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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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Speilbergs Lincoln was historically inaccurate. Your basis of defense is that it's "good history". Good history or bad history, the film Lincoln is fiction.

The problem lies with the fact that Spielberg left out many facts that would paint a better more accurate picture of who Lincoln really was. Lincoln was a racist who claimed African Americans were less superior than the white race and should be deported to South America and its plantations. In fact, before he was killed he was looking into whether or not he could accomplish this task for his second Presidential term.

Furthermore, Lincoln arrested journalists, and politicians who merely disagreed with his illegal suspension of Habeas Corpus and had generals who would kill unarmed citizens- who he actually praised for doing so.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the fact that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about secession. Why did the South secede?The mainstream opinion is because Lincoln is a hero and wanted to end slavery, but Lincoln promised he would not end slavery in the south, only that he would not let the South EXTEND slavery into other states.

Still morally nice, right? Wrong. The only reason the north wanted to end slavery in the other states was because Southern plantation owners would populate Northern land with slaves so that no norther settles could make their cabins out there. Also the Union wanted to build trains and whatnot, so the South was just unfairly getting in the way.

So if Lincoln promised Southern states that he would not end slavery in said southern states why would the South STILL secede? Wasn't it because they were just all evil racists who wanted slaves? No. It was because the North was placing high tariffs on the Southern states. Tariffs that was hurting southern economy. So the south constitutionally seceded.

What happened next was that the new Confederate States of America (C.S.A) formed their own military, their own Government, constitution and elected their own President. They even made their own economy. This upset Lincoln, who in turn essentially invaded the South when he sent troops to fort sumnter. Rather than negotiate, Lincoln decided it would be better to provoke a war and send arms to the fort, so the South attacked in a measure of what I believe to be a logical step in self defense. No one was killed at the Fort, but the South did take it over. I'd say justifiably since it was on their land.

Also, keep in mind that several people offered to negotiate, but Lincoln turned it all down. He did not want negotiations. Even France offered to mediate in negotiations. Lincoln did not even attempt to prevent a war, he wanted it.

This war ended up costing the most American lives more than any other American war COMBINED. Shortly before the final Civil War battle, Lincoln was shot in the head.

If this war was all about freedom and ending oppression, then why did famous Union leaders commit genocide on the Native Americans in the 1870s?

I am not some confederate supporter, I live in California, not the South. Just an FYI as people like to jump to conclusions.

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