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This time out Criterion rescues a great recent movie from a position of neglect, restoring it to director's cut length in the bargain. Taiwanese director Lee would seem to be the last logical choice to make a movie about the American Civil War, but 1999's Ride with the Devil is one of the best ever, a large-scale epic. The War Between the States was often a bloody, dirty guerrilla war without traditional battlefields. Out on the Western frontier of Missouri, Kansas and Texas the politics of slave and free statehood gave rise to 'border ruffian' violence years before actual hostilities broke out. Ride with the Devil shows the confusion and contradictions that led to an appalling real-life massacre at Lawrence, Kansas, an atrocity that occurred only a few days after the battle of Gettysburg.
Plainly spoken, The Civil War is too big and messy of a subject to be contained by any single movie, and few pictures do more than use it as a colorful backdrop or focus on a single incident. Maybe the reason that we sympathize with old President Lincoln alone and troubled in Washington, is that Abe doesn't understand what's going on any more than we do. Ride with the Devil weaves its characters in and around the border skirmish wars between abolitionist Jayhawkers and Confederate Bushwhackers. The complexities go far deeper than the cliché 'brother against brother'.
The border states break down into chaos when murders and reprisals force Missouri farmers to take sides. German immigrant Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) should be siding with his abolitionist father, but chooses to remain loyal to his good friends, who are Confederates: Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and George Clyde (Simon Baker). Fourth group member Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) is an ex-slave who fights for the Confederates because of his close bond with George Clyde, his former master. They join a ragtag army unit, eventually coming under the command of irregular Bushwhacker leader Black John (James Caviezel). After a few attempts at reason and chivalry, even Jake accepts the need for ruthlessness. A prisoner spared by Jake (Mark Ruffalo) returns home and promptly kills Jake's father. The Bushwhackers split up for the winter. Now a pack of rootless renegades, the friends come in close contact with the families that risk their lives to support them. Jack Bull takes up with a young war widow, Sue Lee Shelley (singer Jewel Kilcher), who must relocate when the Jayhawkers strike. Daniel Holt is in the most absurd situation of all. His life is in double danger, from both the enemy and racists among his own allies.
Rallying in the Spring, Black John joins with other Bushwhacker bands under William Quantrill to take the battle across the state line to Lawrence, a bivouac for Jayhawkers and abolitionists in the new state of Kansas. By this time the Bushwhackers are nothing more than marauding terrorist killers: Quantrill gives orders to kill every adult male in Lawrence.
Ride with the Devil is a fairly amazing reconstruction of a now unfamiliar era. It seems shocking (and appropriate) to remind Americans that the grade-school history books skipped many unflattering details about our history. The slave state - free state conflict degenerated into vigilante violence and bloody punitive raids. These groups of unofficial militia are indistinguishable from the modern notion of terror cells, running wild to seize property and commit murder. The movie presents an important lesson about the nature of war. The Civil War is now 150 years in the past, and since then we haven't fought a major war on our own soil. We send our men and technology to fight overseas, where the punitive raids, reprisals, rage killings and 'collateral damage' are suffered by the civilian populations of other lands. Americans by and large don't realize that the same thing can happen here too, given the right conditions.
The history angle is personalized in the personable Jake Roedel. Going along to get along, Jake soon becomes a hardened guerrilla fighter, growing his hair long with the rest of the Bushwhackers. Ambushes are followed by long periods of hiding out and planning raids. Most interesting are the contradictory relationships. These young men choose to fight with their friends and not for their principles. Jake turns his back on his own moral upbringing, indirectly causing the murder of his father. Although neither side intentionally harms women and children, Sue Lee is left adrift in the chaos. Daniel Holt's position as a black fighting for the South was apparently not that unusual a circumstance in these crazy times. Against all logic, Daniel plans to someday buy the freedom of his relatives down in Texas.
James Schamus' excellent screenplay keeps all the character relationships from becoming confusing, and Ang Lee directs his cast to deliver interesting period performances. Jake is razor sharp in some ways and clueless in others, as when he fails to pick up on the obviousness of his future with Sue Lee. Jack Bull and George Clyde are cocky and vain in their ways but basically decent guys. Most importantly, although the movie presents these men as bold and resourceful survivors, none of them has the slightest control over the savagery of the times. They participate in the Lawrence Massacre with their eyes open. Jake knows that his token disobedience to the command to kill all adult males won't do a lot of good. But he remains stubborn, even at the risk of offending the crazed Black John.
