Ride with the Devil: Criterion Collection
April 27, 2010
Ang Lee is a filmmaker not afraid to take chances. He brought a historical epic steeped in spectacular martial arts to the mainstream and Oscar glory with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Less successfully, he tried to merge his soulful aesthetic to the comic book superhero genre with Hulk (2003). Ride with the Devil (1999), his least remembered film, is arguably his riskiest venture to date. He decided to cast his American Civil War epic – hardly a commercially sound genre – with largely unproven or well-known actors. Tobey Maguire had yet to star in the Spider-Man films, Skeet Ulrich was known mostly for his turn as one of the killers in Scream (1996), and Jewel was a very successful folk singer trying her hand at acting. Add to the mix the likes of Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and James Caviezel – actors who had small roles in other, bigger films – and you have a cast that was not exactly ready to set the box office on fire.
It didn’t and received negative press over the portrayal of a Black Confederate guerrilla played by Jeffrey Wright. There were rumblings of problems between Lee and the studio suggesting that what he originally envisioned did not make it to the big screen. With this new version, created exclusively for the Criterion Collection, Lee takes another crack at Ride with the Devil in an attempt to restore the film to his original intentions.
Set during the Kansas-Missouri border wars, an informal outfit of southern sympathizers known as the Bushwhackers engaged in vicious guerrilla warfare with the occupying Union army and their northern equivalent, the Jayhawkers. Caught up in this chaos are two best friends, Jack Bull Chiles (Ulrich) and Jake Roedel (Maguire). Jake’s father wants him to leave the state for a safer place as war is imminent, but he wants to stay and fight with his friends. Jack’s father is killed by marauding Jayhawkers which makes it pretty easy for him to pick a side to fight on. A year later and Jack and Jake have joined the Bushwhackers and are killing Union soldiers and sympathizers. We learn that, for some, like Black John Ambrose (Caviezel), they fight for the cause, while for others, like Pitt Mackeson (Meyers), they enjoy killing. The film follows Jack and Jake, and those around them, over the course of the war showing how it affects them and alters their lives forever.
The cast acquits themselves just fine but I didn’t quite buy Tobey Maguire as a hardened southern guerrilla fighter. He looks and sounds like he’s still rooted in a contemporary setting despite the period garb and dialogue. The real surprise is Skeet Ulrich who has been sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Johnny Depp. Here, he does a good job of immersing himself in his role. He has gone on to show an impressive range on television with a lead role in the short-lived Jericho. The always reliable Jeffrey Wright has perhaps the most fascinating arc over the course of the film as his character goes from a subservient African American fighting for the South to a self-emancipated man in charge of his own destiny.
Ang Lee displays a knack for action in the shoot-outs that occur sporadically throughout the film between the Bushwhackers and the Union army. He infuses a sense of tension and danger through editing as people are killed our wounded without a moment’s hesitation. Like the Civil War epic that came after it, Cold Mountain (2003), Lee’s Ride with the Devil doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the violence or its after-effects, culminating in the Lawrence, Kansas massacre where almost 200 men died at the hands of the Bushwhackers. The film also shows the harsh living conditions that these people endured as they tried to evade the Union army. While Ride with the Devil is not Lee’s best film, it certainly isn’t his Heaven’s Gate (1980) either. Perhaps this new version will acquire its share of admirers where the previous one did not.
There is an audio commentary by director Ang Lee and producer/screenwriter James Schamus. They start things off by talking about the source material and the origins of the film’s title. Schamus explains that at the time they made Ride with the Devil, the studio was in turmoil and the film was given a brief theatrical release, never finding its audience. They point out the footage that was put back in and the reasons why. Both Lee and Schamus praise the young cast and talk briefly about what some of them brought to their respective roles. This is an engaging and informative track.
Also included is a commentary by cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg. Surprisingly, these guys put what we are watching in some kind of historical context. In fact, they talk at length about the historical aspects. Naturally, they also cover some technical aspects of the film but in a way that isn’t dry or boring.
Finally, Jeffrey Wright is interviewed exclusively for this DVD. He talks about working on the film and how he felt that it took a sophisticated look at race relations in America. He talks about his initial impressions of Lee and how he got the role. Naturally, the ever-eloquent Wright speaks at length about his character and journey he takes over the course of the film.