Ride With the Devil (1999)
Directed by Ang Lee
It may seem curious that director Ang Lee would follow up his critically acclaimed movie The Ice Storm, an exposé of middle-class suburban social dysfunction, with a morally complex coming-of-age tale set during the “dirty war” between Confederate bushwhackers and Union jayhawkers that raged across the tall grass prairies of Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War. Yet that is just what he offers in the sumptuously photographed, deftly understated film Ride With the Devil. Filled with nuanced performances by a cast of up-and-coming actors, Lee again brings complicated social issues of the day down to the realm of interpersonal relationships in order to examine human motivations and actions under stressful conditions.
Those seeking a fast-paced, battle-filled epic are advised to look elsewhere. Ang’s pacing, for the most part, is slow and deliberate, sometimes too much so. But his method invites the viewer to evolve along with his youthful characters, learning slowly and painfully, as they do, about the complexities of love, fidelity, honor, responsibility, sacrifice and courage. While the story is told primarily through the eyes of bushwhacker Jacob Roedel, played with engaging naiveté by Tobey Maguire, the narrative is not encumbered by Lost Cause hagiography, since Lee complicates Roedel’s character by making him a bit of an outcast as the son of a Unionist German immigrant.
The scenario is made even more complex by Roedel’s growing respect for the film’s other principal protagonist, Daniel Holt, portrayed with quiet dignity and smoldering strength by Jeffrey Wright. Holt is a real outsider because he is black man fighting with the Confederates out of personal loyalty to George Clyde, played with swashbuckling dash by Simon Baker, the man who bought him and gave him his freedom and his friendship. Some of the film’s most complex and poignant scenes involve Holt finding himself in situations where a black man is not normally found: drinking whiskey with white men, sitting at the same dinner table with a family of Southern sympathizers, having his wounds tended by a young white woman. How characters react to these situations reveal the depth of their prejudices or their capacity for growth and redemption.
Even the film’s Hollywood-required love angle is complex. During the winter, the bushwhackers break into groups of three or four and hide out on the properties of Southern sympathizers. Sue Lee Shelley, played by the singer Jewel, is a young war widow living with her in-laws. She brings food to Roedel’s group, which includes Holt and Roedel’s seriously wounded best friend, Jack Bull Chiles, as they hide out in a crudely built earthen hut. Sue Lee ministers to Chiles’ wounds, they fall in love, and tryst just before he dies. Roedel’s friends urge him to “do the right thing” and give his best friend’s baby, being carried by Sue Lee, a father. The uncertain courtship between the young couple, forced into adulthood on so many levels, is one of the movie’s most charming sequences.
The film is not completely bereft of action sequences. An ambush of a bushwhacker camp by Union cavalry is filmed using quick-cutting closeups by sure-handed cinematographer Frederick Elmes. The sounds of horses crashing through wooded underbrush and the pop-popping of pistol shots adds authenticity to the bushwhackers’ hell-bent-for-leather escape.
Roedel’s and Holt’s growing disillusionment reaches a climax when they hesitatingly take part in William Quantrill’s August 21, 1863, raid on Lawrence, Kan. The excess of killing and burning they witness in Lawrence makes both Roedel and Holt question their continued devotion to a cause that looks more like freebooting and murder than a preservation of a way of life they want to live. Their disillusionment is personified by the unstable bushwhacker Pitt Mackeson, played by a devilishly evil Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Roedel, now a husband and father, and Holt, truly free by his benefactor’s death, take their leave of a war to which they are no longer committed and set out on the next phase of their lives.
Ride With the Devil is less a paean to the Civil War and more a tribute to the durability of decency and the strength of the human heart.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.