The best thing about the script is that it doesn't use its most savage characters as easy villains, not even the black-hearted killer Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers of Match Point and The Tudors). Jake and those he loves might as well be living in Iraq or Afghanistan, as they're targets for both enemies and allies. Ride with the Devil doesn't say so, but some of the most notorious troublemakers of the wild west would come from the ranks of fighters in these border skirmishes, with Jesse James the most important example. The lawlessness of war always comes back home to roost.
The beautifully filmed show is produced on a broad scale and has many exciting action scenes culminating in the bloody Lawrence Raid. Unlike many films of this kind, Ride with the Devil doesn't insist on killing off all of its characters to make a nihilistic statement. Amid all the rustic havoc, there's an amusing subplot about raising an "accidental" baby, and founding a family for the purpose of taking care of it. That's a classic western theme, rather neatly handled.
The young cast also wins us over, with a pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire making a winning protagonist. Jeffrey Wright (007's latest Felix Leiter) does well in a difficult role that, frankly, may be too big of a concept leap for the average viewer. Simon Baker is also a big star now, and it's fun to see a great talent like Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac) standing out in a small role. Tom Wilkinson has a great turn as a farmer who arranges a shotgun wedding. Especially noteworthy is Jewell (Kilcher)'s turn as a rural Southern Belle forced to become an unwed mother and a refugee of war. Sue Lee is both a lady and a practical frontier woman, a "type" that few movies make interesting.
Universal's Blu-ray of Ride with the Devil is a dazzler that restores ten minutes of footage to Ang Lee's underappreciated epic. A couple of new scenes clarify the situation at the beginning, where guests at a wedding fall into opposing factions as perceived sympathizers of this or that cause. Frederic Elmes' rich cinematography celebrates the lush greens of the Missouri summer and the harshness of the winter. The HD image renders scenes set in caves and at night without clogging the image with grain. Ride with the Devil is a major oversight title that deserves a wider audience.
Discussing the complex production are two commentary tracks, one with Ang Lee and producer-writer Schamus, and one that presents Lee with his creative crew. Actor Jeffrey Wright contributes a new interview about his unusual role. The insert booklet contains essays by historians Edward E. Leslie and Godfrey Cheshire. The release is also available on standard DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ride with the Devil Blu-ray rates:
1. Reader Jon Paul Henry helpfully brings up aspects of Ride with the Devil that I foolishly left out (4.19.10):
Dear Glenn - Many thanks for an intelligent and engaging review of this film. Of course, being a western fan, I went to see it right away (in a mostly empty cinema, alas), and just fell in love with the language. Some folks I recommended to go see it came back saying they thought the dialogue was silly and stilted. But for me that was one of the highlights of the film. These young boys spoke, not precisely as they would have in the nineteenth century (for that was a much more sentimental age than our own), but they did NOT speak as if they had just left the mall. The dialogue had this wonderful poetry to it, and a lilting musical sound that I just fell in love with right away. I probably watch the film once or twice a year, and having it available in a longer cut, and in blu-ray, well, that's just peachy. One of my favourite scenes is where Jake and his friend are lying on the ground discussing how, should Jake be killed, and go rotten, his body will be identified, i.e., by his missing finger. Thanks again for the review. Keep 'em coming. -- Jon Paul
2. Correspondent and good friend Bill Shaffer reports on his observations of the filming (4.19.10):
Hi Glenn, On your review of Ride with the Devil: I was on the set of that picture. It was shot in the remains of a small Missouri town - Plattsburg, I think. It was also shot partially in Kansas. None of it was filmed in Lawrence, Kansas (where Carnival of Souls was shot) because it was too modern.
I saw several of the actors there and Ang Lee. They staged a ride where 200 raiders rode through Lawrence and I never saw that shot in the movie. Would it by any chance be one of the deleted scenes? There was also a sequence being shot from inside a house where a door was opened to reveal the lower half of men hanged from trees, riders in the road and fire in the fields beyond. It looked like an amazing shot, but it was also not in the movie.
(For Local TV) I taped a nice story on it, interviewed the actor who played Quantrill and several other people. Then I saw the movie and always wondered why it was never more popular. Maybe the new DVD will make a difference. It sure seemed like they left a lot on the cutting room floor. Thanks, Kansas
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