May 2024

Ride With The Devil (1999)



Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jim Caviezel, Simon Baker, Tom Wilkinson, Zach Grenier, Jonathan Brandis, Mark Ruffalo


At first glance, Taiwan native Ang Lee seems a director who defies any discernible genre or common thread linking his films; he has directed everything from the Jane Austen romance Sense and Sensibility to the searing ’70s drama The Ice Storm (also featuring Tobey Maguire) to the martial arts extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to the comic-book flick The Hulk, to the ‘gay cowboy’ drama Brokeback Mountain. But on examination, almost all of these films, as dissimilar as they may seem at first glance, show Lee’s interest in examining conflicted characters struggling against inner and outer forces- their true selves versus what society or their comrades expect of them. And with Ride With The Devil he has attempted to examine the varying motivations of those known as Bushwhackers- irregular Southern guerillas who sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War- and in so doing fashioned one of the few Civil War films to center on Confederate characters with some sympathy and use for its viewpoint an extremely narrow and seldom depicted perspective. While Ride With The Devil is imperfect, the script has intelligence, the characters not one-dimensional stock caricatures, and they and their causes and beliefs are neither patronized nor glorified.

The lead characters are members of the Missouri Irregulars, a rag-tag band of pro-Confederacy guerillas who strike without warning or mercy, killing Union soldiers and Union sympathizers, burning the homes of collaborators, and melting back into the woodlands. Their enemies, the pro-Union Jayhawkers, do the same. Neighbors who have lived next to each other their entire lives find themselves bitter enemies, and perhaps most victimized of all are those caught in the middle. The central group we focus on are Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), viewed with suspicion due to his German heritage- the local German immigrant community, including Jake’s father, have largely sided with the Union- Jake’s best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), a courtly Southern gentleman type, and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave. While Jake and Jack Bull fight out of loyalty to the South and the revenge for the murders of loved ones by the Federalists, Holt fights out of personal loyalty to George Clyde (Australian actor Simon Baker), who purchased and then freed him. Over the course of the winter, the group hides out in crude shelters in the woods and in the homes of sympathetic families such as the Evanses, where the men meet young widow Sue Lee (pop singer Jewel). But the group is shattered when everyone does not emerge unscathed from skirmishes in the woods, and a bloody raid on the Union stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas leads to the Irregulars being hunted down and massacred. The injured survivors recuperate with friendly families and question whether they really want to return to the war.

Ride With The Devil is not a heroic story. The characters are not conquering victors, but a scruffy band of diehards who are slow to recognize that they are fighting a hopeless struggle. The centerpiece sequence of the movie, the bloody raid on Lawrence (a historical event in which 180 citizens, largely civilians were killed) is not a heroic battle, but a disorganized, lawless massacre of Jayhawkers and abolitionists within the city. The overall cause may be loyalty to the Confederacy and hatred of the ‘Yankee aggressors’, but among the individual characters motivations for fighting vary from man to man. Jake, derided for his German Federalist family, feels fiercely- perhaps defensively- Southern, and is also motivated by loyalty to Jack Bull. Jack has seen loved ones murdered and his home burned by Jayhawkers. George Clyde fights to preserve his aristocratic way of life. And Holt, whom the other men routinely refer to matter-of-factly as ‘George’s Nigger’, feels bound to Clyde as an individual, not to the cause he somewhat counterproductively joins him in supporting. And then there are others, such as Black John (Jim Caviezel), embittered by war and out for revenge, and Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a sadistic unprincipled thug whose involvement with the irregulars has more to do with an excuse to murder and pillage than any higher allegiances. To make matters worse, Pitt despises blacks and considers German-born Jake only marginally better.

The acting in Ride With The Devil is of the quiet, reliable, non-showy variety. Tobey Maguire’s low-key, subdued acting style is well-suited to the tone of the movie, and Skeet Ulrich shows more dramatic ability than in most of his previous appearances. Jewel is adequate in her acting debut, neither blowing anyone away nor embarrassing herself, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is suitably scuzzy as the vicious Mackeson. Supporting players like Simon Baker and Jim Caviezel are fine, but they don’t get a lot of screentime, and Tom Wilkinson has a small role as a farmer who opens his home to Sue Lee and the Bushwhackers. The cast member who arrests the most attention is Jeffrey Wright, who does it with the minimum of dialogue. At first, Holt remains in the background, but gradually reveals himsmelf as the most complex and interesting character in the movie- and the one we’d like to know more about. With a few spare bits of dialogue and a quiet, observant gaze, Wright fashions Holt into an enigmatic figure of hidden feelings and quiet yearning.

Ride With The Devil is a somewhat unconventional entry in the Civil War genre. Not only does it center on Confederate-allied irregular guerillas, it is also a long way from the large-scale battles of such films as Glory, Gods and Generals, or Gettysburg. The characters in Ride With The Devil fight their smaller-scale but more bitter and personal war in the forests and woodlands against equally informal enemies who may have once been their neighbors. In such conflicts making enemies of men who have lived near each other all their lives, innocents are seldom spared, and even Jake’s act of mercy to an old neighbor allied with the Jayhawkers (Mark Ruffalo) has consequences down the road. The climactic confrontation between one of our protagonists and an old nemesis is low-key, avoiding the gunfight we would expect from a more conventional film. One subplot that doesn’t quite work is the half-hearted romance between Jake and Sue Lee; it could be argued that its half-hearted tone is deliberate, as the two characters never really pretend to be passionately in love and are motivated largely by more pragmatic reasons, but the result is an aspect of the story that feels incomplete and extraneous. James Schamus’ script also sometimes makes the dialogue sound overly wordy. The way the film often goes the lower-key road instead of resorting to more action-packed cliches is refreshing in a way, but that and its slow, deliberate tone may disappoint viewers expecting something more rousing or battle-oriented. But Ride With The Devil is a well-constructed enough film from a unique perspective presented with balance and intelligence to earn it a place on any Civil War film buff’s shelf.