Director Ron Maxwell captured the intensity of 19th century combat with his Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Along the way his thinking drifted from the bloody battlefields to the folks back home, the civilians devastated by the loss of loved ones and the irreparable changes to their lives once the war broke out.
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” Maxwell says of Copperhead, the third film in his iconic Civil War series. “There was hardly a family left unscathed in all of America.”
Copperhead, in theaters June 28, shifts the focus to the home front. The Civil War has begun, and an anti-war farmer from the North (Billy Campbell) is waging his own battles against both family members and once trusted neighbors. His son enlists in the Union army against his wishes, his former friends now view him with suspicion and his community is in a perpetual state of mourning as new casualty figures reach their town.
Along the way Copperhead explores constitutional issues regarding the war, the suppression of certain speech by President Abraham Lincoln and the way a country processes a deeply divided populace.
Campbell serves as the film’s gritty protagonist, one of many characters taken directly from author Harold Frederic’s novel, The Copperhead.
“You needed an actor who embodies an inner strength, a gravitas … you have to have those colors to start with,” he says of Abner Beech, the role played by Campbell. “He has that. He brought it forth in Abner. He’s not a self-righteous man. He believes in the Constitution, and he also believes in his faith.”
Maxwell screened his new film for an audience filled with U.S. military veterans recently, and he was heartened to watch the group give Copperhead a standing ovation.
“My dad was a World War II veteran … in all three [Civil War] movies I’ve made I’m constantly telling myself, ‘please, keep it real,'” he says. “Nothing in the subject matter is glorifying war … they honor the soldiers.”
The human cost of the Civil War may never be fully known, Maxwell says, adding historians continually raise the number of those believed to have died every year, a figure he estimates to be around 750,000.
The filmmaker may be known for his sweeping war epics, but the casualties of those real-life battles never left his thoughts. He says it quietly gnawed at him for years, as did meeting his own neighbors who had loved ones serving overseas in the Middle East.
“This all worked on me subconsciously, so when I read [The Copperhead] eight or nine years ago it didn’t fall on deaf ears,” he says.
It might seem odd that a rumination on the cost of war like Copperhead would hit theaters roughly the same time as wannabe blockbusters like World War Z, Man of Steel and White House Down. Maxwell understands the perception, but he believes the film’s release date works for that very reason.
“I’ve been in the business for a few decades. Hey, this is the summer blockbuster season with crushing competition,” he says. “But we’re going to be the only alternative out there for somebody looking for something different.”
Copperhead opens in select theaters June 28. For more information, please visit the film’s website.