A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Copperhead is a Civil War drama that focuses on one family of upstate New York Democrats who opposed the conflict. Called "Copperheads," the Northern Democrats are depicted as pacifists who don't believe that President Lincoln is acting within his constitutional bounds, while the town's abolitionists are portrayed as violent zealots who will stand by as the country is destroyed for the sake of freeing the slaves. Older kids and teens who've learned about the war may have questions about the movie's historical accuracy, and parents should be prepared to clarify some of the oversimplified depictions. There's very little language, a few kisses, and a couple of scenes of men drinking from a jug. Violence includes a brawl, a mob that accidentally lights a house on fire, and a disturbing image of a man who hangs himself. Ultimately, the movie's lesson is a biblical and civil one -- to love your neighbor as you love yourself, even if you disagree with him.
What's the story?
During the "War Between the States," a group of Northern Democrats (called "Copperheads") opposed the Civil War on the basis that it was unconstitutional. In upstate New York, one such Peace Democrat and anti-abolitionist, Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), steadfastly holds to the belief that President Lincoln is wrong. But Abner's son, Jeff (Casey Brown), has eyes for schoolteacher Esther (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of the town's leading abolitionist and Civil War supporter, Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen). As the star-crossed young people fall in love, Jeff (now called Tom, because Jeff is the name of the president of the Confederacy) enlists in the Union Army, an act of rebellion to his father. Jeff is later declared Missing in Action, and the town begins to prosecute the Beeches.
Is it any good?
Although the topic is fascinating -- few movies have focused on the Northern Democrats who opposed the war -- it's depicted in a way that may not be entirely historically accurate. Director Ronald F. Maxwell is clearly obsessed with the Civil War, having already made the lengthy dramatic features Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Maxwell is known, through his films, to posit a pro-Confederate view of the Civil War, in which the abolitionists and Lincoln are the bloodthirsty aggressors, and the Southern slaveowners and generals are the true heroes who were merely defending their home states.
COPPERHEAD's story about a peace-loving New York Democrat who doesn't want his son drawn into a war (which is repeatedly called the War Between the States instead of the Civil War) that he finds unconstitutional is compelling. The "bad guy" abolitionist is portrayed as a drunk rabblerouser who doesn't care who dies as long as the scourge of slavery is abolished. And then there's the Romeo and Juliet love story, which is only resolved after a death. It's interesting, but it seems made for the Hallmark Channel, rather than a theatrical release. It's fine for family viewing, but be aware that it's a revisionist rendering of the Civil War's causes and how Peace Democrats acted -- one that isn't supported by academic accounts of either Copperheads or the Civil War itself.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what they learned from Copperhead about the Civil War. How does it differ from other depictions of the time?
What is the director trying to say about the Civil War? Why do you think there are still such strong opinions about the causes of the war?
According to one historian, the Northern "Peace Democrats" weren't pacifists, like the Quakers and the Mennonites, and were very much pro-slavery. So why do you think the filmmaker makes it seem like Abner is a pacifist who's "concerned" about slavery? How could you find out more about the abolitionists and the Copperheads?
- In theaters: June 28, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: April 15, 2014
- Cast: Angus Macfadyen, Billy Campbell, Lucy Boynton
- Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
- Studio: Brainstorm Media
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 120 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: an unsettling sequence
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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