Movie Review: Ride with the Devil (1999)

The Civil War is a subject that is unfortunately rarely tackled by filmmakers, but what is even more scarce than that is how well, and accurately, it is portrayed on the big screen. I cannot attest to the accuracy of Ang Lee’s film, because my knowledge of the Western Theater of the war is not so great, but I would personally like to thank him for not allowing Hollywood and a carefully placed love story ruin a fantastic tale of the brutal fighting in neutral Missouri between the pro-Confederate Bushwhackers and the pro-Union Jayhawkers.

Ride with the Devil is a film that could very much be compared to Cold Mountain, which came out five years later. Both show a side of the war that very rarely makes it into theaters: fighting in any state other than those on the east, a gritty and down-to-earth depiction of war and its effects on civilian life, and a love story that gets intertwined. My problem with Cold Mountain was that the love story became the driving force, and although that is how the book went, the film became ruined because of it. Maybe I just do not like Nicole Kidman, or her put-on southern drawl, but either way, I was not a fan of the film that started out with a bang (a semi-accurate, effects laden portrayal of the Battle of the Crater, at Petersburg) and then went on to get progressively worse.

Anyway, back to the film at hand, Ride with the Devil grabbed me from the first scene and unlike the other aforementioned film, it kept my interest for the entire running time. Many people do not realize how it was in Missouri, which was a “neutral” border state. One would think that a neutral state would remain relatively calm, but that was not the case here. You had to choose which side you were for, and risk your life in making that decision. Should you choose to not pick a side, you would more than likely be killed anyway, just because of how the fever of the region was at the time.

Tobey Maguire plays the lead role as the son of a pro-Union German immigrant. Unlike his father, the character of Jake Roedel joins up with the Bushwhackers who seek vengeance against any northern unit, known as Jayhawkers, who conduct a murder raid on Missouri citizens, many of which are innocent and killed for sport. The Bushwhackers are not regular army though—they go by their own rules and have their own leaders.

James Caviezal plays the leader of the bunch, “Black John”, until the never-portrayed Captain Quantrill makes his way into the film. Skeet Ulrich and Simon Baker also co-star, while Jewel Kilcher ends up being the love interest with Maguire’s character at the end. However, the one character who deserves to be recognized with a fantastic performance is Jeffrey Wright, who plays Simon Baker’s slave. Though not treated exactly as a slave (he was purchased by Baker, his childhood friend, when up for sale, so they could be together), we get to see the atmosphere surrounding how black people were treated in the Western Theater. At first, he is treated by others, namely Maguire and Kilcher, as you would expect, but by the end of the film, they grow to respect him. It is a heart-wrenching character portrayal that tackles a lot of complexity. The severely underrated Tom Wilkinson, as well as Mark Ruffalo, also make their way into the film in minor roles.

The one aspect of this film that I appreciate the most is its realism. The treatment of women and blacks in this movie is far from the romanticized and revisionist nonsense of Gone with the Wind’s glorious “Lost Cause” mentality of the old south. The women are treated with respect, but have their place, while a black man, Wright’s character, is relied on heavily for protection, but is not trusted as far as one could spit. This, along with the repeated usage of the N-word, shows what the times were like, and makes that part of this film a reason to watch it. The love story was also shelved until the end, which did a lot for the balanced pacing of the film, and when it emerged, it was so subtle that it fit right in.

Overall, I will give Ride with the Devil an 8 out of 10, because of the apparent historical accuracy. Director Ang Lee did a fantastic job of weaving in historical characters with fictitious ones, and the same can be said of the events portrayed, such as a great scene involving Quantrill’s infamous raid of Lawrence, Kansas. I would recommend this to be shown in any history class, because like Glory, the heavy language was a sign of the times. The dialogue could also be compared to Gods and Generals, because it was the dialect and style that they spoke in back then, not a revised form to fit conformist views like we see often enough in today’s films.

I did not see the much lauded Criterion Collection version of this film, nor was it the director’s cut. Since this was so good, I would imagine that the extended version is even better. I will have to try to watch that when I have the time.

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9 thoughts on “Movie Review: Ride with the Devil (1999)

  1. Chris

    First off let me say great review and it was a pleasure to read! 🙂

    Now a lengthy comment:

    I would definitely agree that it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of this film; although I would say that the potential historical issue is caused by the presence of the black Confederate soldier. As I’m sure you know, the Confederate government did not authorize the use of African-American soldiers until 1865, however there is some evidence that small numbers of African soldiers did fight in irregular Confederate cavalry (this is largely based on photographs and personal testimonials of commanders such as Nathan Bedford Forrest). Of course, irregulars possessed little room in the already poor Confederate records, so the issue is a rather murky one. Unfortunately I think some film critics mistook this historical discrepancy for absence and were offended by a black soldier with the Confederacy which I believe in turn hurt the film) which in turn hurt the film’s reception unfairly. As for the treatment of slaves, I think this film (based on what I’ve seen and your description) does portray a feeling of racial tension, however I don’t recall any scene that really brought home the issue of slavery. In the film’s defence though, I don’t think any Civil War motion picture I’ve encountered has managed to explore that issue fully. Of course it has been a while since I’ve seen the film and I may have missed a few scenes 😛 so correct me if I’m wrong.

    As I said earlier, great review!

    1. Steven

      A number of African Americans actually served under Quantrill during the war, if memory serves. So that part was portrayed pretty accurately.

      1. As we saw with the Jim Lewis character in G & G, the American public cannot fathom the idea of a black Confederate soldier (even though he was a cook). Years of brainwashing and reading poor history textbooks in school has build up the wicked and evil Confederacy something awful.

      2. Chris

        Greg,

        Bear in mind that Jim Lewis was a slave who was lent to Jackson he didn’t really have a choice in the matter :P. That’s not to say that they did not become fond of each other (Lewis was a paulbearer at Jackson’s funeral so they most certainley were friends).

        As for African American soldiers, as I said, I do not doubt that some served in the irregular cavalry, however, the Confederate governemnt did not allow for African soldiers to legally serve in the Confederate Arms until 1865 (hence why they could only serve in irregular calvalry which acted independently). I was just trying to say that the historical ambiguity of having a Black Confederate soldier (even though his presence was, as Steven explained, accurate) is what, I believe, hurt the film in the box office. I think most people confused the portrayal of black soldier fighting for irregular cavalry as a statement that African-Americans were able to serve in the regular Confederate Arms which would have been inaccurate. However the film does not make that claim and that miscommunication comes from the bias you are reffering to. This is unfortunate because it is a good film that takes bold risks which ought to be praised in a medium that is so oversaturated with trite, generic, cookie-cutter films (such as Cold Mountain).

        Anyhoo, as I said, great review and I eagerly await your opinion on Gods and Generals/Gettysburg Director’s Cut! 😀

      3. Steven

        Agreed, Greg. It’s easier to paint the Confederacy as evil because one of the rights the state’s fought for was to keep slavery intact, even though at least 80% of Southerners did not own slaves, and did not wish to. I guess it’s too hard to accept that most soldiers in the Confederate armies fought for “home and hearth,” just as most soldiers have done since America’s inception. But I’ve attempted to read books that try to paint the common soldier as a wannabe slaveowner, or someone who just fought to keep blacks enslaved, which is bull feces!

        God bless!

  2. Steven

    Excellent review, Greg. When Criterion announced they were releasing the Director’s Cut, I had to get it. The film deeply moved me when I first watched it around ten or eleven years ago. The extra ten minutes mainly adds some little plot points here and there, but is still worth watching.

    When I watch it today, it’s still hard to watch Black John Anderson, because now I sit there and think: “That’s the same man that played Jesus in ‘The Passion of the Christ.'” But just goes to show how great an actor Jim Caviezel is.

    From my readings, I would say the movie was very accurate. According to what I read, a number of African Americans did serve under Quantrill, so that part was portrayed correctly for the most part through the Holt character, which is my favorite in the film.

    God bless!

  3. Chuck

    Don’t forget Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ character, Pitt. He was probably the movie’s biggest villain. It was quite a different role for him than his role in Bend it Like Beckham.

    I liked the Quantrill speech and raid on Lawrence, even if the violence was toned down. I also liked the subsequent battle with the pursuing Union cavalry. Now that looks like a cavalry battle – unlike that rather lame cavalry charge by Stuart in Gods and Generals.

  4. Wes M.

    The character of Daniel Holt played by Jeffrey Wright was based on a real African-American named John Nolan. The Criterion Collection is definitely worth buying. It comes with a nice booklet with several essays. It also has a 15 min. interview with Jeffrey Wright recorded recently just for this DVD. The wedding banquet scene is longer in the beginning. There is a longer discussion about the impending war between the Chiles family and their neighbors in attendance. Since Missouri was fractured politically, they have many different views on which side Missouri should take. The sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, is longer and more brutal. Some of the scenes are just slightly extended like Steven mentioned. Did anyone notice that Jake’s monologue after they burn down the roadside general store was removed (the voice over of his letter to Jack Bull’s mother Mrs. Chiles)? That is that one change I was not happy with. That monologue was so well written and it explains that the Federals they just bushwacked were the ones who killed Jack Bull’s father and set fire to the house in the beginning of the film. Otherwise, this Criterion version is awesome! It is remastered, has two full-length commentaries, and is available on blu-ray so it is definitely a must for anyone who likes the film.

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