Well, I’m sticking with my position that I wouldn’t leave town to see it. But I didn’t have to leave my house. It’s already “on demand.”

I was rooting for it to be better than it was. It was insufferably overbearing, and the good and evil lead characters incredible. It moved slowly. The acting is uneven. Carl is right that the film does well to remind us that the fever of war is always at the expense of free thought. The wholesomeness of small-town life—with even the corny music and all that—is good to see, even if perhaps also not so realistic. “Porcher melodrama” is about right. That teaching style also doesn’t match my learning style. I found myself fiddling with my new Blackberry Q10—way too complicated—during long parts of the film. (I have to admit, to use Carl’s standard, I watched THE WALTONS, but I can’t say I was moved much by personal identification with any of the characters.)

BUT parts of its unsubtle, pointed dialogue did get me thinking about the reasonableness of being a COPPERHEAD. So the war is for the UNION. Is the Union worth that much killing? Consider that there had never been a war as horrible as this one, and the horror got worse as it went on. So it turned into a war against slavery—with messianic overtones. Is a war to abolish slavery really constitutional, especially with the unconstitutional means required to win it, beginning, from one view, with the draft? But the emancipation of the slaves was an indispensable war measure. Well, sure. But we’re back to the issue that the war is over the Union. The heroic COPPERHEAD says that the UNION means a lot to him, but not as much as his family, friends, and New York state. And can he really raise his sword against men who mean him no harm? It’s the unconstitutional ambition of Lincoln that’s behind this “war of choice.” What about the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence? Well, they were written by a “slaver” and his slaves didn’t enjoy much independence. So it’s possible for someone who really knows slavery is wrong to have been against this war. How many COPPERHEADS were anything like the heroic protagonist of this film? Few indeed. But we also are reminded that the Democrats actually won the election of 1862 in New York. (Although even here the film is misleading: The Democrats won narrowly largely because 70,000 soldiers in the field couldn’t vote. Not only that, the Republican party had moved to “the left” since 1860 by becoming the party “for emancipation” instead of the party “against extension.”)

The unprecedented slaughter of this war now seems worth it, but maybe that’s only because the North won and the slaves were freed. Would it seem worth it to the North had the South won, which it certainly could have? (The Southern poets were able to make up a “lost cause” nobility narrative to make all that futile suffering worth it for them. But not even Whitman could have done that for the North.) Some guy in 1862 or even early 1864 could reasonably see little more than endless and seemingly senseless slaughter. So maybe we need (a lot) more nuanced COPPERHEAD STUDIES so as not to fall victim to the vulgar worship of success and to remember even the greatness of Lincoln is questionable. And to have some sense of why, even after the war, the origin of PRAGMATISM and PROGRESSIVISM seems to be in the uncrazy (even if wrong) thought that the war wasn’t worth it. (The film’s screenwriter is basically a Midwestern progressive isolationist.) I say all this mainly to provoke you and while being glad the UNION was preserved, slavery was ended, and Mr. Lincoln was in charge when we needed him.

It’s true, as Carl said, that the film’s subtext is that the free-thinking COPPERHEAD would also have been against our involvement in world wars, maybe the Cold War, and certainly the Vietnam and Iraq war, not to mention Obama’s continuing Drone-ish war on terror. In my opinion, that makes the COPPERHEAD position even less attractive, if only because the situation is different in each case and it’s way too self-indulgent to just say war is always wrong—given the massively murderous ideological imperialism of the Nazis and Communists. Hitler and Stalin were MUCH worse than the Confederacy, although racially-based slavery was probably worse than even the most negative portrayals of it these days. We southerners note that it was brother against brother in the Civil War but brothers united in WWII and the Cold War.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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