Southern discomfort

Dec 15, 1999 at 12:00 am

When movies first appeared in the United States, the Civil War had only been over for 30 years. Add the fact that this was a war with its own visual history: The new medium of photography was used to document it, and the images shot by innovators such as Mathew Brady provided a common visual vocabulary.

So it's no surprise that the some of the milestones of American cinema are Civil War stories. D.W. Griffith is credited with establishing the modern language of cinema with The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film which remains controversial for its racial assertions. Buster Keaton reached the apex of his comic brilliance with The General (1927), and everything that symbolized the grandeur of old Hollywood is wrapped up in Gone With the Wind (1939).

These are all stories told from the viewpoint of white Southerners, as is Ride With the Devil. Set on the Kansas-Missouri border, this film shows the Civil War as truly a battle between neighbors. Instead of generals staging grand battles and debating strategy, as in Gettysburg (1993), this is guerrilla warfare conducted by Bushwhackers — ideologically allied with the Confederacy — against what they viewed as the occupation force of the Union Army and civilian sympathizers known as Jayhawkers.

Producer and screenwriter James Schamus, who adapted Daniel Woodrell's sparse and hauntingly beautiful novel, Woe To Live On, explains that the perspective of the defeated provides a more complex understanding of events.

"As eccentric a vision of the American Civil War as this may first appear," says Schamus, "that's mainly because the mass media-textbook version is that the Civil War was lots of really good guys in blue battling it out on huge battlefields against a lot of cretinous other guys in gray. But in fact it was a civil war — it was like a Rwanda."

The Bushwhackers cloaked themselves in Robin Hood-like vestments and chivalric airs gleaned from the florid prose of author Sir Walter Scott. Ride With the Devil (the title is a reference to a biography of infamous Bushwhacker leader, William Quantrill) focuses on people who are defending the only way of life they have ever known, including ruthless subjugation and slavery.

"(They valued) propriety, custom, all that stuff that we're not really all that comfortable with," Schamus says, "yet on the other hand, we sympathize emotionally with somebody who's trying to defend their culture. The film takes that position and tries to sort it out from there."

Ride with the Devil focuses on three young people: Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), son of pro-Union German immigrants, who joins the Bushwhackers; Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel) who goes, almost immediately, from newlywed to war widow; and freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), who fights against the North alongside his former owner.

"(Roedel's) father," explains James Schamus, "came over as part of the generation who got caught up in the failed revolution of 1848 in Germany. So they end up in Missouri because of their dedication to radical politics and freedom, and here they are in a slave-holding culture. For Jake to find his own freedom from his father, and side with the Southerners, was a really big deal."

Sue Lee, too, begins to rebel against the dependency imposed on 19th century women. Jewel asserts that "had the South won the war, they may have kept the slaves, but the women were already emancipated. As soon as the men left to fight the war, the patriarchy was destroyed. Women were suddenly running the house and saying, 'Why am I wearing a corset? I can't run the plow.'"

Holt's case is the most complex, his sense of loyalty the most conflicted and binding.

"It seems to me," explains Jeffrey Wright, "that the difference between white Northerners and white Southerners at the time is that white Northerners didn't know black folks, and white Southerners did. So it really colors, if you will, their relations in a much deeper way. There are things that informed the (owner-slave) relationship on a much deeper, humanistic level."

Wright was aware that, historically, there were freed slaves fighting for the Confederacy, and he took the role of Holt in large part because it dealt intelligently with this seeming contradiction.

"People that have to delve into their souls are the most complex," he says, "and Holt has created an instinct for survival within him that he taps into and uses. That's why it's important to revisit stories about this period, particularly for black folks, because it's a reminder of a great struggle and a great victory: to have survived."

For these people, each an outsider, the Civil War marked the beginning of a complicated process of defining themselves outside of the prescribed social and political constructs.

"I think war liberated each of those boys," says Jewel, "and forced them to ask who they were. It was an emancipation of all of them."

Yet Ride With the Devil isn't about official decrees, but self-emancipation. After acknowledging that his owner may have freed him legally, Holt quietly asserts, "My freedom wasn't his to give."