With The Devil
Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Taiwanese director Ang Lee won four Academy
Awards last Sunday, including best foreign language film. Between
the awards and the box-office success of the movie there is good
reason to think that Lee’s back catalog may attract renewed interest.
Let’s hope that it does, because among Lee’s previous work is a
very rare sort of film, one that deals even-handedly and even sympathetically
with the Southern side of the War Between the States. The film in
question is Ride
with the Devil.
with the Devil is set in Missouri, where the fighting took place
less between Yankee and Confederate armies than between partisan
guerillas or between native
Missourians and Unionist terrorists. Abolitionist zealots from
Kansas called "Jayhawkers" frequently raided Missouri
throughout the 1850’s, plundering and killing Missourians and generally
practicing what would now be called "ethnic cleansing."
The action of Ride with the Devil begins with one such raid, in
which Jayhawkers brutally kill a man for sympathizing with secession.
The man’s son, Jack Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), survives and along with
his friend Jake "Dutchie" Roedel (Tobey McGuire) joins
a force of Missouri irregulars called the Bushwhackers, who specialize
in ambushing Yankee troops.
called "Dutchie" because of his German parentage, is the
film’s primary protagonist. His friend Jack considers him "as
Southern as they come," but others are suspicious of his foreign
pedigree. Indeed Jake’s father is a Union-sympathizer and disapproves
of his son’s activity, although the Yankees kill him for it anyway.
Harried and hunted by Union troops and separated from the rest of
the Bushwhackers, Jake and Jack, along with a Southerner named George
and his freed slave Holt, go to ground in the backwoods of southwestern
Missouri. Secessionist sympathizers from a near-by town keep the
four of them fed and, when possible, provide them with hospitality.
This is particularly true of a young widow named Sue Lee (Jewel
Kilcher yes, the pop singer Jewel, in a surprisingly unobtrusive
performance). Jake fancies Sue Lee, but she prefers Jack, whose
days are numbered once his shoulder becomes infected from a bullet
far the film has been a collection of cinematic cliches in a civil
war setting: buddy-movie (Jake and Jack), revenge motive (their
fathers’ deaths), love triangle, etc. The actors are all competent
and the cinematography, shot on-location in Missouri, is gorgeous.
What begins to make Ride with the Devil extraordinary as it progresses,
however, is the understanding that Ang Lee and screenwriter James
Schamus (adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe
to Live On) show of the war’s underlying nature and causes.
most explicit demonstration of this comes when Missouri gentleman
Orton Brown (Tom Wilkinson) hosts Jake and Jack to a dinner at his
house. Brown seems somewhere between bemused and saddened by Jack’s
description of the Bushwhacker’s mission. Finally he tells Jack
that the Bushwhackers, and the Southern cause, cannot win. Why?
Is the Yankee military unstoppable? No, says Brown, rather the cause
was lost the day the Unionists and abolitionists built the town
of Lawrence, Kansas and the first thing they erected there was a
schoolhouse. The Unionists brought children from all around to attend
school there, to learn the same thing. The Unionists wanted everyone
to think and live the same way and would not rest until they did.
The South didn’t give a damn about such conformity and was content
to let people live their own lives. That was why the South would
lose, and the Yankees would win. It all began with that public schoolhouse.
Ang Lee himself writes on the movie’s official website: "I
grew up in Taiwan, where older people always complained that kids
are becoming Americanized: they don’t follow tradition, and so we
are losing our culture. As I got the chance to go around a large
part of the world with my films, I would hear the same complaints.
It seems so much of the world is becoming Americanized. When I read
Daniel Woodrell’s book Woe to Live On, which we based Ride with
the Devil on, I realized that the American Civil War was, in a way,
where it all started. It was where the Yankees won not only territory
but, in a sense, a victory for a whole way of life and of thinking."
the War of Northern Aggression (let’s call a spade a spade) to the
bombing of Serbia and starving of Iraq, for a certain kind of person
anything has been justified to spread "American" (i.e.
Yankee) values, at gun-point or by more insidious means of control.
Ang Lee is no crypto-Confederate, in fact he says he generally approves
of what values and institutions America has spread. Who could object
to "democracy" and "capitalism," after all?
Nevertheless, Ride with the Devil makes clear exactly how that diffusion
of values was accomplished and what price others paid for it. And
anyone who is not utterly complacent and public-schooled will ask
himself on seeing this film whether there wasn’t a better way it
could have happened. Certainly the institution of slavery was abolished
throughout the rest of the West without a war like ours.
with the Devil is a tragedy because we know the heroes will lose.
The Bushwhackers are picked off one by one. Worst of all they are
betrayed from within: one of their number, Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan
Rhys Meyers) prefers to pursue a personal vendetta against Jake
rather than fight the Union forces. Nor does the film flinch from
showing the excesses of the rebels, who at one point slaughter almost
every male in Lawrence. But for all that Ride with the Devil is
not pessimistic and ends on a note of hope. The cause is lost but
Jake sets out to make a new life for himself with his wife and family.
No matter how bleak the political situation becomes there is always
freedom in private life, which is true even today. The problem,
of course, is that those who want everyone else to think and live
the same way will not stop with destroying political self-determination.
That government schoolhouse means to destroy the free family as
surely as it meant to destroy Southern independence.
reviews of Ride with the Devil that readers may find useful: the
Flick Filosopher, Pop
Matters, and if you can tolerate him, Roger
McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University
in St. Louis.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com