POPULARLY DERIDED as "that Jewel movie," Ride with the Devil actually takes a serious and unusual perspective on the Civil War (adapted from Daniel Woodrell's novel Woe to Live On). Following the German immigrant Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), it's as much about assimilation as innocence lost in wartime, while also relating how, surprisingly, some black men fought for the South out of loyalty to their white owners.
RIDE WITH THE DEVIL
directed by Ang Lee
with Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, and Jewel
opens December 17 at Uptown
Jake decides to join a rebel army unit, the Bushwhackers, along with his best friend Jack (Skeet Ulrich). "These are my people," he drawls to his disapproving father. He's an eager, patriotic first-generation American, foreshadowing the Japanese-American troops who fought in WWII. But Jake is taunted by his fellow soldiers, who demand he prove himself a real Southerner. Indeed, his understanding of the war is hazy, as he compares slavery to the restrictions of marriage. Inevitably, Jake gradually befriends the other outsider of his platoon, the freed black slave Holt (played with fine subtlety by Jeffrey Wright), who enlisted with his former owner (Simon Baker).
Ang Lee develops these two characters with a subtle hand—perhaps too subtle. This sensitive treatment is reminiscent of his 1994 Eat Drink Man Woman, yet despite their vivid wartime surroundings, they seem oddly dispassionate. It makes for an often trying film, one that has us wondering if Jake learns anything at all from his ordeals.
In his production notes, Lee claims that he was attracted to the story because the Yankee invasion of the South is similar to the Americanization of his native Taiwan. "The Civil War . . . led to the new world that we are living in today: the world of democracy and capitalism," he writes unconvincingly. A more plausible explanation is that he's seeking mainstream popularity with a war movie filled with classic crowd-pleasers: gun fights, horse chases, and the pop star Jewel.
But if our national history is what Lee's trying to convey, his best lesson arrives during the final act. Out of their group of Bushwhackers, it's Jake and Holt who survive and ride off into the proverbial sunset—Holt to realize his freedom, and Jake to California with a new wife (Jewel) and baby in a covered wagon. It doesn't get more American than that.