Free speech is never all that popular a cause, especially in times of war. Wiretaps, the Patriot Act: whichever party controls the executive branch employs the tools of the surveillance state to monitor dissent.
More insidiously, partisans engaged in the red state-blue state pillow fight spew mind-curdling invective (“lib-tard,” “tea bagger,” “wing-nut”) whose purpose is to stifle speech and infantilize political conversation. These dehumanizing epithets reveal more about the sayer than they do about his target. They have all the charm of a poisonous snake.
So what better time for the release of Copperhead, a new movie directed by Ron (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) Maxwell and scripted by yours truly?
Copperhead is based on an 1893 novella by a great if forgotten American writer, Harold Frederic: a bigamist, New York Times correspondent, and author of The Damnation of Theron Ware, which F. Scott Fitzgerald called the best American novel written before 1920. Frederic was also a good friend of Grover Cleveland, the last Jeffersonian Democrat to sit, weightily, in the White House.
The story told by Copperhead, in brief, is this: The year is 1862. Abner Beech, played in the film by Billy Campbell, is a farmer, a pillar of his little community in Upstate New York, and an old-fashioned Jeffersonian Democrat who doesn’t believe the Union should take up arms to suppress the Southern rebellion.
But war fever has come to his town, distant as it may be from the battles. For his renegade politics, Abner is shunned by the community: treated as an outlaw, a pariah, a traitor — a copperhead. His family is broken when his son Jeff, who is in love with the daughter of Abner’s chief tormentor, runs off to join the Union Army. Thereupon unfolds a tale of recovery and redemption, retribution and reconciliation, vengeance and violence and the salvific properties of love.
Inured as we are to an America that is more or less constantly at war, we forget that peace used to be the default position of the typical American. That’s the case with Abner Beech. Like many Democrats of that era, he prizes the Constitution over the abolition of slavery. You can call him shortsighted or misguided; you can call him a pacifist or a patriot; you can say he is tragically wrong (insufficiently committed to eradicating the evil of slavery) or you can say he is tragically right (about the cost of a war which resulted in upwards of 600,000 deaths).
Director Ron Maxwell and I abhor message movies, as well as headachingly predictable morality plays in which the people on the “right side of history” (what a chilling phrase that is) are impeccable bores, and those on the losing side of historical battles are amoral stock villains who kick dogs and smoke cigarettes. Real people are complex, often contradictory; audiences can handle that.
To the extent Copperhead has a politics, it might better be called an anti-politics. Those who subordinate personal relationships and human-scale values to political causes can become monsters, however benign their intentions. Neighborliness — loving one’s neighbor — is a superior quality, though it can be damned hard to practice, especially when everyone around you is baying for blood.
But then as Nick Lowe memorably asked, “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?”
In the heyday of American cinema, that golden age running from 1969 until the latter part of the ’70s, movies often invited debate, discussion, thought. Easy Rider, Nashville, Five Easy Pieces, The Deer Hunter … you may have loved ’em or you may have loathed ’em but they were worth talking about. They asked questions, provocative questions, and had enough respect for the audience to not provide easy answers. They didn’t burn straw men; they didn’t flaunt their own righteousness.
I think Copperhead is in that company. But you be the judge of that.
Bill Kauffman is the author of “Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette” and “Ain’t My America.” He wrote the screenplay for Ron Maxwell’s movie “Copperhead” (www.copperheadthemovie.com), which hits theaters June 28.