Ride, Ride, Ride, Let It Ride "Ride With the Devil" director's cut A-DVD Review!



 RIDE WITH THE DEVIL Trailer (1999) - © The Criterion Collection. All rights belong to UNIVERSAL PICTURES NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.

Although director Ang Lee’s original movie, Ride With the Devil, based upon Daniel Woodrell's novel, Woe to Live On, was far from perfect, I enjoyed it nonetheless. But when I first saw it, I had the nagging feeling that somehow something was missing. Apparently so did Ang Lee.

But the film was easy to enjoy because Lee took young, fresh actors and transformed them into characters who looked like the weathered guerrillas who fought the Missouri border war. Under Lee’s direction, these young actors blossomed into some of Hollywood most valuable, sought-after actors: Tobey Maguire later became the face of the Spider-man franchise; Jim Caviezel tackled The Passion of the Christ; Simon Baker assumed roles in The Mentalist and Land of the Dead; and Jeffrey Wright moved on to star in Syriana and Angels in America. In Ride With the Devil, Wright starred as Daniel Holt, a black confederate guerrilla fighting against the Jayhawkers, Redlegs, and Bluebellies.  This image of John Noland was featured in the director’s-cut  of Ride with the Devil, during the interview with Jeffery Wright.                                                                                                                            

The character Daniel Holt was based upon the real-life John Noland, the best known of the freed black men who served under Quantrill. John served Quantrill as a hostler and spy. Once, the Yankees offered Noland $10,000.00 to betray Quantrill and his command, an offer Noland scorned. John was sent to Lawrence as a spy before the guerrillas’ famous raid on that town. During his ride back to Missouri, he was stopped twice and was unable to report back to Quantrill until hours before the raid began. When Nolan was with Quantrill at the battle of Lamar Missouri, he was purported to have shouted more orders than any other member of Quantrill’s band in an effort to trick the Yankee soldiers inside the courthouse into thinking they were surrounded and should surrender. After the conflict was over, his comrades referred to him as a “man among men,” the highest praise.

When Ride With the Devil originally arrived in theaters with a runtime of 138 minutes, it was not the cut director Ang Lee had originally hoped for and envisioned. The newly released director’s cut, in the form of a DVD, runs a little more than 10 minutes longer than the original. Instead of just adding footage, Lee has rearranged a few sequences adroitly, while removing others. Most of the additional editing is employed to enhance character development—such as an additional scene featuring Alf Bowman. In the original release, Alf is seen only once, as a captured Jayhawker who is in danger of being hung in reprisal for the killing of some Confederates who were executed. In the scene, Jake takes pity on Bowman, and he is released to take a message back to the Yankee commanders. Later, we hear that immediately upon his release, Bowman murdered Jake Roedel's father. Now, we view a pre-war wedding where the Pro-Union Bowman swore he would never do anything to harm his pro-Southern neighbors. This demonstrates the hypocrisy displayed by many of the pro-Union supporters and troops in Missouri at that time.                                                             

Lee incorporates a few other minor additions: a small group of guerrillas is shown beating a Union soldier, and Jake and Holt are shown going into the home of a dead neighbor. Director Lee also focuses a few more frames revealing the beauty of the Missouri countryside, which contrasts starkly with the madness and violence of war-time Missouri.

One of the most noticeable subtractions from the film was the removal of a sequence where Dutchie (Jake) writes a letter explaining the guerrillas' tactic of dressing in Union clothing. Dutchie does add that the guerrillas still "wear their guerrilla shirts close to their hearts.” Other sequences have been slightly rearranged, such as the moment where Jake and Jack discuss the "positives" of Jake losing his pinky. Also there's a small amount of added footage involving Jake and Sue Lee, as she is shown breastfeeding her baby late in the film. Finally, there are several elements that have been changed in the Lawrence raid. However, I’ll not disclose the details so that my readers can enjoy the enhanced production features and additional, expanded shots of the best rendition to date of Quantrill’s greatest military victory.

As a stickler for authenticity it took me a long while to realize that Hollywood has no motivation to make a 100% accurate film because a 100% accurate film is not a marketable commodity. Yet the authenticity of this movie’s portrayal of the Civil War in the Midwest is one of the best Hollywood has every produced. Not everything is correct, but the result is highly impressive. From the scenery to the dialog, from the costuming to the weaponry, this film earns the highest honors. It certainly more than passes the “first glance test,” only a true expert could spot the few miscues that are present.  Something you won't see on the DVD is this war dated image of John Noland.                            

