MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Ride with the Devil

Generationally, the Civil War is still close to us, but what is most surprising about the Criterion Collection release of Ang Lee’s 1999 Civil War adventure, Ride with the Devil, is how topical it feels. It’s scary, how topical it feels. The heroes of the film are Confederate sympathizers living in Missouri (the film, quite beautifully, was shot on location there). They are not part of the regular army, but they are organized and conduct terror raids against Union sympathizers, just as similarly organized Union sympathizers conduct raids against their farms and friends. Within the group there are people who genuinely believe in the cause, and there are people who don’t completely understand what is going on beyond the need to defend their homes. But there are also people who are just in it for the bloodsport, and inevitably, they are the most vocal, both in spouting their patriotism and in hurling insults at others. In 1999, it was a movie about the past, but now, it doesn’t look that much different from the evening news.

Criterion’s release is an official ‘director’s cut,’ running 149 minutes. The original Universal release ran 139 minutes. The added footage mostly involves background details about the political conflict and the ways of life of the characters, but it greatly enriches the movie’s experience and validates its exposition. Although the film begins as a war movie with a challenging moral viewpoint, its last act is a romance with the war having subsided without spiritual consequence to the three surviving characters.

Thus the film pulls away from being the masterpiece (one of so many from 1999) that it appears to be at first, but it does not pull very far away and it is still a gorgeously staged and highly engaging experience. The cast is loaded with players who have made names for themselves in the decade following its production, including Tobey Maguire, Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who makes the strongest impression, as the film’s villain), Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, James Caviezel, Simon Baker, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson. The battle scenes are thrilling, the romance is charming, the era-inspired dialog is lyrical and the period atmosphere is captivating. Lee himself was not as established in 1999 as he is today, and although some of his films are misfires, Ride with the Devil, originally seen as a curiosity in his budding oeuvre, can now take its place as one of his many diverse but superbly realized metaphorical depictions of human conflict and desire.

The picture on Criterion’s presentation is a significant improvement over Universal’s effort. The image is much sharper, and colors are brighter and better detailed. The presentation is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 enhancement. The cinematography is outstanding, particularly in the movie’s many lowlight situations, and the DVD handles it so well that the Blu-ray (UPC#715515055017, $40) can add very little to the pleasures of the image. In brighter light sequences, there may even be a little too much ‘pop’ in some colors, such as natural greens, on the BD, making the DVD presentation preferable. But mostly it is a wash, so that the BD’s DTS sound is the one significant factor that makes it superior to the DVD and its 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound. The noises during the battles are better detailed, but even during quiet moments, the atmospheric touches have a more penetrating presence. There are optional English subtitles, and a 15-minute interview with Wright is included, in which he talks about his part as the only major black performer in the cast, and what it represented.

There are also two commentary tracks. On one, comments by Lee are intercut with comments by screenwriter James Schamus. They talk about the movie’s historical background-the actual history of the Missouri and Kansas border skirmishes during the Civil War is very different from the organized battles in the East and is often brushed aside as a footnote to the larger conflict-about the story’s structure, and about the challenges of shooting it in period, which didn’t just involve production logistics but extended to the work with the cast. Lee explains how he had to coax Wright through his part. “To make a period movie, I like to get how it was, which is difficult for him, because he is with a lot of modern pride and everything, issues. He knows a lot of things his character didn’t know, and he inevitably tried to make corrections, and that was not truthful in my opinion, so a lot of-not fights, like convincing needs to be done, and persuasion. Not so much as political argument. I just try to get back to what I think it used to be, and that was very hard for him. Truth is always the best policy for me, that’s what I was aiming at, not just this project, but in all the period work I did, I go for what I think happened.”

The second track is equally rewarding, as cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designerDrew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg explain in superb detail the intricacies of their crafts and the challenges the movie presented them. “All those little lanterns and candles and fireplaces, all have a certain quality to them that you weren’t used to, and where an electric light is on when it’s on, and you switch it on and it just happens and it’s constant, none of those lights are constant. They all have a little texture, a little flicker, a little different color. The color changes within the flicker. So when we were building the light sources that made those campfires, it was kind of a big and kind of an experimental deal to build that color and that flicker into the scene, and then to realize it wasn’t just this light on these three people, it was this one and the six people behind them and the twenty-five people behind them that all had their own fires and they should all be flickering as well.”

Additionally, they, too, talk about the movie’s historical basis and what lessons it has to offer. “Kansas was essentially populated with people from Massachusetts. People would be given money, sponsored by the Abolitionists movement, to move to Kansas, so that the anti-slave vote would increase. It was a very organized. The Abolitionist movement was organized. The probably best analogy for the Abolitionist movement in today’s world is the Right-To-Life movement. They were really avid and committed, and, to the point of John Brown, would commit murder in the name of saving lives.”

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

The Ultimate DVD Geek

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon