Ride with the Devil (1999)


(director: Ang Lee; screenwriter: James Schamus, based on the novel “Woe to Live On” by Daniel Woodrell; cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; editor: Tim Squyres; cast: Tobey Maguire (Jake Roedel), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), Jeffrey Wright (Daniel Holt), Jewel (Sue Lee Shelley), James Caviezel (Black John), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Pit Mackeson), Simon Baker (George Clyde), Thomas Guiry (Riley Crawford); Runtime: 138; Universal Films; 1999)

“It is a violent film that fails, at times, to be dramatically engaging.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Taiwanese director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), living in the States since 1978, has exploited the rich American Civil War history to tell a fringe story about the war taking place along the Kansas-Missouri border. He follows a band of Southern bushwhackers who oppose the pro-Union Jayhawkers by waging a guerrilla war against them. It is a violent film that fails, at times, to be dramatically engaging, but has its moments of edification as it satisfactorily points out how each side harmed innocent citizens and what ultimately the Union victory meant for the country.

Filming the Southern side in action Lee found humor in the characters and found beauty in the landscape photographed, and reasons in the Southern cause which doomed them to failure. But the film seemed to be more like a costume show, where the soldiers were more interested in showing off the plumage on their cowboy hats than in anything else.

Missouri was a slave state that remained loyal to the Union. After an anti-slavery Jayhawker raid on their Western Missouri hometown in the 1860s two best friends, Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), hookup with the bushwhackers– a renegade Confederate Army made up of young men from Kansas and Missouri, whose aim is for revenge on the Union soldiers and their sympathizers. The 19-year-old Jake is the son of a poor German immigrant and Chiles is the son of a traditional Southern family.

“Ride With the Devil” brings us into a world of besieged farmhouses and dusty frontier towns and Southern chivalry toward women, and into brutal battle zones of pillage and killing, of neighbor fighting neighbor. Everyday life is fraught with dangers from raiders on both sides. The Southern side consists of men like these: their inspirational leader, Black John (Caviezel); Pit Mackeson (Rhys Meyers), a mistrustful and hateful sociopath with a need to kill; George Clyde (Simon Baker), a cultured Southern gentleman; Daniel Holt (Wright), an ex-slave of Clyde’s who remains loyal to his master for freeing him. Holt is the contradiction in the Southern cause, as he and the immigrant’s son Jake are the outsiders. They don’t exactly fit the image of what Southern gentlemen are supposed to be like and their reasons for joining the Confederate side is complex and hard to rationalize.

The main battle scene restages Quantrill’s raid on the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas. The bushwhackers massacre over a hundred of the young men in town and then burn it down. Jake and Holt decide to have a restaurant breakfast in the middle of this bloodshed and are supposedly resurrected as thinking men against the blatant violence that just took place, as they prevent their cohorts from exercising the unnecessary killing of an older man serving them. It was unconvincing—a John Ford touch put in that didn’t have that director’s deftness.

The goal of the Lawrence attack is the burning down of the school because one Confederate sympathizer said, “the children are educated with no regard for status, custom and propriety.” He goes on to say that this belief in mass education and the democratic values that it expresses spell defeat for the Confederacy, as it stands for values that we can’t match. This explains a key weakness of the Southern cause, that the Southern values are tradition-bound and part of a static culture. This becomes the theme of the film and goes for the reason the Civil War’s outcome changed the direction the country was going, as the Union victory allowed the country to prosper and become a great nation. Their philosophy for public education and free enterprise took root with their victory.

A love story also blooms as the alluring Sue Lee (Jewel), a recent widow after three weeks of marriage, attracts Jack Bull’s attention. She brings scraps of food to him and Jake and Holt, who are hiding from Union troops on the wooded land of her Missouri family who supports their cause. They have been spending their time having longwinded unnatural conversations that sound much like sermons, so Sue Lee’s intrusion into their mud lean-to is more than welcome at this time. The romance is broken up by more battles and a horrific amputation scene where there is no anesthetic administered.

Upon returning from Lawrence and staying in the farmhouse of Sue Ellen’s new providers — Jake and Holt find that she had the deceased Jack Bull’s baby. Because of Southern conventions regarding morality, Jake is roped into being the widow’s next husband.

This was an intelligent but dull film, the acting was not convincing, the story was too staged, and the dialogue was stilted. I also found I was grimacing at Tobey Maguire’s performance — this was the wrong part and film for him to go through his innocent contortions that he has done in all his previous films. He should get a new act, already. On the other hand, pop star Jewel came across as the film’s life-force and put some life into the interesting subplot of how the young were coping with the war.