Ride with the Devil: Apocalypse Then

On Film / Essays — Apr 28, 2010

Just over halfway through Ang Lee’s masterful Civil War drama Ride with the Devil, the small group of men at the story’s center, young, Southern-sympathizing Bushwhackers fighting in divided Missouri, meet up with other ragtag bands of rebels. Coalescing under the command of Captain William Clarke Quantrill (John Ales), these freelance warriors are arresting—and more than a little frightening—in their suddenly massed numbers and in the fact that some of them are, unmistakably, psychotically murderous. Lee visualizes their menace in precise, unnerving detail: in the dry sunlight of an August day, they look as unforgiving and combustible as gunpowder.

Something has to blow, and it does. Quantrill has assembled the men for a deadly purpose. After he gives them their orders, words that smolder with an implacable, Old Testament rage, they ride their horses to a ridge overlooking a town. When they begin to descend, it’s like one of those moments in Seven Samurai or Apocalypse Now when the approach of battle sends the viewer’s stomach into free fall. The film cuts to the town, where we see isolated, defenseless Yankees look up, as if at clouds of swarming locusts. The thundering horses bear down on them with an overwhelming fury. It would be a breathtakingly vertiginous moment even if you didn’t know the town’s name—Lawrence, Kansas.

The Lawrence Massacre is aptly named. It wasn’t a battle or a siege but a vicious, methodical slaughter. Quantrill’s Raiders stormed into town at dawn and, over the course of four hours, murdered every male citizen they could find. They dragged men in nightshirts from their beds and blew their brains out in front of their wives and children. They gunned down young soldiers in their tents and killed terrified boys as young as fourteen. When it was over, more than 180 were dead and the town had been ransacked, pillaged, and set on fire.

This is not your military textbook Civil War, and it didn’t seem so at the time. Coming a month after Gettysburg, and serving in a way as its evil doppelgänger, the Lawrence Massacre shocked Americans Northern and Southern, outraging their sense of who they were: God-fearing people trying to live, and fight, morally in a war that seemed designed to test the stoutest Christian’s self-restraint.

The scene of the crime, though, could hardly be called surprising. From well before the outbreak of war, “bleeding” Kansas and Missouri had been breeding grounds for the conflicts and animosities that would lead to the conflagration. And when war hit their soil, it did so in a particularly savage and anarchic form.

As historian James M. McPherson has written, “The guerrilla fighting in Missouri produced a form of terrorism that exceeded anything else in the war. Jayhawking Kansans [Union sympathizers] and bushwhacking Missourians took no prisoners, killed in cold blood, plundered and pillaged and burned (but almost never raped) without stint. Jayhawkers initiated a scorched-earth policy against rebel sympathizers three years before Sheridan practiced it in the Shenandoah Valley . . . The motives of guerrillas and Jayhawkers alike sometimes seemed nothing more than robbery, revenge, or nihilistic love of violence.”

The invocation of terror and nihilism, of course, makes this tragic episode seem chillingly modern. As an act of terrorism committed against American citizens on U.S. soil, the 1863 Lawrence Massacre had no equal until the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, and the attacks of September 11, 2001, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives. (Lee’s 1999 film appeared between these two events, in the decade that also saw the civilian slaughters of Bosnia and Rwanda.)

If the summer of Gettysburg and Lawrence was a key moment in the Civil War, and thus in American history overall, the massacre proves equally pivotal to Ride with the Devil’s protagonist, teenage Bushwhacker Jake “Dutchy” Roedel (Tobey Maguire). In the raid’s violent frenzy, he commits his share of thievery and mayhem. But, in a crucial moment, against orders and in direct defiance of one of his most psychotic comrades, Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Jake spares the lives of two male Lawrencians. At the time, the act seems more impulsive than principled. Its significance as a symbolic and spiritual turning point is best discerned in the context of the movie as a whole.

In adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, Lee and screenwriter-producer James Schamus created one of the great Civil War films, which stands in relation to the likes of Gone with the Wind much as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch does to classic westerns. This is the messy, bloody, revisionist version, stripped of all illusions of nobility and high purpose: a visceral film, alive to adrenaline-pumping danger, sudden catastrophe, and the cruelties (or mercies) possible in every change of fortune.

In a sense, though, Ride with the Devil simultaneously belongs to another genre entirely: the coming-of-age film. You might even say that the two nominal genres, as used by Lee and Schamus, effectively intertwine, mirroring each other: just as Jake must discover his character in the crucible of war, so does the nation itself attain a new maturity through its ordeal of division, violent conflict, and eventual reunification.

