The great theme that has preoccupied Ang Lee in every one of his films is that of resistance to convention. Whether it’s filial obligation in The Wedding Banquet, inequitable rights of inheritance in Sense and Sensibility, stultifying middle-class morality in The Ice Storm, the Wudang warrior code of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the rampant homophobia of rural America in Brokeback Mountain, each of these films feature characters chafing against their assigned roles in their respective societies. The irony is that all of these are in fact exceedingly conventional films, well-made literary adaptations, yes, but overly deferential to their source material, whether coming from Jane Austen, Rick Moody, Wang Du Lu, or Annie Proulx. His screenwriters, especially longtime collaborator James Schamus, deserve every bit of the acclaim Lee has received for these minor achievements, as at times Lee’s flatly centered directing style suggests he has, in the words of Humbert Humbert, “only words to play with.”
Now Criterion’s presenting a new director’s cut of Lee’s 1999 Civil War flop, Ride with the Devil, based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell. In many ways, it’s the most daring film Lee’s ever attempted, a rumination on identity—geographic, ethnic, racial, and otherwise—that confounds many of our kneejerk assumptions about America’s bloodiest conflict.
Young Jake Roedel (a career-best performance by Tobey Maguire), the son of staunchly Unionist German immigrants, joins with his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) to fight for the Confederate-aligned Bushwhackers in the Kansas-Missouri border conflict during the Civil War. Since most of the regular armies lay far to the east, the combat here, west of the Mississippi River, takes on the dimensions of guerrilla warfare. Not quite Southern and not quite Northern, geography alone couldn’t determine political alignment in Missouri. Therefore Unionists could live right next to Secessionists, and neighbors could conceivably be fighting neighbors. It becomes obvious that Jake has no political convictions of his own, but has joined the war out of rebellion against his father, to seek the approval of his friends, and to find adventure. Jake is a spiritual cousin to Pierre Blaise’s naïve, thrill-seeking youngster in Lacombe, Lucien who joins the Nazis after the French Resistance rejects him.
As time passes, Jake befriends a black Bushwhacker fighting alongside him. This former slave, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), has followed his best friend (Simon Baker) into battle—not out of obligation, but out of friendship. As jarring as it might be to our notions of the Civil War today, there were in fact many African-Americans who fought of their own free will for the South. Holt is the heart of the movie, and its greatest triumph of characterization. His presence in the film openly defies the white-liberal-flattering stereotype of an oppressed Negro who needs a white Northerner to free him from bondage.
What makes Ride with the Devil unique in the Ang Lee canon is how Jake comes to understand and appreciate that societal convention, far from being stifling, can in fact be liberating. A life dedicated to rebellion and violence is likely to be “nasty, brutish, and short,” as Thomas Hobbes would say. When Jack Bull is killed, Jake has to marry the woman carrying his friend’s child. Earlier in the film, Jake had likened matrimony to slavery, but when it’s forced on him, he barely resists. By this point, he’s had enough of war, having participated in the infamous Lawrence Massacre that resulted in the senseless murder of 180 people. Starting a new domestic life, even if it’s with a woman he doesn’t truly love, is his only salvation.
As a Civil War epic, Ride with the Devil is daringly episodic, lacking any kind of over-arching plot. The opening passages, full of frenetic shootouts that would fit into a Sam Peckinpah western much more easily than Gone with the Wind, Raintree County, or Shenandoah, give way to a long section of calm and quiet as the Bushwhackers abandon their fight during the winter. Lee and his screenwriter Schamus present us with a number of narrative hooks along the way that they provocatively drop. When Jake mercifully releases a Union officer who he’s captured (and who is one of his neighbors), the officer promptly returns to Jake’s home and kills his father, even though he knows Jake’s father to be a Unionist. At this point, it might seem like Ride with the Devil will become a revenge film, as we think Jake will seek bloody satisfaction from his father’s murderer (remember the German soldier Jeremy Davies releases, to his regret, in Saving Private Ryan). But amazingly, Jake moves on, choosing not to pursue a vendetta, and his father’s murder is never mentioned again. It’s daring to drop a narrative thread like that and suggests a desire to explore these characters without bluntly shunting them into a conventional plot, but it’s also undoubtedly one of the reasons the film never found an audience when it first came out (though Lee, Schamus, and Wright all insist that was entirely the failure of Universal’s marketing department). At times, it really does seem like the film is going from nowhere to nowhere. Schamus claims David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago as a key influence on his story design, and, to Ride With the Devil‘s misfortune, it shows.
Like every other Ang Lee film, Ride with the Devil appeals more to the ears than the eyes. The story is advanced almost entirely through exposition-heavy dialogue, and Lee shoots his conversation scenes in a depressingly repetitive shot-reverse-shot pattern. He’ll stick in a beautiful image of the Bushwhackers riding their horses up a snow-capped mountain, or linger on a sunset, but these feel like postcard-perfect images of beauty stuck in between pedestrian dialogue scenes to give the illusion of lyricism. At no point in Ride with the Devil do the characters ever seem integrated into the landscape the way John Ford’s heroes always do, pitched between nature and civilization.
Schamus’s dialogue, though, is wonderfully attuned to the ticks and nuances of these characters, and gives the film its one true bit of stylization. When one of his more psychotic comrades threatens to kill him unless he executes two unarmed storekeepers during the Lawrence Massacre, Jake replies, “And when do you figure to do this mean thing to me? Is this very moment convenient for you? It is for me.” Maguire somehow wraps his tongue around this line with just the mixture of sincerity and irony it demands. It’s a moment like this that demonstrates that Schamus should have as much right to claim authorship of his films with Lee as Lee himself.
Criterion's Dolby Digital sound transfer is the great achievement of this disc. Supervising sound editor Ron Bochar remastered the surround soundtrack at 24-bit from the original stems and created new recordings using Pro Tools HD. The sound effects in the shootout scenes have a percussive force, even if cinematographer Frederick Elmes's picturesque but static images don't. Frederick Elmes and Ang Lee supervised the high-definition transfer of the 35 mm Interpositive and original camera negative, so there's not a scratch, line, speck of dirt, or flicker to be found.
Jeffrey Wright proves himself once again to be one of our most intelligent actors during a 13-minute video interview included on the disc. Declaring his character of Daniel Holt to be his favorite film role thus far, Wright talks about his desire to defy the image of the oppressed slave awaiting liberation from paternalistic Northerners. Holt, as Wright says, "frees himself." Criterion's also included two commentary tracks, one featuring Lee and Schamus, and another with cinematographer Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg. The former is the more compelling, though Lee prefers delivering snarky witticisms to actually saying much of substance about the film. The requisite booklet features two essays by filmmaker and critic Godfrey Cheshire that don't shed much light on Ride with the Devil as much as provide historical background to the Kansas-Missouri border war. His few observations about the film seem absurdly hyperbolic, such as describing the scene of the Lawrence Massacre as akin to "…one of those moments in Seven Samurai or Apocalypse Now when the approach of battle sends the viewer's stomach into free fall." Apparently, he was watching a different movie, since the Lawrence Massacre segment lays bare once and for all Lee's inability to convey genuine terror. Another essay by historian Edward E. Leslie provides more historical background to the Lawrence Massacre and how its architect, William Clarke Quantrill, has been portrayed throughout previous Civil War films.
Like all of Lee's films, Ride with the Devil, an ambitious Civil War epic featuring career-best performances by Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright, appeals more to the ears than the eyes and is more literate than cinematic.