A Screenwriter Defends His Script
- “Copperhead” is a subversive film. Its subverts narrative convention: Jee Hagadorn, the abolitionist who is absolutely right about the central question of the age, slavery, is a God-is-on-our-side zealot who has transformed a political/moral cause into an abstraction, thereby losing sight of those things nighest unto him—that never happens in real life, huh? The film’s concerns—peace, community, rural Christianity, dissent—could hardly be more relevant in our age of placelessness, perpetual war, and the surveillance state.
In “Copperhead,” the abolitionist Esther (who with her pacifist brother is the moral center of the movie) suggests to the Irish farmhand and Copperhead Hurley that maybe poetry is more important than politics. I believe that; Jee and Abner, the abolitionist and the antiwar Democrat antagonists, do not.
Jee is of course right about slavery. If that were the only issue it’d be a pretty clear case of right and wrong. But that’s not the only issue. From Abner’s point of view, there’s also the U.S. Constitution, which is being stretched and violated by things like the suspension of habeas corpus, the closing down of antiwar newspapers, and, ultimately, the draft, which many Democrats saw, ironically, as a form of slavery. And there’s also the not-so-small matter—which is, bizarrely, often an afterthought—of 700,000 dead Americans. Millions of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends, have their lives shattered. The communities of which these young men are members are broken apart. From our distance of 150 years we accept this with equanimity; you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and they’d have died of something eventually anyway. But I find the enormous death toll a real obstacle to viewing this war as something glorious and wonderful. (Many of the slain were uneducated rural men and thus beneath the notice of moderns, but still, seven hundred thousand?)