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 a kind of 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 Apocalypse Now when your stomach feels like the theater has gone into freefall. 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, irresistible fury. It would be a breathtakingly vertiginous moment even if you didn't know the town's name?Lawrence, KS.
The Lawrence Massacre, where 180 men were slaughtered, "holds a horrific place in U.S. history?as the largest mass murder on record," say the movie's press notes. In the dark and bloody annals of this nation's most tragic conflict, the name of Lawrence resounds in singular infamy. Its body count may be microscopic next to, say, the holocausts countenanced by the United Nations in places like Rwanda and Srebenica in the past decade, but in 1863 it was sufficient to outrage Americans' sense of who they were: God-fearing people trying to live, and fight, morally in a war that seemed designed to test the stoutest Puritan's self-restraint.
From many angles of view, Lawrence is central. Though peripheral to the main action of the Civil War, Kansas and Missouri are at the geographic center of the U.S., and both, as territories divided between pro- and antislavery forces, were central to the skirmishing and arguments that led up to the war. Coming the month after Gettysburg, and serving in a way as its evil twin, the Lawrence Massacre helps indicate the struggle's historic and psychological pivot. (It also has a place in the chapter of American myth that followed the war: although the movie doesn't note it, the core of the James and Younger outlaw gangs rode with Quantrill that day.) And in various ways, the terrifying raid forms the center of Ride with the Devil: like a sexual initiation or a religious conversion it marks the border between before and after, unknowingness and awakening.
So why, in rehearsing this wrenching conflict, does the movie place us on the side of the wild, murderous rebels? In part, this strategy surely reflects a crucial recognition: that every Civil War movie is finally less about the war than about our current relationship to and understanding of it. Thus while it may seem surprising at first that so many movies about the war, including those vaulting monuments Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, adopt a Southern viewpoint, the reasons for this imaginary partisanship are few and simple. First, people don't want to be told what they already know; even the most profound and inarguable truth needs fresh angles of approach. Second, in stark contrast to, say, Saving Private Ryan's World War II, the Civil War wasn't about Us vs. Them. It was about Us vs. Us, and no narrative that doesn't extend its imaginative sympathy to the "other" side can possibly comprehend its tragedy or its full human meaning.
I know, you thought that as a Southerner I was going to say that American movies take the South's side in belated and embarrassed if largely subconscious recognition that the South was right after all. Actually no. I don't believe that. But I do sometimes have occasion to ask myself what's the most infuriating thing about Yankees when it comes to parsing the Civil War: their smugness, their unexamined self-righteousness or their pure, unblemished ignorance. Hands down, it has to be the last quality. The greatest barrier to the through-the-roof success of a terrific movie like Ride with the Devil, I'm afraid, is the current, pandemic plague known as "presentism." People are so narcissistically yoked to the present degraded moment in time that they don't know or care about anything that predates Pulp Fiction. This malaise is less prevalent in the South, but even there I'm afraid it is spreading like kudzu.
Ang Lee, who understands the reasons to combat presentism, is an ideal choice to direct a movie about the Civil War. Actually, he chose to make the movie, and that's even better. Besides his hallowed (to a Southerner) last name, and beyond the fact that I've long thought of Chinese people as Southerners compared to the chilly and arrogant Japanese, Lee grew up in Taiwan when the island was being inundated with American influences. Thus he sees in the South's cause as something that people around the world today can identify with: the struggle to resist U.S. political and cultural domination. (If the French especially don't start whistling "Dixie" after seeing this movie, we should all be greatly surprised.)
That description is half-joking, and it's also only half of the coin. Lee both understands and embraces the moral and historic necessity of the South's defeat, just as he sees the democratic imperatives behind Nike and McDonald's sweeping the world. But that understanding balances an undeniable emotional current that runs so strongly in the opposite direction that the movie could have been called Sympathy for the Devil. As is, its awareness of complexity and paradox in what happened back then, and in the resonances between then and now, make Ride with the Devil easily the most philosophically astute and balanced Civil War movie ever made.
