The Lost Cause in Another Film

To continue with a similar idea to my post last week, and incorporate some things from this week, I looked into a film that I know is influential to some people I knew in the Kansas City area.  Ride With the Devil was directed by Ang Lee and based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell.[1]  The movie and novel take place along the Missouri-Kansas border in the Civil War period.  The main character, Jake Roedel (played by Toby Maguire), joins a band of bushwhackers with his friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), when Chiles’ father is killed by a group of pro-Union guerrillas.[2]  The film is pertinent because it unabashedly forwards a Lost Cause mythology, and it is interesting because the mythology has some very distinctly Missourian facets.

Several elements of the Lost Cause are present in Ride With the Devil.  First, similarly to how the South claimed to be up against insurmountable odds in terms of manpower and industry, Roedel, Chiles, and their guerrilla comrades have to face not only rival partisans, but at times whole armies of Union troops.  And they do so with out even real military backup.  Secondly, the Jayhawkers (pro-Union Kansan guerrillas) and Union troops are portrayed as invaders and destroyers of Missourians’ way of life from the beginning of the film.  In contrast, the bushwhackers are represented as the sons of poor farmers who take to the woods to defend their homes and property.  Thirdly, the issue of slavery is barely dealt with, except when showing the pro-Southern bushwhackers having freed a slave.  This former slave, Daniel Holt, is shown being so grateful to his liberator that he, too, takes up arms against the Union.[3]

One significant divergence from Lost Cause orthodoxy is the brutality of the protagonists.  Throughout the film, they are seen acting without mercy, and generally un-gentlemanly.  The culmination of this behavior is when they sack the town of Lawrence, Kansas, with guerrilla chief William Quantrill.[4]

When I saw the movie, I thought it was so-so.  When I looked back at it with some more understanding of the Lost Cause, I can see how it perpetuates the ideology in a unique way in the Missouri-Kansas border region.

[1] Daniel McCarthy, “Ride With the Devil,” LewRockwell.com, March 27, 2001, accessed 6/28/2012 at http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig/dmccarthy8.html.

[2] McCarthy.

[3] Ride With the Devil, directed by Ang Lee (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1999), HD Stream from Netflix.

[4] Ride With the Devil.

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5 comments
  1. jmmblog said:

    This sounds like an interesting movie. I hadn’t heard of it before your post. It sounds like the producers somewhat attempted to downplay the gentlemanly characteristics of the Confederacy in this movie. Do you think this was done to downplay the Lost Cause ideology that most Confederates possessed gentlemanly characteristics? Or do you think this was done just to portray the Confederates of the Kansas/Missouri region as being different compared to Confederates further south?

  2. bktitus17 said:

    It sounds like an interesting movie. I like how you summed up the Lost Cause in three main points, that of the South being up against insurmountable odds, the North being the destroyers of life and land, and the idea of slaves being loyal to their masters. Do you think these are the key points in the Lost Cause ideology? I ask because I am having trouble myself summing up the Lost Cause and the main parts of it for the final paper next week. I feel like there is so much involved with the Lost Cause that it is hard to pinpoint the specific parts that are deemed to be the most important.

    I would argue now, especially after the past three weeks in class, that heritage plays an important role in the whole Lost Cause ideology, even in this movie. It would seem that Bull Chiles and his friend join the war to vindicate his father and fight for his father to have a heroic legacy. You might know more about this than I do though as you have seen the movie and can maybe tell the true motives of the characters.

  3. magaliq said:

    I remember watching this movie and thinking it was rather brutal. Now I understand that the brutalitiy played a role in the Lost Cause ideology. I agree with bktitus17 when she says that heritage has lots to do with the Lost Cause. Even in this movie, it is evident that the Missouri families that have been settled for along time are the ones being persecuted by the Jayhawkers, or the pro-union, antislavery types.
    On a side note, my husband and I were driving through Kansas last year, one of many trips I have made through the state. This time, it was the first time I had noticed so many signs about Bleeding Kansas! Maybe I am learning something…

  4. jadams08 said:

    Wow, this is riveting you did this post. When I was doing research about black confederates this movie was mentioned in quite a few places mentioning that it had black confederate soldiers in the movie. Now, taking what you wrote about the movie, it is more about the Lost Cause than about African Americans. I find that very interesting because you can never really know what information a book, article, magazine, or movie really is about until you view it for yourself. I have not seen the movie yet, but am really interested in viewing it in the near future.
    Having read some information about the movie though, it portrays the Lost Cause and makes it still difficult to understand the complexities of the South and its Lost Cause. Just when you think you are beginning to understand what the Lost Cause really entailed, another loop is thrown into it and makes it even more complex.

  5. Kristen Epps said:

    I’m sort of embarrassed to admit this, but I still haven’t seen this, even though I own it. I think I’ve been nervous about how awful it is, and I don’t want to throw things at my TV in disgust! I will point out one interesting point, though. One of the earliest families to settle the KC area was the Chiles family. I think they were predominantly in Jackson County, but I’ll have to check.

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