a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
The news of an upcoming director’s cut of Ride With the Devil prompted me to dust off this 1999 review. Reading through it again, I realize how much I want to see this film again, and if I recall correctly, the theatrical version felt like a studio’s abridgment of a promising project.
Most war films on the big screen amount to little more than a championship sporting event. We are introduced to an oversimplified conflict. We meet the hero, a tall strong and handsome man who will fight for what he believes in, if necessary. He’s a hero because he believes in the same things we believe in. And then, when the bad guys get nasty and force him into battle, we cheer when he scores a point, we weep when the things that he loves are damaged or killed or burned down. And then we hold our breaths, hoping that he wins in the end. If he is required to sacrifice himself, we weep.
This is the stuff of myth, legend, and adventure storytelling for as long as stories have been told. It’s a simple ethic: We like it when the good guys win.
But in real life, it is dangerous, hard-hearted, and foolish to see things in so cut-and-dried a fashion. Human beings are far more complicated. I challenge you to find a war in the real world where everyone fighting for the “wrong” cause is a vicious, evil creature, whose death earns the cheers of the audience. If we are to “love our enemies”, then we should learn that on either side of something so great as a war, there are people motivated by misconceptions of the truth, people doing right and wrong. We must hate the sin and love the sinner, acknowledging that we are probably not seeing the whole picture clearly, but war films are usually fashioned to make us hate the sinner, so we can exult in their defeat and our justificiation. In truth, there is something to mourn, something tragic about every death, in every army. There will be some who kill for sheer hatred … on either side. There will be some who fight because they fear losing those they love…on either side.
This reality makes war something far more serious than Hollywood likes it to be. War is something about which we should never cheer. It should always leave us hollowed out, grieving for those on both sides.
Ride with the Devil is Ang Lee’s perspective on the U.S. Civil War. It is a rare and wonderful film in that it never crosses over to show us the lives of men in the Union, the side for which audiences usually cheer, the side that is “right.” Of course, slavery was a blight to our nation. Of course, the slaves deserved to be free.
But there was much more to life in the South than slavery. And Lee is interested in looking at the lives of the men who fought there, the bushwhackers, those who didn’t join the formal military effort but crept about with rifles shooting down the Unionists who ventured anywhere near their loved ones, their homes. They may have been irresponsible, misguided, lacking in the nobility to strive for a broader sort of freedom. But who doesn’t understand the motivation to defend one’s family?
Tobey Maguire is Jakob Nordell, the young son of a German immigrant who finds himself fighting for his friends and loved ones in the South, while his father serves the North. Nordell rides with Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), his lifelong friend. They team up with a pipe-smoking, well-dressed bushwhacker named George Clyde and his companion, a black man named Daniel Holt. Holt is a former slave who has a secret and strong bond with George that compels him to fight for the South in spite of what it means for others of his skin color. In this company, Nordell finds himself the only man not fighting out of passion, but rather out of a simple and self-interested desire not to be pushed around or told what to do.
Soon, they come to find a sort of headquarters, or at least a home base, at the house of a Southern family where young Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel) has just been widowed. Under the care of her parents, she tends to the wounds of the troubled bushwhackers. Jewel’s performance is a pleasant surprise; she brings a delicate touch to a character with admirable resilience. While Sue Lee’s heart rises to the romance of Jack Bull Chiles, her interaction with Nordell becomes one of the turning points in Nordell’s development of true convictions.
This is not the usual Civil War tale of learning to respect a man regardless of his race; it is more ambitious than that. It’s about how true freedom comes from love, from respect, and from self-sacrifice. Most popular American films champion the individual’s will to do what they want, to follow their heart. War films like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan do show brave men giving themselves for freedom, but don’t explore what freedom truly is. “Freedom” is all too often explained as “my right to pursue happiness and I’ll knock down anybody who gets in my way.” If the character is charismatic, he’s a hero, and we want him to be happy. If he’s nasty, who cares about his right to be happy? Off with his head! In the end, it isn’t freedom in a large sense, but merely “survival of the coolest” that seems to matter in American movies.
Ang Lee’s films consistently present the damage done when we concern ourselves only with our own personal liberties. The hero of Sense and Sensibility was a selfless man with a loving heart, and the trouble began when a naive young woman equated love with infatuation and fantasy. In The Ice Storm, he showed us the disintegration of families as parents pursued their invidual right to happiness in sexual infidelity. In Brokeback Mountain, we watched as one man’s pursuit of a self-centered fantasy brought about destruction in his family. In Ride with the Devil, Nordell needs to learn to fight for something larger than his own dislike of being told what to do.
While this is definitely Nordell’s story, Holt is every bit as much the focus of our sympathies and our attentions. He is a marvelous character, well-played by Wright. He is mysterious, loyal, brave, full of subtle humor, and most importantly not a spokesman for an idea or a side. How refreshing, to find an African American character in a Civil War movie who is more than just a representative for the oppressed. He is a well-rounded individual who has his own complicated thoughts and motivations.
The Southerners are obviously uncomfortable with Holt because he is not exactly a slave. But their respect for Holt’s friend and protector George Clyde gives him the benefit of the doubt, and they leave him be. For a while.
This is an inspiring, rewarding war movie, and timely. In recent years, our government has oversimplified complex conflicts and encouraged support for military efforts by dehumanizing whole cultures and nations. We’re going to be paying the price for that for a long time. Any great war film will prod us to mourn for both sides of the battle, and to hope that someday all of these events will work together for good for all of the people caught in this quagmire.