| One of the most unconventional Civil War epics ever made, Ride With the Devil disappeared almost immediately from theaters during the awards-heavy Christmas season of 1999 despite being released by a major studio (Universal) and boasting a young cast of rising actors and a powerful writer-director team in James Schamus and Ang Lee, who had scored critical hits with their previous English-language collaborations Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997). Initial reviews of their revisionist war film, however, were generally tepid, and with the millennium just around the corner, it seemed that audiences simply weren’t interested in revisiting one of the bloodiest and most painful episodes in American history, especially when it was being deconstructed both narratively and ideologically.|
Unlike many Civil War epics, which tend to focus on the terrible grandeur of massive battlefields, Ride With the Devil stages its action on the fringes of the war, specifically the savage “no quarter” guerilla fighting that took place throughout Kansas and Missouri, the latter of which was the only slave-holding state to join the Union. The film also remains resolutely vague and abstract in its allegiances, which reflects the confused and unsteady politics of its protagonists, who are young (literally teenagers) and driven more by emotion than ideology. The fight in Ride With the Devil isn’t between the organized armies of the North and the South, but rather between the roving bands of guerilla forces known as Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers, whose primary goal was to terrorize the opposing countryside (often their own neighbors). Because both sides intimidate and terrify by slashing, burning, looting, and killing civilians, the audience is left without a stable and comfortable point of identification, which is precisely the film’s point.
While the long narrative is spread across a wide range of characters, we are focused primarily on a quartet of young Bushwhackers (who supported the Confederacy): Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), whose house is burned and father murdered by Jayhawkers near the beginning of the film; his best friend Jake Roedell (Tobey Maguire), who supports his Southern “heritage” despite being the son of a Union-supporting German immigrant; George Clyde (Simon Baker), a flaxen-haired Southern aristocrat who looks like George Custer; and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave who was set free by Clyde and now fights alongside him out of friendship and loyalty even though, on the surface, it makes no sense for a black man to fight for a slave-owning state. However, it is precisely that kind of psychological and emotional complexity that makes Ride With the Devil so intriguing; we are presented not with obvious types, but rather with conflicted souls who fight out of a heady mixture of anger, spite, allegiance, and honor. Theirs is a difficult and dangerous existence, a bumpy road of sudden bursts of violence and long stretches of waiting, particularly during the frigid winter months when they hole up inside a hillside dugout on the property of a sympathetic rancher, whose widowed daughter Sue Lee (the pop singer Jewel, much better than expected) becomes romantically involved with Jack Bull.
On paper, then, Ride With the Devil is a fascinating exercise in historical revisionism, fitting in quite nicely with Lee and Schamus’ previous English-language films, each of which was based on a novel and made us reassess (or at least think more deeply) about a specific historical period. However, the film never quite works as well in action as it does on paper, even with roughly 15 minutes of additional footage that Lee had to take out during the initial theatrical release due to time considerations.
This additional footage helps flesh out the characters and also adds more meat to some of the themes and historical context, particularly an early sequence in which Jack Bull and Jake, only a year into their tenure as vengeful Bushwhackers, come across a bitter young war veteran who foreshadows one potential route their life might take. It’s a powerful scene in and of itself, and it adds to the film’s generally despondent view of war violence, which finds its apex in the sequence depicting the notorious Lawrence raid, in which Bushwhackers under the command of the notorious William Clarke Quantrill rode into Lawrence, Kansas, and slaughtered every man and adolescent boy they could find, resulting in the most deadly act of homegrown terrorism in American history until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. This kind of violence, which is aptly described as simply psychotic, is best embodied in Pitt Mackesen (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a particularly intense and wild-eyed Bushwhacker whose violence clearly stems not from political imperative, but from some dark place inside that sees war as an easy justification for what he would probably be doing anyway.
Part of the film’s problem may be that the main characters, despite their various complexities, are never particularly compelling and therefore fail to draw us into (or help us make sense of) the film’s abstract themes. We understand their conflicts and their desires, and the performances are all good, but somehow they never quite come alive, at least not in a way that truly pulls us into the story. The fact that the narrative is sporadic, slow-moving, and meandering, owing more to the realities of how a war is fought than the conveniences of a Hollywood-style narrative, doesn’t help either, although the evocation of the period via Mark Friedberg’s impeccable production design and the beautiful cinematography by Frederick Elmes (who also shot The Ice Storm), make the film nothing less than visually gripping.
The closest Ride With the Devil comes to genuine emotional resonance is the character of Daniel Holt, whose enigmatic presence as a black man fighting amongst those who see no problem with enslaving him compels our focus and attention, even when he remains largely silent. There is no one central character in the film and it is made clear early on that any character, regardless of apparent narrative importance, could die at any time, but Holt comes very close, if only because he stands out as a rock of sorts against all the sound and fury around him breaks.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (2.5)
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