Blessed Are the Peacemakers
From the director of Gods and Generals and Gettysburg comes a new story of the Civil War told from a unique perspective, one that perhaps has not yet been told through American cinema. Director Ron Maxwell and screenwriter Bill Kauffman bring the conflict to life in a new way by adapting Harold Frederic’s 1893 novel The Copperhead for the big screen.
Copperhead is set in a small town in upstate New York, far removed from the violence and bloodshed of the war. In fact, while the movie contains talk of various battles and slavery from characters who describe seeing it firsthand, there isn’t one scene in the movie that depicts it. But as viewers will see, you didn’t have to be on the front lines to be affected by the uncivil war between the states.
While commenting on the film, Maxwell said:
“In the past, I’d contrasted two dominant viewpoints, charging at each other with bayonets. In the South, you had the Secessionists, who were willing to die for the rights of American states to break away from the union, while to the North you had the Unionists, who were just as bravely committed to defending a ‘United’ States. During the time-period of this film, in 1862, the abolition of slavery became an additional Union war aim.
“What has remained unsaid, and what Civil War films never fully show, is that within each society, North and South, there were many, many factions. You had Southerners with no interest in owning slaves, or seceding from the union. To the north, you had differences of opinion that were just as fractious, even violent. Not everybody who hated slavery or loved the U.S. Constitution was willing to send their children off to die or be maimed in a bloody battle against fellow Americans. That fascinating reality is the force driving Copperhead.”
The films centers around the protagonist, Abner Beech, an anti-war, agrarian, Jeffersonian-Democrat who opposed Lincoln’s war on Constitutional and Biblical grounds – a view that modern historians have found inadequate and thus often virtually ignore.
In one powerful scene, the town preacher gives a fiery sermon denouncing Democrat politicians as the seven-headed beast written about in Revelation. It was too much for Abner, who in a rare expression of anger gets up to leave. But before he does, he turns around and remarks to the Preacher, ”‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ is that still in the Bible?”
Kauffman was quoted as saying, “If there’s a political point to the film, it’s a defense of dissent.”
“Everyone says they’re in favor of dissent,” says Kauffman, “but you’re flattering an audience, and falsifying history, if you stack the deck so that all the right-thinking people of today already agree with your dissenter – if he or she alone is defending Darwin’s theory of evolution, say, or standing up to the mob that wants to hang the witches at Salem. It’s much harder, more truthful, and introduces more interesting complications if your protagonist is like Abner and opposes the very thing we now know that history has ratified: the war to uphold the United States and end slavery. It raises the moral question, not of slavery, but free speech: ‘Okay, lovers of Dissent: Are you going to defend this guy?’”
Maxwell and Kauffman challenge movie goers to view the war through a different lens than the story is traditionally told through pop culture movies like Spielberg’s “Lincoln” or even through America’s education system.
The war pitted fathers against sons and turned neighbors against each other. Copperhead depicts that in a way that no other film on this topic has. And, far from the usual fare, it encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions about the subject matter presented.
I found this film thought provoking in a way that modern cinema often lacks. After seeing it, I found I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family about it and encourage them to see it so we could have a discussion about the themes of peace, love, and kinship that run through this film.
Find out if Copperhead is showing in a theater near you. If it’s not, click on “Demand Copperhead” to request it.
Watch the full trailer below.