Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Melinda Harrison reviews Ride with the Devil

Jack Bull, Sue Lee, Roedel, and Daniel
One of my favorite Civil War films (and an overlooked masterpiece) is Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil. Some other Ang Lee's films include Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Lee is known for his vivid landscapes, the haunting silences between characters, and a realism that is combined with Romantic Aesthetics. When Lee decided to tackle the American Civil War, he went to Missouri, a state that fought a very different war from the rest of the country. Missouri was all about Confederate and Union bushwhackers, family loyalties, and personal revenge.

The story is told from the view of a young man named Jake Roedel played perfectly by Tobey Maquire. Roedel joins the Confederate bushwhackers (border ruffians)  along with his friend Jack Bull Chiles after Chiles's family is murdered by Union bushwhackers aka jayhawkers. Yes, we are talking about civilian families being killed by army irregulars. It should be noted that Roedel's father is a German immigrant who supports the Union. But Roedel's friendship and his love and respect for the Chiles family draws him into a war he never planned to fight. The war just takes him and he rides along hoping to survive.

Jack Bull Chiles is played by the wonderful Skeet Ulrich who is known for his role in the TV series Jericho. Note the photo of the red and white shirt. Confederate bushwackers and other irregulars who used guerrilla warfare tactics often wore red shirts and handkerchiefs, a trademark that shows itself today in modern displays of resistance all over the world. Jack Bull and Roedel ride in good weather and during the winter hide out with families that are willing to protect and feed them. During one of their winters, Jack Bull and Roedel meet Sue Lee Shelley played by the singer Jewel. Before the winter is over, Jack Bull falls in love with Sue Lee. Unfortunately he dies of wounds receieved in a skirmish and leaves Sue Lee pregnant. It's up to our hero to see that Sue Lee is left in a safe place while the Missouri guerrilla war continues.

Jack Bull (r) and Roedel (l)  on meeting Sue Lee. Note that 19th century Romanticism.

After Roedel leaves Sue Lee behind, he rides with freed slave Daniel Holt played by Jeffrey Wright. Holt's character is based loosely on John Noland a black confederate who rode with Quantrill and his raiders. Some might wonder why Daniel Holt (Noland) supports the South, but his legacy is like many who lived in Missouri at that time. They fight the people who hurt their friends and family, and Daniel Holt's (Noland) family had been abused by the Union jayhawkers. He wants revenge.

After the death of Jack Bull, Roedel and Daniel form a tight friendship as their perceptions of the war and their place in it start to shift. However they are still in Missouri and can't escape the pull of the war. They end up riding with Quantrill in his raid against Lawrence Kansas. The raid on Lawrence Kansas is one of those ambigious moral moments often found in all wars. Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? There are none. It's just war gone wrong. It's war turned very personal. It's revenge and chaos. And it's not a subject that people find easy to discuss, precisely because it is so ambigious and difficult to label. That's what Ang Lee's film is all about, how ordinary people transform into something else when they are under the stresses of war, starvation, pain, loss, anger, blood and death.

This is the first film that I have watched that mentions why the raid on Lawrence Kansas really happened, in one of those lilliputian but fierce ties that often shape history. Five women are held in a prison in Kansas City and the building collapses and kills them. All of the women are relatives of Missouri bushwhackers and one of them is a fourteen-year-old girl named Josephine Anderson. You can view her grave and read about her death on this page at Find-A-Grave.

Revenge is terrible. When you commit it, you need to dig two graves, one for your victim and one for yourself. The war in Missouri was often about revenge. After the raid on Lawrence, the Union found every member they could of Quantrill's gang and lynched them. The Union also evicted thousands of Missourians who lived on the border with Kansas, then sacked and burned the their lands. Nothing remained.

In the film, after the horrors of Lawrence, both Roedel and Daniel decide to abandon the war and go west, but not before Roedel returns to Sue Lee who has had Jack Bull's baby. The two marry and as we romantics wish, live happily ever after.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Pitt Mackeson and James Caviezel as Black John Ambrose, the former a composite of Cole Younger and Jesse James, the other based on Bloody Bill Anderson.

I can't express enough how much I loved this film, the look of it, the nuanced subtext, the 19th century Southern language. It was chock-full of characters played by some great actors. In closing, here is a vid from You Tube.

by Melinda H Harrison

P.S. The film is based on the book Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell who also wrote Winter's Bone, which is now an Oscar nominated film


Patricia Preston said...

This is a great movie for anyone who likes historical drama. I recommend the director's cut.

Kim Smith said...

I missed this o ne in my collection of CW films. Thanks for sharing it I am Netflixing it today!!

Melinda H Harrison said...

Hey, I imported my old blog so I could post every once in a while and make comments, too. Got the email straight finally.

Own it!

Writing and trying to tidy up 1-3.

Now John wants to buy the movie! ARGH!

Pat said...

Great post. Loved reading the history behind the battles. Melinda is so right about revenge and digging 2 graves.