Woodrell’s novel begins with a gang of Bushwhackers cruelly attacking a hapless family of German immigrants and Jake shooting their young son in the back as the boy tries to help his father. The point is not Jake’s innate savagery but his need to prove himself to his rough cohorts, some of whom are suspicious of his ancestry: Germans, like Jake’s own father, are commonly taken to be ardent Unionists.

Schamus’s script omits this grim episode and commences earlier, at a bright and bucolic country wedding, after Lincoln’s election but before Missouri explodes in partisan violence. As neighbors who will soon be enemies trade testy banter, Jake jokes to his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich, perfectly cast), that matrimony is worse than slavery. Soon, the young men watch Jack Bull’s father being gunned down in his yard. A year later, they are riding with a gang of death-dealing Bushwhackers, wearing shoulder-length hair, flowing shirts, and, sometimes, blue jackets as a deadly disguise.

Jake’s reasons for defying his father to fight with the South have less to do with political conviction, quite obviously, than with pure youthful rebelliousness, and the fact that his friends—especially Jack Bull—are on the secessionist side. The gang’s life is hard and constantly perilous but also full of breathless excitement, and its personalities are varied. Besides the snakelike, implacably cruel Mackeson, they include the aristocratic George Clyde (Simon Baker) and his cohort, the former slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who fights alongside him.

Holt grew up near Clyde, and the two are close from childhood. After Clyde bought Holt and gave him his freedom, Holt followed his friend to war. The quiet intensity of this friendship is one of the film’s richest touches, and the phenomenon of a black man fighting for the South is more true to history than simplistic notions of the war would suggest. Indeed, such details are essential to Lee and Schamus’s strategy (following Woodrell) of showing us the Civil War at its fractious geographic and human margins, no matter how much this might jar against latter-day pieties.

In the standard picture of the war, armies fight season after season. In this chaotic theater, guerrilla bands split up and hibernate over the winter. Thus does the film move from episodes of fierce and frenetic action into a section of surprising closeness and calm. Breaking off from their comrades, Jake, Jack Bull, Clyde, and Holt hole up in a bunker they dig in the woods, where new intimacies emerge. As Jake and the stoic Holt begin a grudging friendship, Jack Bull romances a young widow from a nearby farm, Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel, in a wonderfully authentic performance), who brings the men food and feminine warmth.

The quasi-familial complexities here reflect career-long concerns for Lee and Schamus, one of the most remarkable partnerships in American cinema. The two artists have always been interested in the tensions and struggles inevitable among intimates. Often considered a trilogy, their first three films—Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—were from original screenplays focused on contemporary Taiwanese or Chinese-Americans (reflecting Lee’s own background). Their next three films might also be regarded as a trilogy: Sense and Sensibility (1995, the only one involving Schamus as producer but not writer), The Ice Storm (1997), and Ride with the Devil are all large-canvas period pieces based on well-regarded novels. In these films, the trials within individuals and groups inexorably reflect the tumultuous historical world beyond.

In Ride with the Devil, the collaboration reaches a new level of ambitious excellence. While preserving the caustic, idiomatic flavor of Woodrell’s dialogue, Schamus’s script adds nuance to the characters and scope to the historical setting. And Lee, for the first time bringing to mind the trenchant American visions of John Ford, crafts a film distinguished by its terrific performances, lyrical appreciation of landscapes and faces, and remarkable degree of historical accuracy, qualities supported by the contributions of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg, and costumer Marit Allen.

When the forces set in motion early in the war reach the cruel crescendo of Lawrence, the film’s fierce vision attains a dazzling, chilling apex. And it is here that Jake Roedel crosses his personal Rubicon. In sparing two inconsequential lives, he makes the existential choice that will soon separate him from his fellows and war itself.

Later, reflecting on their respective sorrow over losing Jack Bull Chiles and George Clyde, Jake and Holt will realize that they have been brought low, as low as either could have imagined, but that they have been set free too. The intimacies and wild freedom of youth now give way to the opportunities and challenges of maturity. Marriage to Sue Lee, who has borne Jack Bull’s child, may at first strike Jake as a trap forced on an unwilling prisoner. But here, too, the appearance of loss signals a strange new form of liberty. When Jake, Holt, and Sue Lee turn their eyes west, they face a fresh set of dangers, surely, but also a country that has been reborn in union and rededicated to the elusive goddess of freedom.