Who will save your.. uh…, soul?
I wanted to write “penis,” but, really, it’s just such a silly word. Nonetheless, I open with this chorus of Jewel’s most recognizable hit (has she had any others?) in order to bring her involvement in Ride with the Devil to the forefront, and slightly alter the lyrics to suggest that, whatever else it might be, Ang Lee’s new film is largely a tale of castration anxiety.
Ride with the Devil is essentially two films in one. The first is a story of loyalty to family, community, and nation tested in the social and political upheavals of civil war. The second is a story of male bonding and love in a homosocial order, the negotiation of male-male desire, and male domestication, all triangulated and enabled through the body of a woman.
Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), best friends and neighbors on the Kansas-Missouri border, witness the murder of Chiles’s father by Union soldiers (“jayhawkers”), then join the rebel militia (“bushwackers”) in order to protect the traditions and territories of Southern culture. Along the way, of course, they come to realize the horrors of war, the dehumanizing forces of slavery and racism, and that, despite cultural differences between the North and South, we are all human beings.
This soft, sentimental humanitarianism is furthered during the boys’ journey as they fall in love and make friends with a former slave. After spending a summer and fall committing guerrilla warfare against the “jayhawkers,” Jacob and Jack Bull along with George Clyde (Simon Baker-Denny), one of the rebel leaders, and manumitted slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) spend the winter in a hillside hideaway on the land of Southern sympathizer (Zach Grenier). Here the boys meet Sue Lee Shelly (Jewel), with whom Jack Bull falls in love, and Jacob befriends Holt. Shortly after bedding Sue Lee for the first time, Jack Bull is shot in the arm. Times being what they were, and this being a Civil War pic, inevitably gangrene sets in Jack Bull’s arm, and we are forced to witness another obligatory amputation scene.
Several things disappoint in Ride with the Devil. For the first half hour or so, the film’s presentation of the Civil War from the side of Southern loyalists suggests that it will not merely and entirely castigate the South and its many investments in slavery. Indeed, this is the premise of Jacob’s involvement with the “bushwackers.” The son of a German immigrant, Roedel’s friendship with Jack Bull Chiles, his desire to “fit in” motivates his decision to join the rebels. This is a false premise, however, as the film soon turns into a direct indictment of the inhumanity of antebellum Southern culture, and shows the “bushwackers” to be young and misguided, if not psychopathic.
The primary vehicle for this indictment is the “bushwackers’” treatment of their African American slaves, and in particular Holt. This is also the second thing which is disappointing about Ride, its version of “friendship” between George and Holt. Companions since childhood, George has recently bought Daniel’s freedom. The problem, of course, is that the friendship George extends looks little different from slavery, and Holt appears merely to have moved up from field hand to become, in the parlance of the time, a “house nigger.” As Daniel confesses to Jacob later in the film, “It was just as hard being George Clyde’s friend as it ever was being his slave.” In one of the film’s many inconsistencies, Holt’s comment contradicts what has previously been established that Holt was NOT Clyde’s slave.
The friendship offered in contrast to this exploitative one is between Jacob and Daniel Holt. From the beginning, Ride emphasizes Jacob’s foreign-ness to Southern culture (his family being immigrants as well as staunch Unionists). Even within the ranks of the “bushwackers,” Jacob’s loyalty is always suspect, and he is saddled with the derisive nickname “Dutchy,” a bastardization of “deutschlander.” It is no surprise, then, that the two “outsiders,” Holt and Roedel, become friends. But this is one of the film’s blind spots, imagining that the experience of a former slave in the Civil War era South might be compared to that of an educated, middle-class, white German in Missouri.
The film’s other major blind spot is that the “true” friendship it offers between Roedel and Holt replicates the exploitative “friendship” between Holt and George Clyde. Roedel and Holt never share equality and mutual respect, but behave more like Huckleberry Finn and the escaped slave Jim: the “innocent” white boy is protected and provided for by the resourceful adult black man, when all the while, power and social privilege lie strictly within the reach of the white boy. The film even goes so far as to show Roedel and Holt “lighting out for the territory” at the end (though Holt does finally leave Roedel, after making sure he and his wife and daughter are out of danger how selfless!).
So, what then, of the film’s second story, the one of male desire and domestication? Various scenes demonstrate the intimacy of the central male friendships, between Roedel and Jack Bull, and between Roedel and Daniel Holt. Often, we see the men bedding down in camp together, sharing private feelings, fears, and desires before drifting off to sleep. What the film shows us, but can never allude to or acknowledge that it knows, are the erotics of these homosocial associations, developed in environments devoid of women.
The intimacy in these friendships in the film goes far beyond good ol’ boy male bonding. And yet, to ward off (presumed audience) anxieties concerning these intimacies, the film introduces a single woman (single both in the sense of unattached, and of one and only one). Through Sue Lee’s body, the men’s desire for each other can, in a roundabout way, be expressed. And so, her advent initiates difficulties in Jack Bull and Jacob’s friendship. Jacob is annoyed with Jack Bull’s wooing of Sue Lee, and jealous of Sue Lee’s access to Jack Bull’s attentions.
As Jack Bull moves closer to Sue Lee, Jacob moves closer to Daniel Holt, and eventually, these two rejoin the “bushwackers.” Their experiences with the rebels this time around are, however, quite different than before. The relationship between Roedel and Holt is neither understandable nor acceptable, and the men must work harder and harder to keep up their friendship. Furthermore, they are becoming disillusioned with the “bushwackers” and the cause of Southern loyalty. Through the rebels’ abuses of Holt, Roedel recognizes the racism of Southern culture (and it is, of course, Roedel’s awakening which concerns the film), and through their attack on the civilians of Lawrence, Kansas, he recognizes the horrors and inhumanity of war.
After the attack on Lawrence, Roedel and Holt return to a farm where they had earlier left Sue Lee. It is here that Roedel’s domestication becomes complete. Sue Lee has an infant daughter, whose cries he quiets by letting her suck on his “nubbin,” a finger blown off during a battle earlier in the film. Sue Lee has not revealed the father’s name to anyone, so everyone presumes it is Roedel (we know it’s Jack Bull). Their marriage is inevitable, but Jacob is clearly uninterested, preferring even on his wedding night to sleep downstairs with Holt rather than go to the nuptial bed.
He does eventually take his husbandly place in bed with Sue Lee, and after a taste of her delights, he’s ready to give up his wild boy ways and settle down as a good family man. As a final act of emasculation, we witness Roedel getting his hair cut before taking his new family out West and away from the war. A nursing father, a mutilated digit, a Samson and Delilah scene: could the film be any more obvious?! Castrated repeatedly, Jacob must give up his relationships with other men and take up his “rightful” and “normal” position as husband and father.
For all its problems, there are some really enjoyable elements in Ride with the Devil. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as the psychopathic rebel Pitt Mackeson turns in a remarkable performance, his boyish good looks contrasting nicely with the character’s finely calibrated depravity and malevolence. In addition to Rhys-Meyers, the cast generally turns in competent, if not particularly nuanced, performances (with the exception of Maguire, who is, as always, excellent). And Jewel is not terrible.
Ang Lee is renowned for making visually stunning pictures, and this one is no exception. Although nowhere near achieving the haunting emptiness of The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil is, nevertheless, a pleasure to look at. Ultimately, what is most disappointing about Ride is that it is pedantic, and what at first appears to be a challenge to Civil War films’ conventions, ends up turning out the same old cliches.