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RIDE WITH THE DEVIL

by: James Berardinelli

Most Civil War films - and there have been quite a few over the years - have a tendency to skew their perspective towards the Northern viewpoint. It's not hard to understand why - the old South may have been North America's final refuge for a genteel people with courtly manners, but it was also the Western world's last major bastion of slavery. Films like Gone With the Wind can romanticize the old South by virtually ignoring this ugly, festering sore, but turning a blind eye doesn't negate the truth. In the '90s, only the balanced and historically accurate Gettysburg (arguably the best non-documentary Civil War movie ever made) has treated the South with some sympathy and dignity - until Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil.

Lee is an interesting filmmaker. Born in Taiwan, he came to the United States for college and has remained here since. His first three movies - Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman - all dealt with Chinese culture and family. Then, with the critically lauded Sense and Sensibility, he made his mark as a director who could transcend his roots. Following the Jane Austen adaptation came The Ice Storm, a brilliant dissection of decay and dysfunction in the family unit during the turbulent '70s. Few would have guessed that such an on-target depiction of America would come from someone who was born an outsider. Now, for his sixth film, Lee has chosen to focus on The Civil War - the quintessential turning point in this nation's history. And, as with The Ice Storm, he shows an astonishing ability to cut to the heart of matters. This is not a political diatribe against slavery, but a carefully constructed exploration of the effects of a war that divided families and communities, and had men fighting out of loyalty even when they didn't believe in the cause.

The four main characters - Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny), and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) - are members of the "Missouri Irregulars," a poorly organized, rag-tag group that wages guerrilla warfare against Union loyalists. Like their jayhawker enemies, these bushwhackers often attack without warning or mercy, killing men and burning whole villages with seeming impunity. Roedel and Chiles fight out of loyalty to the Confederacy and because they hate the Yankees (both have lost loved ones to Federalists). Clyde, the prototypical Southern gentleman, is at war to preserve his way of life. And, Holt, the most interesting man in the group, is an ex-slave who fights for the South out of a sense of allegiance to Clyde, who purchased then freed him. Holt does not believe in Clyde's cause, but he will fight alongside his friend for as long as they both continue to breathe.

The story develops over the course of a winter, while the four men hide out in a crudely built shelter on the property of a pro-Confederacy family, the Evanses. A young widow in the household, Sue Lee Shelly (Jewel), becomes involved with Chiles, and Clyde spends much of his time visiting a local lady friend. This gives Roedel and Holt an opportunity to get to know one another, and sets up the inevitable tragedy when combat occurs and not all of the participants escape with their lives. After the Irregulars stage a bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas (a Union stronghold), they are hunted down by Northern troops and cut to pieces. Injured survivors seek shelter with friendly families and are forced to re-evaluate their participation in the war.

As the film progresses, Lee increasingly stresses the pointlessness of the Irregulars' struggle. The only thing they are accomplishing is killing people. Nothing they do has any impact on the war. This truth occurs to everyone, beginning with Sue Lee and ending with Roedel, as disillusionment convinces each of them of the folly of continuing the fight. Ride With the Devil also ill

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