A conflict that was never as simple as Blue and Gray.
Ang Lee’s arrival in Hollywood was met with much fanfare. He directed three films in his native Taiwan (such as The Wedding Banquet) that were critically acclaimed. Then, he made his move into Hollywood productions were set in eras and social circles radically different than his homeland. Sense And Sensibility was an adaptation of oh-so-fashionable Jane Austen’s novel. The thunder of his stylish and capable direction was stolen by his female stars, Emma Thompson (who won an Academy Award for her screenplay adaptation) and Kate Winslet. If Americans had missed her screen debut in the New Zealand-produced Heavenly Creatures, then Kate Winslet’s Oscar-nominated performance in Sense And Sensibility was a harbinger of good things to come in films such as Hamlet and box office king of the world Titanic. Next for Lee was a drama that would start its own sub-genre, the dystopian portrait of American suburbia as envisioned by a foreigner (visited again by Brit Sam Mendes’ American Beauty). The Ice Storm showed families living miserably through the cultural wasteland of the 1970s. Again, the accolades were reserved more for its cast, both young (Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes) and older (Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen) than for its director. Even if he wasn’t the darling of the media, The Ice Storm firmly entrenched Ang Lee as a favorite of the arthouse set. Then came Ride With The Devil. By all Hollywood standard weights and measures, it was a failure. Critics gave it a tepid reception. It earned less than $1 million at the U.S. box office. Award-givers snubbed it.
Despite its lukewarm acceptance and all its faults, I’m going to say that you should give Ride With The Devil a chance on DVD It is an accurate portrait of a time and place that shaped the future of the United States. The Civil War’s echoes can still be heard today in the strained relations of people who only differ in the color of their skin, and in the continuing tension between intellectualism and tradition.
Ride With The Devil chronicles two formative years in the life of Jake Roedell (Tobey Maguire — Pleasantville, The Cider House Rules). Jake is the poor son of a German immigrant, scorned for his ethnic heritage. When the Civil War extends to the frontier border states of Missouri and Kansas, Jake spurns the convictions of his father and countrymen to join in arms with the South. Along with his close friend, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich — The Craft, Scream), he joins a ragtag band of “bushwhackers” led by William Quantrill (John Ales — Spy Hard, The Nutty Professor; more on the role of this historical figure later). The Bushwhackers take the fight to the Union soldiers and their sympathizers, making daring hit-and-run raids.
(The word “bushwhackers” brings to mind the comic stylings of Beavis and Butt-head, but I’ll let that joke rest.)
With the coming of winter, Jake, Jack Bull, their friend George Clyde (Simon Baker — L.A. Confidential), and “his nigger” Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright — Basquiat, Shaft), take refuge in a ramshackle shelter in the woods near a farm owned by Confederate sympathizers. The farmer and his family bring supplies out to the cabin. A favorite of the men is Sue Lee (Jewel, her screen debut), the widow of the family’s son who was killed in battle. Sue Lee and Jack Bull form a romance during the snowy months, while Jake and Holt become unwitting friends.
(I wish to apologize for using the “n-word.” In today’s social climate, it is a very emotionally charged word…and that’s a good thing. When used by whites, it has always been a word of derision and hatred, and that is how it is used in the context of the film. George and his companions refer to Holt using this word for the entire movie. There is a certain turning point in Jake’s outlook toward Holt when he realizes the hurt it causes, when he realizes that Holt is not property, not anyone’s “nigger,” but that he is a fellow human being.)
It is during a skirmish with Federal troops that Jack Bull is wounded. The quartet is splintered. George Clyde leaves, ostensibly to find a doctor, but he never returns. Jake and Holt tend to the wound the best they can, but their efforts cannot save Jack Bull’s life. In the spring, they take Sue Lee further south, away from the fighting, and return to their band of Bushwhackers.
Ang Lee delivers the movie’s most harrowing sequence at this point, a daring attack on Lawrence, Kansas, the North’s most ardent supporter on the frontier. The battle is hard-fought and emotional, as the private army moves in and kills every male resident of the town and burns it to the ground. The ensuing battle with Federal soldiers leaves Jake and Holt wounded, and the Bushwhackers fractured and disbanded.
Jake and Holt return to Sue Lee, only to find that she is now a mother. The father was Jack Bull, but since he is dead, everyone presumes that Jake was the father. He marries Sue Lee, partly because of his attraction to her, mostly because she forces him to. The “happy” family leaves war-torn Missouri for the promise of the riches of California. Jake and Holt part company as he searches for his long-lost mother who was a slave in Texas. The end.
Ride With The Devil is sumptuously filmed. Not a trace of modern influence can be seen. The costumes and weapons are accurate in every detail. The dialogue shows no modern overtones. The film was shot on location in Missouri and Kansas. The rich, earthy greens and browns of the film’s palette strikingly offset the often brutal violence.
The actors complete the air of authenticity. The most impressive is Jewel in her acting debut. She brings strength and warmth and grace to what could be a treacly, self-aware, melancholy role. Not a trace of her pop starlet status is to be found. Tobey Maguire’s Jake is a boy forced to become a man in the face of trying times. While he never abandons his companions, he wrestles with his own belief in their convictions and traditions. Jeffrey Wright shines in his under-written role. Holt is distasteful of his treatment, but feels obliged to fight alongside George, the son of his former master. His friendship with Jake grows as Jake becomes aware of the injustice of treating another man as property. Holt is not allowed much vocalization of his feelings, but Wright’s nonverbal, nuanced performance is masterful. Skeet Ulrich’s portrayal of the privileged Southern gentleman son of a plantation owner is the best of his career. Which is not to say that he’s likable; he has the demeanor and looks of a snake oil hustler, or a very young Colonel Sanders. I could detect overtones of his performance in As Good As It Gets — a certain air of self-loathing and repressed homosexual tendencies. Then again, maybe I was reading too much into the character.
The supporting cast is no less worthy of mention. Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Michael Collins, Velvet Goldmine) is a standout as the villainous Pitt Makeson. Makeson is a laconic, bile-filled, murdering scoundrel who hates everything about Jake, from his German heritage to his kinship with Holt. James Caviezel (The Thin Red Line, Frequency) plays a character known as Black John. He is depicted as one of the lieutenants of William Quantrill (that’s the second time I’ve mentioned him, and I’ll get to him later) in the raid on Lawrence. Prolific British actor Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Rush Hour, The Patriot) has a small role as the farmer who tends to Sue Lee while Jake is off at war.
Universal’s DVD release of Ride With The Devil can be compared to their production of Jaws: The film is presented in fine form, but the half-hearted collection of extras misses the mark entirely. The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. The print is very close to perfect. Color rendition is natural, and the dark indoor scenes are noise-free and are not muddy, and there is little or no dirt or scratches on the negative. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does not make much use of the rear channels, preferring to keep the stirring score (an amalgam of the music you typically hear in British costume dramas and John Ford-era Westerns) and the sound effects directed toward the front of the soundstage. At least, the majority of the movie is that way. The sound designers saved their tricks for the Lawrence raid. Hooves pound all around you. Very realistic gunshots ring out from the corners of the room. Detachment gives way to complete involvement in the on-screen action. You are right in the middle of the battle. It’s a very impressive sequence.
Extras are limited to a music video for Jewel’s song “What’s Simple Is True,” production notes, a “trailer,” and trailers for “recommended” movies (Far And Away, All Quiet On The Western Front, and Reap The Wild Wind). The alleged trailer weighs in at a scant thirty seconds, leading me to believe that it was merely a television commercial from Universal’s botched marketing campaign. The production notes are a truncated version of the lengthy notes at the film’s official website, which themselves read like an abridged version of another document. Considering the near-epic scale of the film, and the wealth of historical information behind it, it is sorely disappointing that more work was not done for the DVD release. After all, more people will discover the film at home than did in the theatres.
I am becoming very annoyed with Universal’s insistence on dividing films into as few chapter stops as possible. Ride With The Devil‘s 138 minute running length is divided into 18 chapters, which averages out to 7 minutes 40 seconds per chapter stop. It is incredibly difficult to navigate to a particular scene in the densely packed movie when there are so few divisions. It’s not unlike what they did with Meet Joe Black (180 minutes, 18 chapters), Conan The Barbarian (125 minutes, 16 chapters), and Jaws (125 minutes, 20 chapters).
Ride With The Devil is one of those movies that, as a reviewer, sends me into apoplectic fits. There’s no good place to begin. Do you start with the bad, or with the good? That question is particularly irksome when the things you hated about a film nearly outweigh its merits. Do you focus on the plot, or on a critique? Do you slant the review toward a particular group, who will invariably love or hate the movie? If it was a flop (and Ride With The Devil was certainly a flop), do you try to broaden its appeal by calling it an undiscovered gem?
You see, Ride With The Devil isn’t a bad movie in the sense that Batman And Robin was a bad movie. It’s not as maddeningly arthouse as The Loss Of Sexual Innocence. But, it’s also none of the things that it appears on the surface. It’s set during the Civil War, but it’s not a clone of Glory or Gettysburg. It’s a romance, but not in any sort of traditional sense. It’s a character study, but we never get to see under the surface enough to understand anyone’s motivations. It’s a coming-of-age drama, but the emotional path of the protagonist is too indistinct to see how he went from boy to man.
Appropriate to DVD Verdict’s reviewing structure, I spend the Evidence section presenting Ride With The Devil‘s strong points. Now, as much as I regret it, I need to give my negative reaction.
