Ride With the Devil
Produced by Ted Hope, Robert F. Colesberry, and James Schamu
Directed by Aug Lee
Screenplay by James Schamus
Released by Universal Pictures and Good Machine

It can be argued that the War Between the States began not at Fort Sumter but along the Missouri-Kansas border in the mid-1850’s. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 meant that the future of slavery in the territories would be decided by the majority of settlers. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois and the other supporters of this act believed that they had crafted a measure of sectional compromise. They expected that Kansas, being contiguous to Missouri, would be settled by Southerners and that Nebraska, being contiguous to Iowa, would be settled by Northerners. However, anti-slavery radicals from New England and the Midwest were determined that no more slave states should enter the union. They immediately began sending settlers and rifles to Kansas in an effort to make it a free state. Sporadic warfare soon broke out between anti-slavery and pro-slavery settlers. When the former prevailed by sheer force of numbers, Kansas was admitted to the union as a free state in 1860. The victorious Jayhawkers soon began raiding into Missouri for the ostensible purpose of freeing slaves. Their real purpose was to liberate horses, livestock, gold and silver, furniture, pianos, and whatever else they could cart back to the home of the free. They also murdered. Missourians, of course, fought back, and they sometimes crossed into Kansas for a visit. Such was the situation during the winter of 1850-1861, on the eve of the secession crisis.

Like the other Southern border states, Missouri did not secede from the union in 1861, but secessionist sentiment existed and was increasing steadily, especially after the firing on Fort Sumter. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the “insurrection” in the South, Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson, indignantly refused. He wired the President: “Your requisition is illegal, unconstitutional, revolutionary, inhuman, diabolical, and can not be complied with.” Lincoln’s response was to depose the legitimate state government by force and to invade and occupy the state with thousands of federal hoops. The governor and the state legislature had to flee the capital of Jefferson Cit)’ to avoid arrest by federalized German militia from St. Louis who were being transported up the Missouri River by gunboats. Gen. Sterling Price, Missouri’s former governor and a Mexican War hero, took command of the State Guard and inflicted two crushing defeats on federal forces in the summer of 1861, but the combination of a federal military buildup and a lack of support from Richmond forced him to withdraw into Arkansas in early 1862. Missouri’s Southern rural population now found themselves behind enemy lines in their own homes. If they wanted to fight—and most did—they had two choices: They could try to get to Arkansas to join Price, whose forces were now part of the regular Confederate army, or they could take to the bush and begin a guerrilla war. Because it afforded them the chance to provide at least some protection to their lands, houses, and family, many chose the latter course. Their exploits became infamous to some, legendary to others.

Missourians are fortunate to have two fine films that tell part of the story of our state during this period. The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of a Missouri farmer turned Confederate guerrilla. The bulk of the film covers the immediate aftermath of the war. Alone among his comrades, Wales refuses to surrender and take a loyalty oath. This decision saves his life, for, as he watches from the hush, his disarmed compatriots are treacherously massacred by federal forces acting under the orders of Kansas’ radical Republican senator, James Lane. Learning of Wales’ escape, Senator Lane sends a detachment of Kansas cavalry known as “Red Legs” to track and kill him. (Their name came from the distinctive red leggings they wore above their boots.) Wales heads southwest for Texas, and the film follows his exploits as he successfully eludes, or out-duels, the pursuing Kansas cavalry as well as an assortment of civilian riffraff, ex-federal troops, comancheros, and bounty hunters.

Another film of note. The Long Riders, follows the exploits of the James-Younger gang of Missouri, ex-Confederate guerrillas who decided to carry on the war after Appomattox by robbing Yankee-owned banks and railroads. Now, thanks to Ang Lee, the talented Taiwan-born director of Sense and Sensibility, we have a third film about the war. This one tells the complex and little-known story of the guerrilla war inside Missouri, as Southerners carried on a desperate fight to free their state from Northern military occupation and to defend their homes from the depredations of Kansas Jayhawkers.

Both as history and as art. Ride With the Devil is an exemplary film. It offers a compelling and believable story, authentic and intelligent dialogue, the serious portrayal of friendship, character development, fine acting, and beautiful cinematography. Many of the film’s strengths, both artistic and historical, stem from Lee’s wise decision to follow closely Daniel Woodrell’s good short novel Woe to Live on (1987). The book tells the saga of a group of young men from Lafayette Comity in western Missouri who join a band of Confederate guerrillas early in the war. Most of them are the sons of wealthy planters or substantial farmers, and many have seen their fathers or older brothers murdered by Jayhawkers. Lee’s film follows these young partisans as they skirmish with federal troops, hi an age of incessant Southern- bashing and demonization, it is remarkable that Lee neither caricatures nor demonizes the Southern fighters but presents them sympathetically. They are well mannered, brave, honorable, and fervently devoted to their land and people. In one remarkable scene, Lee shows the commander of the guerrilla band. John Ambrose (James Caviezel), attempting to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the federal authorities. They ignore his offer and execute their prisoners. Southern honor and chivalry contrasts with Yankee brutality.

Lee made the wise decision to shoot his film on location in western Missouri. The natural scenery adds authenticity and poignancy to the film. To a native Missourian, the landscape with its hardwoods, rolling hills, and tall grasses is instantly recognizable and adds to the illusion of viewing past events instead of watching a cinemagraphic recreation of them. Lee also made use of the numerous 19tli-century farmhouses and plantations found in the area. The musical score by Mychael Danna is splendid: Much of it has a Celtic and bluegrass sound that reminds the viewer that these are a Southern people fighting for independence. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes is simply magnificent. The battle scenes have all the visual poetry of the Long Riders.

