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Billy Campbell stars in Copperhead, new Civil War movie

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Behind the Scenes

Gettysburg Director Returns with New Civil War Movie, Copperhead

By Hannah Goodwyn Senior Producer - Known for Civil War era movies, namely Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, director Ron Maxwell makes a return to the big screen this month with his new movie, Copperhead. In it, Maxwell delves into the lives of folks living on the home front in the North during the War Between the States.

Billy Campbell (Once and Again, The Rocketeer) and Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart) star in this story of a town’s bitter debate about the Union going to war with the South. Set to release nationwide on June 28, Copperhead allows Maxwell to take a different look at an extraordinary time in America’s history.

Recently, Maxwell spoke with over the phone about making this new Civil War movie, the questions it raises and how Christianity plays a part in Copperhead.

On why we are fascinated by Civil War movies...

Ron Maxwell: We Americans have an insatiable appetite for our history and, in particular, the Civil War. Lots of reasons for that. I think because it was in our own backyard. We’ve certainly been involved in a lot of conflicts over the centuries. But this particular one because it was in our own backyard and because we were fighting amongst ourselves. Localized fratricide is particularly compelling, disturbing and emotional. And then what we were fighting about, the issues that were dividing the country. There were issues of where does sovereignty lie. These were issues that the founders grappled with in their generation. They were argued about all through the first half century of the republic. They’ve been argued about ever since.

Then, of course, was the issue of race, which is central to the whole story of the western hemisphere. The people, who came here–through hardship and privation to be sure, came here for religious liberty or they came here for economic liberty. But they came more or less voluntarily as opposed to those who came from Africa, who came under servitude, compelled against their will.

As soon as you look into the Civil War, you just find these incredibly compelling, attractive, exciting personalities across the range, whether these civilians like John Brown or whether they’re military, people who wore uniforms on the confederacy or the federal armies. They’re just such extraordinary characters and then the events of the Civil War. You take that all together… I just think it’s going to be an area that’s always explored by scholars and that’s continually explored in the popular culture through novels and fiction and through film.

On the road that led to Copperhead...

Maxwell: Now me, personally, I was not looking to do a film on the Civil War. I responded to a great piece of literature, to The Killer Angels written by Michael Shaara that happened to be set in the Civil War [and then made Gettysburg].

I had certain predispositions because my father took my younger brother and me to historical sites when we were little kids. We grew up in New Jersey, so I didn’t see any Civil War sites, but I saw a lot of colonial and French and Indian War sites, and American Revolution sites. So I grew up in a household that was really heavily into history and biography and literature and poetry and music and visiting historical sites. By the time I read The Killer Angels in my late 20s, I was already a student of the Civil War and very receptive to the material.

As everyone knows who’s heard this story before, that was the start of a 15-year saga for me to do what became Gettysburg... And then another 10 years to get Gods and Generals made. It’s been 10 years since Gods and Generals came out, almost exactly 10 years since that movie came out to when Copperhead’s coming out.

On how Copperhead is different from Gettysburg and Gods and Generals...

Maxwell: Copperhead for me is an almost entirely different exploration. If I can over, over simplify, both Gods and Generals and Gettysburg essentially are meditations on why good men choose to fight. Neither one of those movies is about the exploiters and the sadists. Those movies don’t explore why bad men choose to fight. There’s a lot of movies that need to be made about why bad men fight. That’s different. My concerns are, why do good, honorable, decent, ethical men find themselves in situations where they choose to fight?

My father was such a man, so I grew up with a man in the house like that. He fought in WWII. He was a really decent, good, goodhearted, honorable man, very patriotic man who fought in WWII and lived to tell the tale. So I knew such a man, and that was kind of what I wanted to explore. Maybe I didn’t know consciously that that’s what I was exploring, but I know now, looking back, that that’s essentially what’s explored.

So whether they wore the gray or whether they wore the blue, why were they fighting? I really wanted to know that. I wanted to get to the bottom of things because it was such a fiery caldron, and it was such a tragedy. How could good men take part in it? And while I was making those films, another question lurked and became more incessant in my subconscious, and that was, why then do good, honorable, decent, ethical men choose not to fight?

Again, I’m not interested in the cowards and the shirkers and people who stick their head in the sand, or the idealists, and people who are just not realistic about the way the world works. Those are also valid subjects worthy to make films about, but that was not my concern. My concern was, why do honorable men, courageous men choose not to fight? Then, furthermore, why do they choose not to fight in the very same war that I’ve been exploring for the last 25 years on film which people like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who’s so motivated, he risks his life over and over again for what he believes in: saving the Union and the abolition of slavery. And Robert E. Lee and Jackson, good people by any standards.

So [in Cooperhead], I’m looking at, “What about the people that didn’t go along with this?” There were many, many people in the South that didn’t go along with the secession, many, many people in the South who certainly had no tolerance for slavery. There were many, many people in the North, who even though they were abolitionists, didn’t think it was worth fighting a war over. They thought, “This is not the solution.”

