflict.