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.