This has not been explored before in the popular culture. It certainly has been explored by scholars and historians, but not in the popular culture. Again, this took it a step further, because unlike movies that have been made in the past by Hollywood about pacifists, the Copperheads were not pacifists. Their argument wasn’t nonviolence all the time in any situation. That wasn’t their position. There were pacifists in the Civil War. There were Mennonites and Quakers who took that position. But this is not the position of the Copperheads. The Copperheads were opposed to the war for political reasons. The movie we’ve made keeps raising the question, “Yes, I love the Union. Yes, slavery is an abomination, but is war the solution?” Because [Billy Campbell’s character] raises that question, he is ostracized in his community because war is now happening.

There was a big anti-war movement in the United States right up until Pearl Harbor; but the day after Pearl Harbor, it was over. The country had committed itself to war. And those who still spoke out against fighting Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire were at the receiving end of a lot of harsh criticism and peer pressure. And in some cases they were locked up by FDR. The same thing with the Civil War. Once the war was unleashed, once it was engaged, once military death started mounting, if you were in the South and you spoke against the war or if you were in the North and you spoke against the war effort, in some cases you were looked upon as a traitor.

Maybe someday, somebody will make an equivalent movie in the South that deals with southern dissenters. But this movie, in a sense, it deals with the northern dissenters. And so, it puts the viewer of the film in the position of a dissenter, which is a difficult position to be put in because history has made its judgment by and large. The judgment of history is Abraham Lincoln was the right man at the right time and the right place. He did the right thing. He’d save the union. He abolished slavery in North America for all time.

On dissent in America...

Maxwell: We believe in dissent. We Americans, we’re wired that way. We know it’s important. We know our founding fathers talked about it. You can read about it in the debates, in the creation of a constitution. They thought it was very important to protect it because they saw what happened to societies in Europe when it was not protected. They remembered what happened to the first people who translated the Bible into English. They were executed.

There was a long history that our founders said these people have to be protected because the dissenters today could become the popular opinion tomorrow. So, we as a people, we can easily associate with the dissenters, whether it’s Galileo against the Inquisition. Whoever it is, pick your example. What makes it more difficult, is here the dissenter is deemed by the verdict of history, having been wrong. So it’s as if all our favorite dissenters were wrong, and then the question is more difficult, how do we feel about dissent now?

On raising questions in movies instead of answering them...

Maxwell: I love films that raise questions; otherwise obviously, I wouldn’t make them. I think film is a clumsy, inept median for answering questions. When filmmakers try to answer questions, it just feels like propaganda within minutes. It just smells bad. It stinks, and any audience and any culture rejects it. It’s just not the place to answer questions. But film is just incredibly potent and very effective at raising questions. That’s what we’re doing in Copperhead.

On the Christianity in Copperhead...

Maxwell: [Novelist] Harold Frederic was a young boy during the Civil War, so he had memories of it. He lived through it. I’d call him the Charles Dickens of upstate New York because just like Charles Dickens captures Victorian English society in the middle of the 19th century, so does Harold Frederic.

What he paints and what you get, and what we convey, I hope with some fidelity in the film, is a total Christian universe. Everyone in this small community is a Christian believer. Everyone is in the community of believers. Everyone goes to church. Everyone has the same hymns. Everyone learns the Bible. That’s the world they live in. So it’s kind of a cradle-to-grave atmosphere.

The people, the dialogue that’s in the novel, it just falls right off the tongue; it’s so natural. But people can only talk that way if they’re in a biblical world, if they’ve just got the chapter and verses like—you know, it’s almost unconscious. And so, to not do this, to not use this—and I’m not saying it’s every scene. It’s not like it’s in your face every minute, but to not do it would be to somehow not only do a disservice to Harold Frederic’s novel, but to do a disservice to the people he’s portraying.

On what Copperhead says about living the Christian life...

There’s another question that is raised, and it’s in the subtext. It’s not raised like, in so many words, but you can’t miss it if you watch the film, which is that—and again, this resonates to the here and now, where people consider themselves, they’re trying to live the Christian life, they’re trying to do it earnestly and in good favor. So, they’re all starting from the same place, but they end with different answers; and they get at each other’s throats. It’s not that they’re both quoting the scripture all the time. They don’t have to; they know it. But they have different results, different interpretations of how they should live the Christian life.

In the script, it comes out that [Angus Macfadyen’s character] was an abolitionist before anybody else was, like, 20 years before, he was saying this when nobody even paid any attention to it. Now, the whole country—most people are abolitionists, or are at least agreeing with freeing the slaves; they think it’s a horror that should be ended. He’s like a milder version of John Brown. But his view is, “We have to have the war. We have to shed blood. That’s the only way to eradicate this evil. We brought it on ourselves. It’s got to be ended now.” He has no patience for anybody who disagrees with that point of view.

Now, we know people like that in our own lives. Whatever the issue is, they can stand on scriptural ground and justify it. They could justify the bloodshed… to right a greater wrong in their view. Then you have one of those Christian men who are personified by Abner Beech, who sees violence as absolutely last resort. You just don’t go there, and you certainly don’t sacrifice your sons and daughters.

It raises these profound questions about, how do you live this Christian life that you want to live when it isn’t that easy to really live it?

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Hannah GoodwynHannah Goodwyn serves as the Entertainment and Family producer for For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.

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