If you’re going to write a story about war where the actual causes and ideas behind the war, the American Civil War seems like a curious one. Most films about the war have at least one side talking about state sovereignty or ending slavery or at least keeping the Union together, but Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil manages to get through its entire runtime with nary a word on the causes of the conflict. He did that by adapting the novel Woe to Live On which focused on the small theater of the war in Missouri, which was an outcropping of the pre-war conflict in Kansas, Bloody Kansas, and was more personal than anything else. Sides had been chosen and tribes formed. You were on one side or the other, and without a major army presence, the fighting was relegated to irregular bands fighting each other and Union troops. It actually ends up being a rather good place to set a story about a young man growing up and keeping that focus rather tightly on him.
Jake is the son of a German immigrant (technically an immigrant himself, but Jake has no memory of the Germany of his infancy) and friends to some of the local aristocracy of Missouri, namely Jack Bull Chiles. They essentially grew up together and share the same Confederate sympathies, but the war feels very remote in their small corner of Missouri. It’s only after Jayhawkers allied with the Union burn Jack Bull’s house and kill his father that the pair run off to join the Bushwhackers, the Confederate equivalent. Both groups at least border on terrorist groups, caring little about who they attack as long as they have some allegiance to the other side. The second bit of violence we see is Pitt and Black John, two Bushwhackers disguised as Union soldiers, kill several Jayhawkers and the owner of the small trading outpost who was doing business with them.
War is often described by soldiers as tedium punctuated by violence. I don’t bring that up because I feel that what happens between the bits of violence is tedious (it’s more interesting than the violence, in my opinion) but just to capture the dramatic movement of the film. When winter hits and the Bushwhackers need to enter winter quarters, they split up into small groups. Jake and Jack Bull go off with George Clyde and his sort of slave Holt. There’s a lot of talk about how Holt is not Clyde’s slave, but the relationship is still there. Holt is always at Clyde’s side, no matter how gently Clyde demands Holt be treated. In some ways it’s the Southern ideal of the master and slave relationship with a gentle and understanding master and a loyal slave, but Holt’s feelings are well hidden.
The group hides near the home of a wealthy landowner and his recently widowed daughter in law, Sue Lee, the pretty young woman played by Jewel. Jack Bull and Sue Lee develop a bond that they consummate, and it’s done over the course of some screen time. The pair develop their little relationship while Jake and Holt go off and end up being forced to spend a lot of time alone. Jake’s journey with regard to Holt is pretty basic. He starts the movie as the most antagonistic towards Holt based on his race and ends up a good friend, but it’s Holt that shines more here and that has something to do with Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Holt. His journey of self-discovery from accepting his life as a slave in all but name to embracing his newfound freedom at the end of the film is actually one of the most emotional satisfying parts of the film. It makes me wish he had been the main character.
Not that Tobey Maguire is bad as Jake. I kind of don’t like him as an actor (his whiny voice and slack jawed expression which he never seems to lose score very few points with me), but the character himself is well drawn. He starts the movie as a blindly partisan Confederate, but his adherence to the cause is purely personal. It’s driven by those close to him, and as those close to him slowly die off, his ties to the cause die along with the Cause overall. With his personal reasons for the fight dwindling, so goes his desire to keep on the fight in general. Things seem to quiet down and he falls into a partially forced romance with Sue Lee.
It’s a solid little movie that uses a large canvas to set itself. The Missouri part of the Civil War was far from the biggest theater of the war, but the clash of terrorist gangs around the homes of everyone in the state gives Jake a place from which to go through his journey. It’s intelligently constructed, though I still think that Holt has the more interesting journey.