Secession And Sensibility: Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil

ride with the devil

Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, adapted by James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell’s American Civil War novel Woe To Live On, charts how naïve young men, divorced from a wider base cause (the Confederacy for which they nominally fight), emerge changed from conflict. Finding, one might say in the context of vexatious personalities of the time, a Quantrill of solace in their tested bonds of comradeship .

With Quentin Tarantino’s unapologetic polemic The Hateful Eight channelling fresh debate about how the post- civil war bitterness of a shaky Reconstruction echoes down the ages to today’s headlines (“The only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed” recalls the “Black Lives Matter” groundswell), this is an apt time to reflect on Lee’s forgotten fable (the film bombed at the box office). The Taiwanese director specifically sought out a war movie after the family melodramas of Sense and Sensibility, and The Ice Storm. He couldn’t have chosen a more contentious period and side to focus on, yet it is melodramatic, sweepingly epic and gritty all at once, with a nuanced take on the accumulated weight of history’s hand on shrunken, wearied shoulders.

The director identified chiefly with the outsiders in the film, freed slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and son of mistrusted German immigrants Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire). The two fight alongside Jake’s childhood friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Holt’s friend also, the rich George Clyde (Simon Baker), who freed the former slave of his father. The men fight as Bushwhackers, a loose confederacy of guerrillas, who mostly engage with Union sympathising Jayhawkers. The long-haired, ragged miscreants, horse-borne pirates in the floppy plumed hats, colourful baggy shirts and long boots of ace costume designer Marit Allen, clash along the creek beds, forests and farms of the Kansas / Missouri border (lovingly photographed by DoP Frederick Elmes), where the fighting between neighbours is as bitter as it gets (Missouri was the only slave-owning state to enter the Union, in 1821. The state supplied both sides with men and arms, a microcosm of the larger conflict). Reprisals, ambushes, disguises, and riding hell for leather (“We rode the hillsides and vales of Missouri, hiding in uniforms of Yankee blue,” the novel opens poetically) are a constant toll on the nerves and a wearing down to the nub of moral scruples for some.

The film is in many ways a fantastic companion piece to Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, which begins with Josey’s embittered farmer joining the real life “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s band after Jayhawkers burn down his farm and murder his family. Josey refuses to surrender when the war ends, rightly smelling a trap, and his subsequent journey symbolises the healing of a troubled country, as he grudgingly picks up a most varied band of stragglers along the way. “I guess we all died a little in that damn war,” he remarks at the end to his turncoat former commander. In the mannered and loquacious phrasing of the characters speech, raised on the King James bible, and the meditative moments when they bunker down for the harsh winter, Ride With The Devil also recalls Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.

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The centrepiece of the film is not some grand battle, but the bloody and perfidious slaughter of some 160 men and boys (the Bushwhackers ride upon the crest of a hill overlooking Lawrence, Kansas, having negotiated contentious territory in Union blue). On August 21 1863, a massed gathering of Quantrill’s irregulars rode down upon the Union sympathising town without mercy, in supposed revenge for Jayhawker raids, and the collapse of a prison holding their women.  The raid on the town is a stunning exercise in large scale film-making, full of wonderfully telling details. A boy of no more than 14, drowned under a wide-brimmed hat and toting a double rig of colt pistols, idly wanders across the dusty main street, as windows are smashed and wild horsemen tear past. The Union flag is torn down from the school and tied to a horse’s tail, dragged through the dirt. Jake and Holt are observers, silently watching, but too inured to a life of violence to really yet be outraged, even as one old boy remarks how they were led to believe an army was waiting for them. “It’s just bad luck citizens finding out just how bad luck can be,” Jake mutters.

Jake comes up against the bigotry of Quantrill zealot Pitt Mackeson, played by Jonathan Rhys Myers as a lean and hungry devil dog, all spurs and long-limbed larceny. He puts a bullet in Jake’s leg as they ride off as payback for their earlier showdown when Jake, finally sickened by the slaughter, ejects him at gunpoint from a hostelry he defends: “And when do you figure to do this mean thing to me Mackeson? Is this very moment convenient for you? It is for me.”

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The piling of endless bodies and this personal confrontation helps to open Jake’s eyes and heart to the base iniquities of what they are fighting for, whereas before he only blindly considered what outrages he fought against. Watch Jake’s hesitant, subdued “cheering” and reluctant face amongst the encampment crowd as Quantrill whips men into a frenzy of vengeance and acquiescence to his Lawrence raid. Holt too, bows his head and shuffles his feet. His loyalty has already been overlooked, here he’s just another dark face, feeding the men. The shy greeting of Clyde also subtly hints at the class resentment bubbling beneath – Clyde’s “pet nigger” is choosing his own friends now.

At least one character has had sufficient insight into the future all along, even if he resents it. Mr Evans (Zach Grenier) is a Confederate proto- one percenter, determined to keep the common man in his place:

“But my point (he says to Chiles) is merely that they (Northerners) rounded every pup up into that schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same free-thinkin’ way they do with no regard to station, custom, propriety. And that is why they will win. Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them. And we shall lose because we don’t care one way or another how they live. We just worry about ourselves.”

During a lull in fighting, Holt and Jake read through Union soldiers purloined letters, coming to an awkward silence reading aloud one troop’s musings on the evils of slavery. “For the first half of the movie he has been silenced,” Schamus said of Holt. “Then he rises to speech and has the power to say things, the freedom to say things.”

Ride With The Devil begins with one idyllic wedding and ends with a shotgun one, symbolic of the country’s troubled healing. Jake and the young widow Sue Lee Shelley (singer Jewel) who took the guerillas in during the harsh winter, and who has now borne the dead Chiles’ daughter, get hitched and set off for the promise of California, weary of war. Holt too, grows, from a silent, acquiescent slave in all but name, to a free-thinking, independent man, seeking his own fortune. After Jake’s initial ignorant misgivings (“A nigger with a gun’s a nervous thing to me”) The two come to realise that they have more in common with each other than they do with their rich friends: the system they fought for is stacked against the poor as well as the blacks.

David Sterritt of Christian Science Monitor said Ride With The Devilexplores interesting questions of wartime violence, personal integrity, and what it means to come of age in a society ripping apart at the seems.” An interesting contrast to the old men’s post-war enmity of The Hateful Eight.

Originally posted 2016-02-09 20:54:39. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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