By the time of the firing upon Fort Sumter in 1861, which marks the beginning of the Civil War, a gruesome prologue was already long underway in Missouri and Kansas. May 24, 1856 was the night that John Brown’s self-named Army of the Lord hacked, shot and stabbed a grisly human swath along Pottawatome Creek. What followed in this territory west of the Mississippi and continued nearly unabated until even after the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865 were events and atrocities that most uninformed Americans would more readily associate with Kosovo rather than with the good ol’ USA.
It is in this uncertain and dangerous world that RIDE WITH THE DEVIL is set. The movie takes an unflinching look at the brutality from both sides and refreshingly refrains from making sweeping moral judgments. Free of pandering to cliched expectations and the constraints of a politically correct point of view (such as, the false notion that the Confederates were solely defending the institution of slavery and therefore any atrocity committed by the Yankees is justifiable and even heroism on the part of the Rebels is despicable), the movie can explore deeper, more complex themes.
RIDE WITH THE DEVIL explores a tragic subject without being a tragedy. It follows a small group of Southern partisans called Sesech across seasons and battles, witnessing through their eyes the unpredictable violence, the vulnerability of civilians, the total war of guerrilla armies. At its heart, however, amid all the mayhem and death, friendship, loyalty and generosity survive – even a sense of humor. Also, without giving away the ending, there is metamorphosis and resurrection as the young men reach turning points in the fighting and in themselves.
This is classic filmmaking with a sure and steady hand. No razzle-dazzle here, no self-conscious use of the camera, no tricks. It’s that rare Hollywood event, a story of substance told with genuine artistry.
The first thing the filmmakers got right was the jargon. These characters talk like they couldn’t be from anywhere else but mid-19th Century America. Nearly all Hollywood films get the sets and costumes right, and this movie is no exception, but rarely do they capture the moral universe, the defining idiosyncrasies of peoples who lived in their own particular times. Human life is universal, but it is always expressed in individual ways. RIDE WITH THE DEVIL captures the authenticity of the characters in time and place, and therefore tells a story the audience is willing to believe.
Considering what gets “green-lighted” these days, it’s nothing short of a miracle that this movie got made, and made with an outstanding cast of newcomers and unknowns at that. The Sesech partisans are Tobe McGuire as Jake Roedel, Skeet Ulrich as Jack Bull Chiles, Simon Baker as George Clyde, and Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt. Holt is Clyde’s former slave, fighting with his former master, which will startle audiences, most of whom were never told that some blacks fought for the Confederacy. Those who may want to delve further into this subject will want to read BLACK CONFEDERATES AND AFRO-YANKEES IN CIVIL WAR VIRGINIA by African-American University of Virginia scholar Elvin L. Jordan, Jr.
Sometimes the movies really do reflect the mystery and contradictions of human existence. Sometimes friendship and personal loyalty trumps ideology and politics. Sometimes it doesn’t. RIDE WITH THE DEVIL is not only first-class entertainment. It’s a liberating experience.
One of the arguable aspect to this movie, however, is the sexual behavior that the movie gives to Jewel, the famous rock star who makes her movie debut in this picture. She plays a passionate young widow who helps the guerrilla fighters during a harsh winter. It is not that the acting isn’t good by Jewel, it is excellent, but the script seems to give her a modern sexual attitude. Except for this, the movie is dynamic and compelling, ending on a powerful note.
Extreme caution is necessary, however, because of the violence, which is almost unavoidable on a film of this nature. Certainly, for older audiences, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL is a finely crafted, detailed study on the Civil War, a movie that can be discussed and appreciated for years to come. Ang Lee deserves all the commendations that he is getting.
Wars are sad times. Men of decency, integrity and faith sometimes find themselves having to RIDE WITH THE DEVIL.
Moral worldview with Christian elements as well as some immoral elements; 33 obscenities but no uses of the F-word & one profanity; extreme violence running the gamut from battle scenes, shootings, murders, assassinations, bones stick out, & blood, guts & gore in a Civil War context; implied fornication outside of wedlock which leads in a unique way to marriage; brief upper female nudity during breast-feeding scene & mild references to body parts; drinking; smoking; and, carousing, deception, jealousy, envy, & cruelty.