It may seem like an odd combination, a Chinese director making a film about the American Civil War, but Ang Lee’s films (Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm) have always examined how traditionalists within specific cultures react when faced with the prospect of change. In addition, the Taiwan-born Lee has seen his own family divided by a more recent civil war.
So what does Ang Lee see in our Civil War? The moment when the America we know today (particularly the image exported around the world) was formed.
Best friends Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) see the war coming to Missouri. Their loyalties are with the South, so these young men take to the woods and join the Bushwhackers, who engage in guerrilla warfare against the advancing Union Army. Ride With the Devil draws subtle comparisons between these fervent fighters and contemporary militia groups who see the United States government as an occupying force imposing an unwanted way of life.
Lee then digs deeper, investigating the renegade social structure of the Bushwhackers, who range from the regal, confident Jack Bull and bright, compassionate Jake (derisively dubbed "Dutchy" because of his German family), to the violence-loving outlaw Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), their taciturn but fiercely determined leader Black John (James Caviezel) and aristocratic ne’er-do-well George Clyde (Simon Baker) who’s joined in battle by his freed slave, Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright). In these lives defined by warfare, bravery becomes an inverted form of both male bonding and competitiveness.
This beautifully rendered period film captures the flavor of the time in its gentle pacing and florid language without skimping on the harsh realities of the Civil War (vividly recreating the Bushwhackers’ bloody invasion of Lawrence, Kan.). But Lee takes these men away from the battlefield just long enough to encounter a resourceful war widow (Jewel) and a glimpse of the civilian life they might have had.
Ride With the Devil is an intimate epic about individuals who are molded not by warfare, but how they confront the question of what true freedom entails.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.