Crouching 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.
Ride 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.
Jake, 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 wound.
So 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.
The 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.
As 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."
From 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.
Ride 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.
Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.