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Now and Then: Hollywood’s Civil War Obsession

Now and Then: Hollywood's Civil War Obsession

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.

Yet the homefront melodrama of “Copperhead” is a fabulist’s war story, too. The film culminates in a grief-stricken, frankly hectoring sermon whose central thesis — all opinions are equally valid as long as you share them politely — defies the very history it depicts. Like the Stations-of-the-Cross Abe who sinks the final minutes of “Lincoln,” the loyal presidential bodyguard whose devotion animates “Saving Lincoln,” or the bloody inversion of slavery’s brutality that colors the cotton in “Django,” “Copperhead” aches for moral clarity.

This ache is at the heart of our collective obsession with the Civil War era: it is part of the relative invisibility of the war itself in these films, the relative absence of enslaved men and women, the hiding of individual and collective struggle behind abstractions and analogies. Righteous fantasy is this subgenre’s cruising altitude.

Indeed, this proffered dreamscape is the topic’s enduring appeal, perhaps the main reason why the volume of new productions and their blockbuster box office and ratings numbers suggest an audience much broader than avid history buffs. Since the days of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” Civil War-era movies have proven fertile ground for the playing out of Manichean contemporary politics: segregationist, integrationist, Black Power, “post-racial.”

For own our historical moment — in another seemingly endless war bound up with race and nationhood and the meaning we give to “Freedom” — the subgenre’s forceful implication that our righteous fantasies will come true has a certain appeal. We’re not obsessed with the war, per se. We just want a Hollywood ending.

“Copperhead” arrives on VOD and in select theaters Friday, June 28. Its New York and Los Angeles theatrical runs begin July 19.

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