I watched Ride With The Devil in two sittings. The first hour bored me to death, while the remaining hour and twenty minutes partially redeemed the film’s slow beginning. It feels too long, and yet I get the impression that the film was severely butchered in post-production. Let me give a couple examples. I’ve already mentioned that Jack Bull is injured in battle. Jake and Holt attempt to save his life by amputating his injured arm. We see the beginning of the impromptu surgery in one scene. In the next, we see Jack Bull peacefully resting. The dialogue does not imply that he is now dead, a fact we learn only by seeing the two men throwing dirt on his grave! A similar odd distillation of time occurs with the remainder of the film. After Jake and Holt take Sue Lee to the farm, they head off to battle. When they return, enough time has passed for her to have a child that is several months old. Considering that the film took great pains to show that the soldiers stopped fighting during the winter, how did an entire year pass without the trees even dropping their leaves?
I’ll stand by my previous comment that the dialogue shows no modern influence. But, it manages to sound unnaturally stiff. The film plays as Shakespearean actors pretending to be country bumpkins. Every illiterate good-ole-boy speaks in sparklingly correct prose, with the occasional Southern idiom thrown into the mix. The odd thing is, the actor who sounds the most like a true son of the South is Tom Wilkinson! I suppose the argument is that Ride With The Devil avoids a clichéd portrayal of Southern mannerisms, y’all, but…this is too far in the other direction. Consider this exchange: “That is sad. He was a good Southern man. What of Thomas?” “Oh, he is murdered too.”
Ride With The Devil is predominantly a character study and coming-of-age drama, but it does little more than paint the exteriors of these men and women. Why does Jake leave his father? Why does he form a bond with Holt? Why is Holt so devoted to a man who treats him with as much respect as a horse? These are all questions that I feel were answered inadequately.
I understand what sort of film Ang Lee set out to make, but why the title? Ride With The Devil refers to the 450 men who accompanied Quantrill on the daring ride into dangerous enemy territory to pillage and burn Lawrence, Kansas. Why not make the focus of the film that singular event? It was an important event of the Civil War, yet it is not as heralded as the battle of Gettysburg or Sherman’s march across Georgia. Why not make a unique film with a story no one has told before? Quantrill was an enigmatic figure, one of the most brutal of the Civil War, but I’m still going to get to him later.
If I can be so bold, here’s what I would’ve done with the movie:
1) Cut Jack Bull out of the story entirely. The character is not missed after he dies. This would allow more focus on Jake’s relationship with Holt, and create more romantic tension between Jake and Sue Lee.
2) Truncate the winter in the cabin. Over a half-hour of the film is spent away from the Civil War, thus removing the film from its dramatic thrust.
3) If you’re going to show soldiers fighting, give the battles emotional weight. Take a look at Saving Private Ryan. Every battle and skirmish in the movie carries meaning. They’re not mindless action; they’re there to build and develop the characters and our emotional attachment to them. I’m not saying Ang Lee presents mindless action, simply that the fights don’t have impact they should or could. Relating to this point,
4) Build the Lawrence raid into the focus of the movie. As it stands, it is merely a side note, just another battle for war-weary soldiers. In other words, make Ride With The Devil about the ride with the devil.
In my mind, the jury is still out on Ride With The Devil. It is grand in scale and expertly crafted, but it has such a large complement of annoyances that I’m unsure quite how I feel about it. I urge you to judge it for yourself. Hollywood is too full of self-important pseudo-historical war dramas, such as The Patriot and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (now in production). I urge you to support a film that strives to be unpretentious and historically accurate.
Okay, now for my promised history lesson. William Quantrill was twenty-four years old when the Civil War began. Little is known about his early life. He grew up in Ohio, and moved around a bit in his early adulthood. He had been a schoolteacher in Lawrence, Kansas, until his past as a horse-rustler and murderer caught up with him. He began the war fighting for the Union, and it’s unknown why he switched sides, perhaps because as the leader of a band of guerrilla warriors he could indulge his life as a rogue. His group of bushwhackers attracted budding criminals from across the South. Among his group were two brothers who would become the Wild West’s most notorious outlaws, Frank and Jesse James. When a prison housing female captives of the Northern army collapsed and killed its residents, Quantrill vowed revenge. On August 21, 1863, he led 450 men to Lawrence, Kansas. With the leaders of his troops was a list of the men who were targeted to die. Quantrill’s raiders burned the city to the ground and killed nearly 200 of its male inhabitants. Later, his group joined the official Confederate army. When the war was nearing its end, he set off to Washington, D.C., vowing to kill President Abraham Lincoln. En route to Washington, he died in a fight with Union soldiers in Kentucky in June 1865. Little did he know that Lincoln had been dead for two months, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.