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Now and Then: Hollywood's Civil War Obsession

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! June 25, 2013 at 8:25PM

Director Ron Maxwell's "Copperhead," on VOD and in select theaters Friday, is the sixth Civil War-era film to debut in the past 12 months, the most earnest and straightforward in a burgeoning subgenre. Nearly 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, The War Between the States remains Hollywood's favorite war.
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Billy Campbell as an antiwar Northerner during the Civil War, in Ron Maxwell's "Copperhead."
Billy Campbell as an antiwar Northerner during the Civil War, in Ron Maxwell's "Copperhead."

Director Ron Maxwell's "Copperhead," on VOD and in select theaters Friday, is the sixth Civil War-era film to debut in the past 12 months, the most earnest and straightforward in a burgeoning subgenre. Nearly 150 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, The War Between the States remains Hollywood's favorite war.

Well, not exactly. Compared with the storms of steel that rage over huge chunks of modern World War II dramas (see the opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan"), recent Civil War films tend to shy away from direct depictions of the fierce, internecine violence that characterized the conflict. Hollywood prefers the Civil War omnipresent but almost invisible, as though it took place on the dark side of the moon. It is much easier, I suppose, for American audiences to stomach their boys killing Nazis than killing each other.

"Copperhead," a slight, talky picture, as chaste as a schoolhouse kiss, is emblematic of this absence. As antiwar dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell) confronts his rebellious son (Casey Brown), pro-war neighbors, and the town's wrathful abolitionist leader (Angus Macfadyen), Maxwell provides only oblique indications of the nation's war footing. Certain of these are terrifically poignant; the best moment in the film may be a shot of the townspeople gathered in the main square, scanning lists of the Union dead for familiar names.

In avoiding the guts-and-glory excesses of the conventional war movie, "Copperhead" achieves an admirable historical veracity -- the politics of the war writ small, tiny Shilohs and Antietams fought over the quality of milk and the rights of immigrants. This is more than can be said about "Killing Lincoln," a National Geographic Channel docudrama based on Bill O'Reilly's tendentious book of the same name, much less the historical fantasies of "Django Unchained" or "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." On a micro-budget scale, scrappy VOD title "Saving Lincoln" tells the story of a man dedicated to protecting the president by placing its actors against 3-D digital CineCollage settings created from historic photographs. Even Spielberg's "Lincoln," whose accuracy I defended in November, is far more effective as a rich, partial biography of a complicated president than as a document of the age in which it's set.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, Genres, Drama


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