Thursday, July 31, 2014

BOOK/MOVIE: Ride With the Devil (1987/1999)


                “Ride With the Devil” is an Ang Lee film based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell.  It is set in Civil War Missouri.  The main characters are pro-South.  Best friends Jake (Tobey McGuire) and Jack Bull (Skeet Urich) hook up with aristocratic George (Simon Baker) and his slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright).  They are part of a guerrilla force called the Bushwhackers.  The Bushwhackers are at war with Union sympathizers called Jayhawkers and the fighting is vicious with civilians caught in the middle.  The quintet make the acquaintance of a feisty widow named Sue Lee (Jewel).  The movie includes the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas led by William Quantrill.  I had earlier reviewed the movie here.

                The movie covers all of the major scenes in the book and uses a lot of the dialogue verbatim.   The screenwriter James Schamus wisely opens with a scene not included in the novel.  At a wedding, Jack Bull’s father alludes to the recent election of Lincoln and the villainy of the anti-slavery Jayhawkers.  That night Jayhawkers burn Jake Bull’s house and kill his father.  This establishes a reason why the two friends join the Bushwhackers.  In the novel, they are already well into their guerrilla warfare days at the beginning.  The screenplay leaves out the books opening where Jake shoots a teenage boy in the back when he intervenes in the hanging of his German-American (called Dutchmen) father.  It is apparent this shocking act is an attempt by Jake to overcome the fact that he himself is a Dutchman.  The movie substitutes a scene where Jake and his comrades ambush some federal troops.  Jake attempts, but fails to stop the slaying of a civilian.  Although both the book and the movie have the theme that war corrupts and guerrilla war causes participants to lose their humanity, the movie is slightly kinder to Jake.  In fact, other than the murder of the boy, Jake actually comes off as not a poster boy for the Bushwhackers.  Ironically, in both the book and the movie, Jake becomes more humane as time wears on.  In both, the main themes as applied to the main character are diluted.  This is more understandable in the movie considering it is meant to be entertaining and let’s face it – you are not going to cast Tobey McGuire as a cold-blooded killer.

three actors and Jewel
                The novel is more realistic in conveying the nastiness of the war in Missouri.  When word gets back to the camp that the two Bushwhackers held captive have been executed in spite of Black John’s prisoner swap offer, the three prisoners are tortured to death (the movie drops the aftermath).  Jake is forced to read a letter from one of the victim’s wife to ribald comments from his killers.  In the movie, Jake reads an unrelated letter from a mother that has the reverse effect on the listeners.  (This reading occurs later in the book.)

after the war they formed a hair metal band
                If you are familiar with the movie, it covers very closely the ambush and escape from the farmhouse, the winter in the dugout, the wounding of Jack Bull, the raid on Lawrence, and the “courtship” of Jack and Sue Lee.  All of the major characters from the book appear in the movie and the characterizations are the same.  The movie begins to differ substantially from the book after the raid on Lawrence.  The movie adds a rousing battle with vengeful federal cavalry which is crowd-pleasing and a case where Hollywood has improved on the book.  The movie chooses to give George a fighting death, unlike the book which perhaps more realistically has his demise attributable to the unconventional war he had decided to participate in.  Similarly, Jack’s wound is a bushwhacking by a Bushwhacker when he is taking a crap outside the camp.  (For obvious reasons, you can’t have Tobey McGuire shot under such embarrassing circumstances.)  The movie is less realistic, but more satisfying in its ultimate confrontation between Jake and Pitt.  In the book, it is Arch (with Turner of the shattered mouth witnessing) who engages Jake in conversation and in the midst shots are exchanged between Jake and Pitt. Most importantly, the movie retains the Holt character.  As fascinating as the character is, you have to wonder what a modern movie is doing with a pro-slavery black in it.  (I know he is not clearly in favor of slavery, but he remains loyal to his master and fights with forces that are at war to retain the institution). 

it's an Ang Lee movie, but the fact is the
Civil War was not noted for camouflage
                Which is superior?  That is a tough call.  I found the movie more entertaining.  The acting was excellent with the unsurprising exception of Jewel.  She does not quite get the slight whiff of skank that the Sue Lee of the book has.  Special mention to Jonathan Rhys Meyers who is perfect as Pitt.  Ang Lee’s cinematography was better than what my mind can imagine while reading the book.  The changes the screenplay made are justifiable from a marketing perspective and frankly are more satisfying than the book versions.  The advantage of the book is Wharton is a very good writer.  He gets the dialect of the time period right and he has many memorable lines in the book.  The book does a better job depicting the atrocity for atrocity aspect of the war in Missouri.  Wharton makes the point that honor called the Bushwhackers to war, but honor had a decreasing effect on their actions as the war wore on.  The book, unlike the movie, shows how the “cause” devolved into looting and murder for many participants.  The disappointing thing about the book is that it pulls its punches.  By leading off with the unjustified murder of the teenager by Jake, you expect Jake to be increasingly corrupted by the war.  Instead, that is the last horrible thing Jake does.  In fact, he is a virtual saint compared to most of his comrades.  His character heads in the opposite arc from everyone else in his unit!  I guess I talked myself into the movie being better.  Plus this confirms my belief that most movies are better than the novel they are based on.

BOOK  =  B-


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