Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil is a film of monumental ambition. It attempts no less than to reinvent the Civil War film.
Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are among the defining works of the American cinema, epic both in scale and in their popular impact. To make any film about the Civil War is to work in their shadow.
Lee’s film systematically undercuts and subverts any expectations we bring from those films. They aim for mythological resonance, trafficking in archetype rather than character. Ride with the Devil (like Lee’s earlier The Ice Storm and The Wedding Banquet) is instead scaled small. It’s essentially a coming-of age film with blood and horses.
The older films revel in the splendor of antebellum Southern life, unironically celebrating and sentimentalizing the luxury and civility made possible by the horrors of chattel slavery. Lee sets his film in the frontier state of Missouri opening with a scene which makes it clear that slavery was behind even the minor comforts available there.
Yet the film is no Dances with Wolves, encouraging us to feel self-righteously superior to the outmoded mores of a previous age. Lee understands what was at stake in the war, and he complicates our responses throughout: we spend the film in the company of Confederate guerrillas, and we come to sympathize with them. Their racism is never politely ignored. We see constant demonstrations of the noxious attitudes underpinning their gentility. They are defending a way of life that is quite rightfully doomed to extinction, yet their bravery prevents us from condescending to them.
Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich, as two Missouri boys who join up with the guerrillas, give fine performances. Maguire’s soft, pliant face marks our progress through the war: we watch him age, every new line earned through another friend lost, another wound survived. He’s our surrogate, and his boyish, unformed quality keeps us on edge: we worry about him even as he provides us our entrance to the events. Ulrich is more of a stock figure, the courtly Southerner getting by on bluster and affectation. Ulrich complicates the characterization with adolescent flourishes. We never forget that for all his preening, he’s still a boy.
Jonathon Rhys Meyers plays Pitt Mackeson, a fellow guerrilla using the war as an excuse to act on his darkest impulses. Rhys Meyers is a serviceable actor, but he has such an eerie, faintly reptilian screen presence – he was perfect as the David Bowie stand-in in Velvet Goldmine – that he overwhelms the role. From his first moment onscreen, one expects the worst.
James Caviezel is good as Black John, but he lacks the quiet power he brought to The Thin Red Line. He dominated that film with his thoughtful, searching gaze, saying next to nothing; here, he’s given room to emote, to much lesser effect.
Pop singer Jewel is a pleasant surprise. Her performance is muted and erotic, hardly the strident pop star cameo one might expect. (The less said about "What’s Simple is True," the perfectly awful song she sings over the closing credits, the better.)
Yet for all its subtleties of performance and attempts to personalize the war, Ride With the Devil ultimately fails. The film climaxes with a recreation of Quantrill’s raid, in which vigilantes led by a Confederate officer massacred 180 civilians in Lawrence, Kansas. Lee has paved the way there carefully: we fully understand the hardships that bring decent men to commit such atrocities.
Lee explicitly alludes to the massacre scenes that bracket Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and his is one of the few films that is of sufficient moral complexity to bear the weight of the comparison. But the scene itself is unrealized. It lacks the attention to details of character that could take it into the realms of terror and complicity that make Peckinpah’s gunfights so brutally eloquent. If we had been given a few minutes with the victims, they might register as people rather than targets. The scene would then be infinitely more complex; our reaction to the murders would go beyond mere revulsion, and the events that follow would feel far less like heavy-handed lessons.
The film limps on after the raid, its energy dissipated, its resolution hopelessly sentimental after the complexity of the film’s first half. Jeffrey Wright steps to center stage as Holt, an ex-slave who sides with the Confederacy. Wright gives an intelligent performance, but he’s playing a symbol rather than a character. The fact that black men fought to preserve slavery is all that needs to be said. It’s a deadly irony, and one that provides much of the jolt of the film’s first half. The resolution forces the issue too hard, with obvious points stated too baldly.
Ride with the Devil ends badly, but up to that point it’s a remarkable film. If it’s a failure, it’s for the best possible reason: as the most ambitious American film since The Thin Red Line, its reach far exceeds its grasp. In an era of small, careful works and attenuated ambitions, there are worse sins than trying too hard.