Up to now the films shown in the Quantrill’s Legacy series have been real howlers, not only from a dramatic point of view but from an historical one.
But Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999) is an astonishingly accurate (at least by Hollywood standards) recreation of the chaos of the Kansas-Missouri border war, a fiercely partisan conflict of ambushes, lynchings, robberies and ruthless extermination.
It’s amazing how Lee, who grew up in Taiwan, so perfectly nails material that is distinctively American.
Adapted from Missouri author Daniel Woodrell's excellent novel Woe to Live On, the simplest summation of Ride With the Devil is that it is a wartime parody of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn following two “innocents” – a Confederate bushwhacker and a freed slave – through the madness of a brutal guerilla war.
Obviously Lee (who shot the movie in the Kansas City area) saw in this tale a metaphor for the hate-filled sectarian and ethnic violence that daily wracks corners of our globe in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor.
The Huckleberry-figure through whom we experience the tale is Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), the teen-age son of a German immigrant living in rural Missouri. Despite his father's pro-Union views (German-Americans were avid Lincoln lovers), Jake follows his best friend, the aristocratic Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), to war as a Confederate guerrilla.
As this ambivalent conflict wears on, Jake finds himself thrown together with another unlikely bushwhacker, the former slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright). Like Jake, Holt followed a friend into battle; gradually these two outsiders realize they will never be fully accepted by their comrades and embark on an epic journey, not only to physically flee the war's madness (crystallized by a re-creation of Quantrill's raid on Lawrence), but to leave behind the racial prejudices they once embraced so thoughtlessly.
Jake's redemption has yet another source: a young widow and mother (pop singer Jewel in a low-key, thoroughly convincing acting debut).
Lee and screenwriter James Schamus paint the bushwhackers' hit-and-run lives with vivid, violent strokes. Led by the bloodthirsty Black John (James Caviezel, who would go on to play an entirely different sort of role as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), the guerrillas sneak up on their prey by hiding their colorful home-sewn shirts beneath stolen Federal uniforms.
An early shootout effectively captures the chaos of battle as Black John's band is decimated after being cornered in a farmhouse by Union troops and Kansas Jayhawkers.
But while it has plenty of sweep and action, Devil is at heart a relationship picture (it's by Ang Lee, after all). And where most filmmakers would wrap up their story with a revenge killing of the bad guy (in this case Jake's psychopathic tormenter, played by Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the film subverts our expectations. It's a big, epic tale, yet some of Devil's finest moments are tiny gems of restraint and surprising humor.
Beautiful to look at (Frederick Elmes' cinematography is often breathtaking – our Midwest landscape has rarely inspired such visual poetry), Devil also has some astonishingly lovely dialogue.
Screenwriter Schamus has retained the language of Woodrell's novel, a mix of homespun wit and King James Bible. The well-read Jake is a born entertainer. His convoluted explanation of the advantages of losing his pinkie finger in combat is breathtaking for its impish humor and droll delivery.
In fact, Maguire gives such a subtle, practically minimalist performance that the unalert viewer may be deceived into thinking the actor really isn't doing much. Perfectly cast as a wide-eyed innocent, Maguire has the ability to make even the smallest glance and gesture read volumes. In many ways Jake is a passive role, yet Maguire makes him tremendously compelling, a young soul who has seen the worst the world has to offer but retains his goodness.
The other performance that demands singling out is Wright's Holt, a superbly modulated turn that becomes the film's very heart and soul.
Here, too, the actor doesn't do anything particularly showy. Wright slowly builds his character from an indistinct figure in the background to a personality of almost monumental integrity.
Other films in the series “Quantrill’s Legacy”
August marks the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas. This film series illustrates how Hollywood has treated the subject of “Bleeding Kansas.” Part of our A Quantum of Quantrill series of August events.
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- August 5: Kansas Raiders (1950) Not Rated
- August 12: Quantrill's Raiders (1958) Not Rated
- August 19: Ride with the Devil (1999) Rated R
- August 26: The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.