Himself an outsider and immigrant, Lee focuses his story (scripted by James Schamus from Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On) on a rather unlikely rebel. Jake "Dutchy" Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is the son of a German immigrant who sides with the North. Jake's reasons for joining up with the Bushwhackers basically run no deeper?although this, in fact, is plenty deep?than his lifelong friendship with a more typical Southern sympathizer, the handsome, graceful Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich, for once perfectly cast).
The tale unfolds as if in deliberately building, symphonic movements. In the first, Jake and Jack Bull, both young and green, take up with the Southern side and see plenty of action. Their companions include genial, aristocratic George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny) and his slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who fights alongside his master. Though fraught with danger and injury, this part of the story gives us the war's adventurous, romantic aspects, which include Jack Bull's infatuation with a young widow, Sue Lee (Jewel). Then comes the attack on Lawrence. Thereafter, the narrative gradually spins away from the battle line as if in revulsion, and concentrates on Jake's deepening contacts with both Sue Lee and Holt.
As much as the movie touches on many of the most profound and typical themes of the Civil War, it should be noted that it depicts a particularly savage and anarchic theater of the war. As historian James M. McPherson puts it in Battle Cry of Freedom: "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."
We get portions of all of that in Ride with the Devil. Regarding "nihilistic love of violence," Jake's eventual nemesis in the story is a lank-haired, psychopathic Bushwhacker named Pitt Mackeson, who's played with cool reptilian brilliance by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the Bowie lookalike in Velvet Goldmine (not inappropriately, his character here has a similar rock-star hauteur and self-absorption). At the other end of the spectrum, the relationships between Sue Lee (I don't know this Jewel from Rod McKuen, but she's quite good, earthy and self-possessed) and Jake and Jack Bull not only soften the slaughter but provide a very convincing, nuanced depiction of romance's hardships in wartime.
As in real life, slavery here doesn't take front and center in the fighting men's lives. Rather, it looms constantly in the background, gradually coming into focus as a motivating factor as the story enters its final phase. This aptly reflects both emotional and historic realities. There were surely very close bonds between white Southerners and slaves, like that between George Clyde and Holt, and some slaves did fight on the rebel side. But an event like Lawrence would naturally crystallize a black man's doubts?as it did in a different way for some white Southerners?and that's what happens here. Holt comes into his own, and obliquely helps Jake do the same, when he's obliged to ponder the nature of his allegiances. In part, this crucial element of the story works so beautifully because of the razor-sharp acting of Maguire, who does his best work to date as Jake, and Wright, whose exquisitely modulated performance deserves Oscar recognition.
Credit is also due James Schamus, whose script is extraordinarily eloquent in how it shapes scenes, draws the film's motley array of characters and, especially, in how it transfers and supplements Woodrell's flavorful, idiomatic dialogue. Along with a couple of past favorites, Robert Benton's acerbic Bad Company and Robby Henson's too-little-known Pharoah's Army, this is simply one of the best-written, most persuasive and passionate Civil War films ever. I'm afraid the film must be judged overlong (running about 140 minutes, it especially could use tightening after the attack on Lawrence), but that's a small flaw compared to its dazzling panorama of achievements.
Along with David Lynch for The Straight Story, Ang Lee deserves this year's John Ford prize for poetic Americana and sheer, intoxicating craftsmanship. On a scene-for-scene level, Lee is one of the best filmmakers working anywhere in the world, and the performances he gets from his large cast, together with the period atmospherics he conjures with the help of cinematographer Frederick Elmes, production designer Mark Friedberg and costumer Marit Allen, are constantly impressive. I must say I haven't been as captivated by Lee's recent films (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) as much as I was by the Taiwanese-themed trio (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) that opened his career. That's because the former never felt as personal or deeply engaged as the latter. But in Ride with the Devil Lee makes the Civil War?and with it, a portion of the American cinema?truly his own. That's some victory.