Lee’s casting is also excellent. He chose talented actors who not only physically resemble the Southern Anglo-Celts who made up the bulk of Missouri’s rural population, but who can do a Southern accent with the subtlety it deserves. Skeet Ulrich and Australian actor Simon Baker play the sons of wealthy planters. Tobey Maguire plays the son of a German immigrant who has elected to fight with the Southerners among whom he has grown up rather than hide out with his father’s family. When his father tells him that he should move to St. Louis to stay with German relatives for the duration of the war, he replies, “I’m not going to go to St. Louis to live with the Lincoln-loving Germans,” for the Southerners are “his people now.” Most of his comrades accept him as an adopted Southerner, but they still call him “Dutchy.” Jeffrey Wright plays a freed slave named “Holt” who has sided with the people among whom he has grown up, and the pop singer Jewel (who is surprisingly good) plays the widow of a slain guerrilla fighter.

For the climactic action scene of the movie, Lee portrays the famous Missouri guerrilla raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863. In that month, William Quantrill, the most powerful guerrilla commander at that time, gathered nearly 500 men for an attack on the hated capital of Kansas abolitionism and Jayhawking. Quantrill’s guerrilla bands swept into town on the morning of August 21, shot almost 200 men to death, and burnt the place to the ground. Lawrence was virtually wiped off the map. It would have been easy for Lee to demonize the Missourians by failing to place the raid in its proper context, but he does not do so. Not only does he show Kansas Unionists crossing into Missouri to murder planters and burn down their homes, but he films Quantrill’s famous speech before the guerrilla bands on the eve of their march into Kansas. In that speech, Quantrill cited as justification for the raid the death at the hands of federal military authorities of some of the wives and sisters of the Missourians. By imprisoning and killing women, the federals had crossed the line into savagery and were no longer entitled to the protection of the laws of war. Justice required retribution. In the words of one of the men, “We could stand no more.” Even so, Lee shows that some of the raiders, including Roedel and Holt, refused to take part in the killing once they had captured Lawrence. Any true Southerner should thrill at the beautifully filmed scenes of Quantrill’s men, dressed in navy blue jackets for disguise, riding into Kansas, assembling on Mt. Oread above the town, shedding their jackets, forming into battle lines, and then swooping down with rebel yells on the radical Republican stronghold. Lee does depart from history when he has the Missourians engage in a fierce battle with pursuing federal cavalry while still in Kansas. In actuality, the raiders got back to Missouri without any such battle.

It is important to note a few other flaws in this otherwise fine film. First, the story implies that “Dutchy,” or Jake Roedel, is the only one of his comrades who can read. Southerners, you see, don’t believe in education, only in plowing and fighting. This is nonsense. Are we really expected to believe that the sons of wealthy planters were not taught how to read or that they did not value a classical education? Second, Lee smuggles in an antislavery message (in the form of a captured letter to a Northern soldier) that is not found in the book. Third, the “n-word” is used much too frequently. Yes, the word was used back then, but not as much as the film would indicate. Lastly, this film is not suitable for children or even teenagers. There is much graphic violence and two sexually suggestive scenes (but no significant nudity).

A word needs to be said about what Ang Lee thinks is the ultimate meaning of his film, for it jars both with Woodrell’s book and the film itself. In an essay found on the website for the movie, Lee admits that he both identifies and sympathizes with the Southerners. However, he goes on to argue that it was necessary for progress that the North win the war. He starts by noting that many people throughout the world are complaining that their countries are being Americanized. According to Lee, the American Civil War is where “it all started.” What he describes as “the Yankee invasion and victory” was a victory for “the Yankee principle” that “everyone is equal, everyone has the right to fulfill himself.” Moreover, the Northern victory led directly “to the new world that we are living in today: the world of democracy and capitalism.” Lee also misinterprets the novel as being about “the emancipation” of the “two outsiders (the German immigrant and the black slave).” Lee seems to have forgotten that Roedel was not an immigrant but the son of an immigrant, and that Holt was not a slave but a freedman.

Despite this Lincolnesque spin (which sounds to me like an attempt to counter criticism that the film portrays the Northerners as the bad guys), Lee has created a movie well worth seeing. At times, it reveals an understanding of the war that is stunning. In one scene, a local planter confesses to some of the guerrillas over dinner that he fears their side will lose. Why, they ask? The planter explains that, when the Yankees settled Lawrence, the first thing they did was to build a school, not a church, and then they forced the children from everywhere around to attend. The Yankees, he says, want everyone to think and live like they do, but we Southerners don’t care how others live. That is why we will lose.

Ride With the Devil brings to light a largely forgotten but fascinating chapter of Southern history during the War Between the States, and it presents the Southern side of the war with sympathy and fairness. Perhaps this is why, after an early release in mid-December 1999 to 60 theaters nationwide, and despite good reviews. Universal Pictures canceled the main release and sent the movie straight to video. This, plus the fact that this fine movie received not a single Academy Award nomination, leads me to suspect that Hollywood is ignoring a film that does not convey the “right” moral lessons. Ride With the Devil is simply far too complex and realistic to be approved or rewarded by the contemporary entertainment industry.