“Ride with the Devil” is a war movie about the Civil War in Missouri. It is a film by Ang Lee based on a novel by Daniel Woodrill entitled Woe to Live On. It brings light to a theater of the war that seldom gets coverage. The war in Missouri was like the evil twin of the Civil War.
The main characters are Southern sympathizers who join the Bushwhackers. The Bushwhackers are guerrillas who call themselves the Missouri Irregulars. As with most irregulars throughout history, they are ill-disciplined and take on mostly soft targets, meaning civilians. Their Northern equivalents are called Jayhawkers. Both sides commit atrocities which breed retaliatory atrocities.
The main character is Jake Roedel (Tobey McGuire) who is of German ancestry. This makes him suspicious with the Rebel crowd and yet he joins the Bushwhackers and puts up with the animosity. To make matters worse, Jake inconveniently has a conscience! His best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) joins up too. They bond with a dandy named George Clyde (Simon Baker) who is accompanied by his freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright).
The band takes part in some typical bushwhacking activities that involve graphic violence. Lee stages violence well. A scene where they are ambushed in a farm house and are chased through the woods is intense. The movie also has its introspective moments. The four men spend the winter hiding out in a shack. They meet a feisty widow Sue Lee (Jewel) and all want her, but she chooses Jack Bull. Jake and Holt become friends. When Sue Lee’s father-in-law gets murdered, the quartet goes after the killers and Jack Bull is mortally wounded in a wild fire fight. When springtime arrives, it’s bushwhacking season so the remaining men return to their unit. The camp scene is realistic with the men singing, playing cards, and drinking.
When the infamous William Quantrill arrives and urges them to join in a retaliatory raid on the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas, they are intrigued with the idea of getting revenge on the anti-slavery folks. They come charging in and start sacking the city. There is looting and burning, but Jack and Holt refuse to participate and even save a man. This earns further enmity from a psycho named Pitt (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
They withdraw chased by a regular Union cavalry unit. They launch a counter-charge and feigned retreat which is followed with dismounted rifle fire. (“Horse holders to the rear!”) Pretty good for an undisciplined group of Bushwhackers. During the fight, Pitt shoots Jake. Did I mention he was a villain? Jake and Holt are reunited with Jewel who has a baby girl (from Jack Bull). Oh no, a bastard baby! That child needs a daddy. Those who think it will be the black guy, think again. Do the newlyweds live happily ever after? Does Jake get revenge against Pitt? Does Holt return to the rabidly pro-slavery Bushwhackers? Only one of these has a “yes” answer.
“Ride with the Devil” is one of the better Civil War movies. It is well-balanced with action, romance, and character development. The action is dynamic and intense. The romance is not syrupy, but rings true. The cinematography is sumptuous. Lee likes to juxtapose the vibrant greens of the forests with bright red shirts. (They did not believe in camouflage in the Civil War.) The acting is good, with the exception of Jewel in her acting debut. She is a bit shaky, but what do you expect? McGuire is likeable, Rhys Meyers is hissable. Jeffrey Wright takes the honors with his portrayal of Holt. Holt is an intriguing character. He is actually based on a black named John Noland who served as a scout for Quantrill. You could argue that just because there happened to be a black Bushwhacker that does not excuse including an offensive character in your movie. Holt is portrayed as a strong and admirable man, but you should not overlook he is fighting on the wrong side. In fact, the two main characters (Jake and Holt) are far from being typical Bushwhackers.
The movie is admirably accurate. The clothing is authentic. Many did carry 3 to 4 Colt revolvers. The noncombat actions of the irregulars are realistic. Many did spend winters holed up in shacks. The raid on Lawrence is a good tutorial on this little-known atrocity. It was launched after a jail containing pro-slavery families collapsed killing many. There were members of Quantrill’s unit who refused to participate. However, I found no evidence that there was a battle against pursuing Union cavalry. The themes of the hopelessness of the Lost Cause and how it is hard to have a conscience when few do are well-explored. If you want to see the seamier side of the Civil War, watch this movie. Does it crack the 100 Best war Movies? Possibly. It is better than many so far.