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The Copperhead (1920)

Passed | | Drama | 25 January 1920 (USA)
Milt Shanks lives a shamed life, hated by his neighbors for having been a traitor to the North in the American Civil War. But Shanks carries with him a secret, one he promised Abraham ... See full summary »


Charles Maigne


Frederick Landis (novel), Augustus E. Thomas (play) | 1 more credit »

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Complete credited cast:
Lionel Barrymore ... Milt Shanks
William P. Carleton ... Lieutenant Tom Hardy
Francis Joyner Francis Joyner ... Newt Gillespie (as Frank Joyner)
Richard Carlyle Richard Carlyle ... Lem Tollard
Arthur Rankin ... Joey
Leslie Stowe Leslie Stowe ... Brother Andrew
N. Schroell N. Schroell ... Abraham Lincoln (as Nicholas Schroell)
William David William David ... Tom Hardy
Harry Bartlett Harry Bartlett ... Dr. James
Jack Ridgeway Jack Ridgeway ... Theodore Roosevelt (as Jack Ridgway)
Mayor N.M. Cartmell Mayor N.M. Cartmell ... Captain Mercer
Doris Rankin Doris Rankin ... Mrs. Shanks
Carolyn Lee Carolyn Lee ... Grandma Perley
Anne Cornwall ... Madeline
Francis Haldorn Francis Haldorn ... Elsie


Milt Shanks lives a shamed life, hated by his neighbors for having been a traitor to the North in the American Civil War. But Shanks carries with him a secret, one he promised Abraham Lincoln to tell no one. Written by Jim Beaver <jumblejim@prodigy.net>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Sneered at, hated, falsely convicted of murder, he uttered never a word.








Release Date:

25 January 1920 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Le héros du silence See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Paramount Pictures See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
See full technical specs »

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User Reviews

Afterbirth of a nation
26 October 2002 | by F Gwynplaine MacIntyreSee all my reviews

John Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore never entirely abandoned the stage, even after beginning their film careers. However, when their older brother Lionel moved to Hollywood, he gave quits to the theatre forever ... devoting the rest of his career to movies and radio. During Lionel Barrymore's theatrical career, his single most successful stage role was the lead in 'The Copperhead', a play by Augustus Thomas based on a novel by Frederick Landis. The 1920 film version of 'The Copperhead' is a poorly-made adaptation of what was not a very good play to begin with. It's hardly one of Lionel Barrymore's best film performances ... but it still has some historical value as a record of his most important stage role.

Rather awkwardly, the action is divided between the (American) Civil War and the early twentieth century, circa 1902. This means that major characters in Act One are long dead in Act Three, and major characters in Act Three weren't even born yet during Act One. Barrymore, in the lead role, plays the only character who is alive throughout the action. Unfortunately, Barrymore (in his early forties when he made this film) is clearly too old to play the dashing young man in the Civil War scenes. In the later scenes, during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, Barrymore's character is aged very slightly with some unconvincing make-up ... but he now looks too young to be playing a character who should be about 70 years old.

During the Civil War, Northerners who sympathised with the Confederate cause were contemptuously known as 'copperheads' (like the snake). Organised gangs of Ku Klux Klan-like vigilantes, known as 'the Copperheads', committed acts of sabotage and terrorism throughout the Northern states. Like the Weather Underground and other Vietnam-era militants, the Copperheads used violent means in an attempt to persuade the U.S. government to end its military aggression (against the South) and to terminate military conscription.

The Civil War is in full cry, and Milt Shanks (Barrymore) is a Northerner who makes no secret of his Southern sympathies. His family and his neighbours despise him and reject him, calling him a copperhead. Milt's son Joseph, a loyal Yankee, joins the Union army. When Joseph is wounded in the battle at Vicksburg, he dies cursing his traitorous father. Eventually it is discovered that Milt Shanks is an upper-case Copperhead: he has joined the terrorist gang and aided their night raids against Union army bases.

Fade to the twentieth century: nearly forty years on from Appomattox, Milt Shanks is still reviled by everyone in his community. (Why hasn't he ever moved elsewhere?) But now his grandchild is in trouble, and the neighbours have no sympathy because the Shanks family's honour has been tainted ever since the Civil War. At last, to save his grandchild, Milt Shanks reveals the secret he has kept for all these years.

Flashback to 1862. Milt Shanks was a loyal Unionist all along. President Abraham Lincoln personally recruited Shanks for a dangerous mission: Shanks was to play the role of a Confederate sympathiser in order to infiltrate the Copperheads and then betray them to the Union army. As an undercover agent (not exactly a spy, since he was working in the North rather than in enemy territory), Shanks has materially aided the Union cause at great personal risk. During the war, President Lincoln forbade Shanks to reveal his secret mission to anyone ... even his own family. At the war's end, it was expected that the President would release Shanks from his vow of secrecy ... but the assassination of Lincoln prevented this, and Shanks has loyally kept his secret ever since, until now.

'The Copperhead' isn't a very good play, and it's made even worse by the awkward flashback structure in this film. It's implausible that Shanks would keep his secret for nearly 40 years after the war's end ... at great cost to himself, but at no further benefit to the U.S. government or to President Lincoln. The 'actor' who plays Lincoln in this film has no acting ability at all, and he has obviously been cast solely for his physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln ... which frankly isn't very convincing. I kept expecting the mole on his cheek to fall off.

Anne Cornwall, later effective as Keaton's leading lady in 'College', is attractive and effective in a small role here. Lionel Barrymore delivers a thick serving of ham, yet I found his performance perversely enjoyable. It's refreshing to see a Civil War film in which the anti-slavery North are clearly depicted as the force of virtue. 'The Birth of a Nation', 'Gone with the Wind' and 'The General' (to name only three examples) are much better movies than 'The Copperhead', yet they commit the morally bankrupt tactic of sympathising with the Confederacy ... and, of course, minimising the slavery issue.

I'll rate 'The Copperhead' 5 points out of 10, but at least one point is in honour of Lionel Barrymore's entire career rather than his performance in this movie.

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