Skip to main content

'Copperhead' hits all of Kauffman's themes, and is a big hit with screening audience

By Howard B. Owens

If Bill Kauffman sat down to write a screenplay, the result would surely be the movie "Copperhead."

The ideal Kauffman film would take a look at a side of history that is little known and rarely discussed. The lead character would be a dissenter, the holder of unpopular opinions who won't bow to conformity. The major themes would be love of family, community before nation, and fealty to the Constitution. It would show how war rips asunder these values as brutally as it maims bodies and damages souls.

This is, indeed, the movie "Copperhead," based on the 1893 novel, "The Copperhead," by Utica-born Harold Frederic. The screenplay is by Batavia's (and Elba's) own Bill Kauffman.

A packed house at Genesee Community College's Stuart Steiner Theater of Kauffman partisans -- friends and family, mostly -- viewed a special screening Thursday night of "Copperhead." We applauded when Kauffman's first film credit rolled across the screen and clapped again for his daughter, Gretel, whose credit was for one of the two "giggling girls" at a barn dance.

We also all applauded in appreciation as the final scene faded to black and credits for all the grips and technicians and wardrobe staff rolled across the screen.

It is a very good movie.

The story line -- without trying to give away too much -- is about a small Upstate New York farm community in 1862. The town is largely Republican with a view of the war in line with the Lincoln Administration.

Abner Beech opposes the war. He's a Democrat. He's no "slaver" he says, but he considers Lincoln's war unlawful.

"It is Abraham Lincoln," Beech tells Avery (played by Peter Fonda), "and his Republicans tearing us apart, and the Constitution. Closing down newspapers, putting critics in prison, enlisting mere boys to fight in his unconstitutional war."

The scene is near the start of the film and Kauffman said during the Q&A after the screening that it's a critical scene. It sets the themes of the entire movie.

Avery's character wasn't included in Frederic's original novel, but Kauffman said one of the faults with the original story was it was rather one-sided in its point of view.

"He never gives the pro-Lincoln, the pro-war side a fair shake," Kauffman said. "It's only about Abner Beech and in the film we made the community more of a character, so I introduced the Fonda character to be an articulate advocate for that point of view."

Near the end of the exchange, Avery says, "The union, Abner, doesn't the union mean anything to you?"

Abner, played by Billy Campbell, looks at Avery with sad eyes, but also affection.

"It means something. It means more than something. But it doesn't mean everything. My family means more to me. The farm. The Corners means more. New York State means more to me. Though we disagree, Avery, ye mean more to me than any union."

A good portion of what Bill Kauffman has written in his nine books could be summed up in those eight sentences.

Asked how closely the Kauffman-esque polemic aligned with Frederic's own work, Kauffman laughed and said, "it's a seamless and harmonious melding."

Director Ron Maxwell, in Batavia for the screening, picked up the question.

"It's what we choose to do," said Maxwell, whose previous screen credits include "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals." "It's why this novel, instead of that novel.

"Having spent as much time as I have tilling these fields, going on 30 years of these Civil War movies, for myself, it was a completely different exploration. Where the previous two movies were, to generalize, they were cinematic meditations on what good, powerful, ethical men should be when they go to war. When you look at those films, you have a strong, full-throated point of view for the men who wore the blue or the men who wore the gray.

"Along the way," he continued, "the question is, what about the good, honorable, ethical men who chose not to go to war, and in fact, the very same war? This is one of the very few novels that raises that question about the Civil War."

Abner's opposition to the war is not without consequence. It becomes a wedge between him and his son. It leads to bitterness, hatred and violence among the townspeople.

The home front has rarely been portrayed by Hollywood, and certainly not from a dissenter's point of view during the commonly accepted "good wars" (the Civil War and World War II).

Maxwell and Kauffman have been friends since the mid-1990s and one day a few years ago they discovered they had both read "The Copperhead" and thought it an interesting and largely unexplored aspect of the Civil War. They agreed it might make a good movie, so Kauffman set about writing the screenplay.

It was no easy task -- and it never is -- getting the film funded, but eventually cast and crew were dispatched to a settlement town in New Brunswick, Canada, where all of the scenes take place.  It looks very much like Upstate New York.

Maxwell said in shooting a movie like this, you don't think about the politics of it. He doesn't like to make, he said, movies with overt political messages. He would rather explore questions and not give answers. When cast and crew are in production, they're in 1862. They're not even thinking about what happened in 1863, let alone 2013, but he knows others will apply today's current events to the issues raised in the movie.

Just the same day, he noted, President Obama has made a military commitment to Syria, so now the U.S. is involved in three wars.

"This movie is going to go into this world where we already have neighbors who are in Afghanistan," Maxwell said. "We all know military families who are suffering. This movie is to a large extent about the families who are home, worried about their relatives, so the context may be 1862, but it is relevant to our world and those kinds of inferences will be made and they probably should be made."

"Copperhead" opens nationwide June 28.

Top photo, Bill Kauffman; bottom, Ron Maxwell.

Authentically Local