Ride with the Devil

Ang Lee's American civil war epic could do with less of the pretty-boy leads and more of the ugly truth, argues Peter Bradshaw

In the great galloping exhilaration of Ang Lee's American civil war epic, Ride with the Devil, some much-cherished cliches are thrown away. Can it be possible that these fellows will prosecute the confederate interest without whistlin' or pickin' Dixie, without hollering some emphatic praise of General Robert E Lee prior to boisterously breaking a jar of moonshine over the head of an affectionate field-hand?

Not here they won't. Ang Lee's tale is not located on the verandahs of Margaret Mitchell's simpering belles, nor among the regular armies. His heroes may bear the red badge of courage in the confederate cause, but it is as guerrillas who hide out in the woods, harassing the union forces along the Missouri/Kansas border, without benefit of uniform or the tiresome niceties of conventional military discipline.

They are "bushwhackers", far from the licensed fields of battle. Chief among these young guns going for it are Jack Bull Chiles, the son of a plantation owner, played by Skeet Ulrich, and Jake Roedel, son of a German immigrant, played by the sweet-faced, sophomoric Tobey Maguire.

These actors have had the post-modern, old-west "Johnny Depp" makeover: they're pretty boys who achieve a kind of rugged-lite effect with long hair and a beard - facial modifications which, happily, do not mask their essential pulchritude, indeed give it a kind of quaint and exotic aspect. One of the boys' comrade-in-arms, the treacherous Pitt Mackeson, is played by the almost outrageously gorgeous Jonathan Rhys Meyers. There is a stunning difference between these Boyzone exquisites and the other, ugly, sons of the south: horribly grizzled, toothless types from Central Casting, who must make up the genetic shortfall in authenticity.

Lee stages some bang-up action set-pieces, largely in the first half of this longish film: shoot-outs, ambushes, and a breathtakingly epic scene culminating in a brutal massacre of civilians in Lawrence, Kansas. Between the action scenes, our boys are shivering in the woods and, occasionally, enjoying the hospitality of sympathetic farmers, and it is here that Tobey Maguire is finally forced to marry the widow Sue Lee (played by country singer Jewel) and confess on his wedding night that he is a virgin. How sweet, adorable and universally human these sons of Dixie are, to be sure.

But Ang Lee's inescapable problem is the unlovely historical realities. How to sympathise with these boys, who are fighting for nothing more nor less than their right to enslave blacks and keep the niggers in their place? Can it be possible that this issue, surely the most clear-cut in modern history, can be made to seem "complicated" close up?

The factor this film throws in is the case of black men who fought on the confederate side in the war, of which there were, evidently, a few. Although marginal historically, this factor is magnified hugely here to create a balancing effect: a key player in Jake's motley crew is an ex-slave, Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who is fighting on their side purely on account of the ties of friendship and loyalty to his ex-master, George Clyde. The function of the stoic, tobacco-spittin' Holt is to provide a continuous mute endorsement of the heroes' essential decency.

Moreover, as Jake is someone whose father is demonised as a German and an outsider, we are invited to consider his experience of xenophobia as virtually equivalent to Holt's. The actual question of slavery is thus stealthily dissolved, hardly mentioned at all, except at the very beginning, when the jauntily naive bachelor Jake stoutly jokes that it is a southern institution, just as marriage is an institution, one of servitude, and one he wishes to avoid, by golly!

This picture is occasionally interesting about the siege mentality of wild-haired bushwhackers - the Serbs or the Orangemen of the old west - resentful at the liberals of the north, thirsty for blood, and permeated with a melancholy sense of their impending defeat. But, in the foreground, the pertly handsome leads are always represented as straightforward romantic heroes, miraculously innocent of all but the most necessary violence. Ang Lee displays éclat and sweep in his portrayal of the dishevelled southern forces, and their long rearguard action against the forces of history but, by finding such squeaky-clean heroes to represent them, he is having his cake and eating it. The result is an unsatisfying, flavourless movie.