To his credit, Lee resists the temptation to incorrectly portray slavery as the predominant issue in the story, something to be analyzed and dissected at length. That is because slavery was not the predominant issue for Missouri’s version of the Minute Men. Quantrill’s guerrillas, mostly young boys, were fighting against overwhelming odds to protect their families and their farms. Ang Lee, in line with these motives, had the courage to show the strong bonds that existed between the former slave Daniel Holt and his white comrades. Thanks to the acting skills of Jeffery Wright, Simon Baker, and Tobey Maguire, these bonds are as natural and believable as they are historically accurate.

Both the audio and video in this DVD have been greatly enhanced and improved in this edition. For those who are interested in further details, they are available on-line. Suffice it to say the differences are clearly visible, so every moment looks and sounds great. Finally, there are added features to this Criterion Collection release, two feature length commentaries are included. In the first, director Ang Lee and writer James Schamus give their insights. The next commentary has Fred Elms, Drew Kunin, and production designer Mark Friedberg, providing a blow-by-blow account of the filming process with recollections and anecdotes galore. However, the unexpected surprise of the disc is the interview with Jeffrey Wright—a candid, insightful, and sometimes humorous interview.

Wright comments as follow: “Most films that I see in this country dealing with race, I mean, come on man, are just not helpful. Especially now as we look back at our history in the Obama era, it‘s more complex. What separates this film from other films that deal with the Civil War and other films that deal with historic racial dynamics [is that] Ang was open to the complexity of it. That war is a seminal event in the character of American history which continues to form who we are today and who we will become.”

Wright’s interview was truly something special. He reveals his experience in shooting “his favorite film,” and he recalls it "vividly." He discusses how this became his first role where he didn't have to audition first, that Lee thought he was right for the part because of something he saw in Wright’s eyes. Jeffrey fondly remembers the actors were placed in an environment where they could fully immerse themselves in their new roles, and that they couldn’t wait to get to work everyday. I was laughing when Wright candidly stated that making the movie was boiler-plate fantasy for him because he was “riding horses every day, shooting up white folks, and getting paid a LITTLE to do it.” I know this writer spent many a day when I was young riding an imaginary horse beside Quantrill and the James brothers. But in today’s politically correct world, it takes some real gumption to admit it on camera. Bravo, Mr. Wright.

Another tribute to the overall dedication to excellence of this project is the fact that the producers tracked down and obtained permission to use the only known image of John Noland, so they could display it while Wright talked about him. So if something looks strangely familiar about that image it should because that image has been displayed on quantrillsguerrillas.com for years. Once again heartfelt thanks should go out to founding member Major Emory Cantey for sharing another image from his unsurpassed Quantrill collection with the world. Below is the image in question.

Impressively, Wright had the integrity to admit he struggled with the underlying theme of the movie, until the director Ang Lee said to him plainly: “These are two men who grew up together as boys, you played together, and you had this relationship, and in spite of there being this obvious hierarchal dynamic, you still LOVE HIM. There were certain negative structures that were undeniable; at the same time there were human relations that belied the racial tensions.”

Wright also admitted that they had to re-shoot one scene on four different days. It was the scene where Jewel’s character questions why Holt was inside the dug-out instead of out plowing in the fields. Holt said he did not want to give in to what was really happening, because “he wanted to impose his modern views on race.” But once again, Ang Lee took charge. He told Wright that he knew the scene “hurt” Wright, and that he should acknowledge his pain and just get through the moment.

Finally, Wright wondered why the “powers that be” couldn’t find a way to market the film when it was originally released. To this writer, the answer is that those powers don’t want this story to be told because it doesn’t fit the carefully crafted fairy tale where the vile and inhuman Confederates were defeated by the saintly boys in blue. The powers that be don’t want people to realize that the slaves and their master did respect and even love each other. Instead, the powers that be want to impose their modern views on race in an effort to continue to stoke the flames of distrust and disharmony that still exist nearly 150 years later.   

So I whole-heartedly recommend that everyone pick up a copy of this director’s-cut, which is a vast improvement over the original release. Whether you are a novice or an expert on the Missouri-Kansas Border War, it is well worth the investment of $35.00. Don’t waste your time watching the original release, see the film the way the director intended it to be seen. Wright, who plays a black Confederate in the film, thinks it is the most positive film about historical American racial relations ever made. I give this version of the film a rating of four and on half pistols out of five pistols.

Patrick R. Marquis ©quantrillsguerrillas.com "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this or copyrighted essay and/or image.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

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