Ride with Ride with The Devil directed …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Something has to blow, and
it does. Quantrill has assembled the men for a deadly purpose. After he gives
them their orders, words that smolder with a kind of implacable, Old Testament
rage, they ride their horses to a ridge overlooking a town. When they begin
to descend, it’s like one of those moments in Apocalypse Now when
your stomach feels like the theater has gone into freefall. The film cuts to
the town where we see isolated, defenseless Yankees look up, as if at clouds
of swarming locusts. The thundering horses bear down on them with an overwhelming,
irresistible fury. It would be a breathtakingly vertiginous moment even if you
didn’t know the town’s name–Lawrence, KS.

The Lawrence Massacre, where
180 men were slaughtered, "holds a horrific place in U.S. history–as
the largest mass murder on record," say the movie’s press notes. In
the dark and bloody annals of this nation’s most tragic conflict, the name
of Lawrence resounds in singular infamy. Its body count may be microscopic next
to, say, the holocausts countenanced by the United Nations in places like Rwanda
and Srebenica in the past decade, but in 1863 it was sufficient to outrage Americans’
sense of who they were: God-fearing people trying to live, and fight, morally
in a war that seemed designed to test the stoutest Puritan’s self-restraint.

From many angles of view,
Lawrence is central. Though peripheral to the main action of the Civil War,
Kansas and Missouri are at the geographic center of the U.S., and both, as territories
divided between pro- and antislavery forces, were central to the skirmishing
and arguments that led up to the war. Coming the month after Gettysburg, and
serving in a way as its evil twin, the Lawrence Massacre helps indicate the
struggle’s historic and psychological pivot. (It also has a place in the
chapter of American myth that followed the war: although the movie doesn’t
note it, the core of the James and Younger outlaw gangs rode with Quantrill
that day.) And in various ways, the terrifying raid forms the center of Ride
with the Devil
: like a sexual initiation or a religious conversion
it marks the border between before and after, unknowingness and awakening.

So why, in rehearsing this
wrenching conflict, does the movie place us on the side of the wild, murderous
rebels? In part, this strategy surely reflects a crucial recognition: that every
Civil War movie is finally less about the war than about our current relationship
to and understanding of it. Thus while it may seem surprising at first that
so many movies about the war, including those vaulting monuments Birth of
a Nation
and Gone with the Wind, adopt a Southern viewpoint, the
reasons for this imaginary partisanship are few and simple. First, people don’t
want to be told what they already know; even the most profound and inarguable
truth needs fresh angles of approach. Second, in stark contrast to, say, Saving
Private Ryan
’s World War II, the Civil War wasn’t about Us vs.
Them. It was about Us vs. Us, and no narrative that doesn’t extend its
imaginative sympathy to the "other" side can possibly comprehend its
tragedy or its full human meaning.

I know, you thought that
as a Southerner I was going to say that American movies take the South’s
side in belated and embarrassed if largely subconscious recognition that the
South was right after all. Actually no. I don’t believe that. But I do
sometimes have occasion to ask myself what’s the most infuriating thing
about Yankees when it comes to parsing the Civil War: their smugness, their
unexamined self-righteousness or their pure, unblemished ignorance. Hands down,
it has to be the last quality. The greatest barrier to the through-the-roof
success of a terrific movie like Ride with the Devil, I’m afraid,
is the current, pandemic plague known as "presentism." People are
so narcissistically yoked to the present degraded moment in time that they don’t
know or care about anything that predates Pulp Fiction. This malaise
is less prevalent in the South, but even there I’m afraid it is spreading
like kudzu.

Ang Lee, who understands
the reasons to combat presentism, is an ideal choice to direct a movie about
the Civil War. Actually, he chose to make the movie, and that’s even better.
Besides his hallowed (to a Southerner) last name, and beyond the fact that I’ve
long thought of Chinese people as Southerners compared to the chilly and arrogant
Japanese, Lee grew up in Taiwan when the island was being inundated with American
influences. Thus he sees in the South’s cause as something that people
around the world today can identify with: the struggle to resist U.S. political
and cultural domination. (If the French especially don’t start whistling
"Dixie" after seeing this movie, we should all be greatly surprised.)

That description is half-joking,
and it’s also only half of the coin. Lee both understands and embraces
the moral and historic necessity of the South’s defeat, just as he sees
the democratic imperatives behind Nike and McDonald’s sweeping the world.
But that understanding balances an undeniable emotional current that runs so
strongly in the opposite direction that the movie could have been called Sympathy
for the Devil
. As is, its awareness of complexity and paradox in what happened
back then, and in the resonances between then and now, make Ride with the
easily the most philosophically astute and balanced Civil War movie
ever made.

Himself an outsider and
immigrant, Lee focuses his story (scripted by James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell’s
novel Woe to Live On) on a rather unlikely rebel. Jake "Dutchy"
Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is the son of a German immigrant who sides with the North.
Jake’s reasons for joining up with the Bushwhackers basically run no deeper–although
this, in fact, is plenty deep–than his lifelong friendship with a more
typical Southern sympathizer, the handsome, graceful Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet
Ulrich, for once perfectly cast).

The tale unfolds as if in
deliberately building, symphonic movements. In the first, Jake and Jack Bull,
both young and green, take up with the Southern side and see plenty of action.
Their companions include genial, aristocratic George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny)
and his slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who fights alongside his master. Though
fraught with danger and injury, this part of the story gives us the war’s
adventurous, romantic aspects, which include Jack Bull’s infatuation with
a young widow, Sue Lee (Jewel). Then comes the attack on Lawrence. Thereafter,
the narrative gradually spins away from the battle line as if in revulsion,
and concentrates on Jake’s deepening contacts with both Sue Lee and Holt.

As much as the movie touches
on many of the most profound and typical themes of the Civil War, it should
be noted that it depicts a particularly savage and anarchic theater of the war.
As historian James M. McPherson puts it in Battle Cry of Freedom: "The
guerrilla fighting in Missouri produced a form of terrorism that exceeded anything
else in the war. Jayhawking Kansans [Union sympathizers] and bushwhacking Missourians
took no prisoners, killed in cold blood, plundered and pillaged and burned (but
almost never raped) without stint. Jayhawkers initiated a scorched-earth policy
against rebel sympathizers three years before Sheridan practiced it in the Shenandoah
Valley… The motives of guerrillas and Jayhawkers alike sometimes seemed nothing
more than robbery, revenge, or nihilistic love of violence."

We get portions of all of
that in Ride with the Devil. Regarding "nihilistic love of violence,"
Jake’s eventual nemesis in the story is a lank-haired, psychopathic Bushwhacker
named Pitt Mackeson, who’s played with cool reptilian brilliance by Jonathan
Rhys-Meyers, the Bowie lookalike in Velvet Goldmine (not inappropriately,
his character here has a similar rock-star hauteur and self-absorption). At
the other end of the spectrum, the relationships between Sue Lee (I don’t
know this Jewel from Rod McKuen, but she’s quite good, earthy and self-possessed)
and Jake and Jack Bull not only soften the slaughter but provide a very convincing,
nuanced depiction of romance’s hardships in wartime.

As in real life, slavery
here doesn’t take front and center in the fighting men’s lives. Rather,
it looms constantly in the background, gradually coming into focus as a motivating
factor as the story enters its final phase. This aptly reflects both emotional
and historic realities. There were surely very close bonds between white Southerners
and slaves, like that between George Clyde and Holt, and some slaves did fight
on the rebel side. But an event like Lawrence would naturally crystallize a
black man’s doubts–as it did in a different way for some white Southerners–and
that’s what happens here. Holt comes into his own, and obliquely helps
Jake do the same, when he’s obliged to ponder the nature of his allegiances.
In part, this crucial element of the story works so beautifully because of the
razor-sharp acting of Maguire, who does his best work to date as Jake, and Wright,
whose exquisitely modulated performance deserves Oscar recognition.

Credit is also due James
Schamus, whose script is extraordinarily eloquent in how it shapes scenes, draws
the film’s motley array of characters and, especially, in how it transfers
and supplements Woodrell’s flavorful, idiomatic dialogue. Along with a
couple of past favorites, Robert Benton’s acerbic Bad Company and
Robby Henson’s too-little-known Pharoah’s Army, this is simply
one of the best-written, most persuasive and passionate Civil War films ever.
I’m afraid the film must be judged overlong (running about 140 minutes,
it especially could use tightening after the attack on Lawrence), but that’s
a small flaw compared to its dazzling panorama of achievements.

Along with David Lynch for
The Straight Story, Ang Lee deserves this year’s John Ford prize
for poetic Americana and sheer, intoxicating craftsmanship. On a scene-for-scene
level, Lee is one of the best filmmakers working anywhere in the world, and
the performances he gets from his large cast, together with the period atmospherics
he conjures with the help of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer
Mark Friedberg and costumer Marit Allen, are constantly impressive. I must say
I haven’t been as captivated by Lee’s recent films (Sense and Sensibility,
The Ice Storm) as much as I was by the Taiwanese-themed trio (Pushing
, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) that opened
his career. That’s because the former never felt as personal or deeply
engaged as the latter. But in Ride with the Devil Lee makes the Civil
War–and with it, a portion of the American cinema–truly his own. That’s
some victory.