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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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In observing the film, Gone with the Wind (1939), I found it very interesting in the way that blacks were depicted in the movie at that time. Even knowing that the roles of the actors were the roles of slaves during the Civil War Period, I still found it shocking to see how ignorant and dumb the blacks were portrayed in the movie. They appeared as to not have any real concern for themselves, their own family, or for the freedom from slavery. The only real concern of theirs that was shown in the film was the concern that they had in taking care of their owners and their owners’ well-being. The slaves were all mostly shown happy and as so ever loyal to the Confederacy.

Loyal and Happy Slaves – Gone with the Wind (1939)

One critic at the time, Lincoln Kirkstein from Film Magazine, wrote: “History has rarely been told with even an approximation of truth in Hollywood because the few men in control there have no interest in the real forces behind historical movements and the new forces that every new epoch sets in motion. Gone with the Wind deserves our attention because it is an overinflated example of the usual false movie approach to history.”* Kirksteins’ remarks make it apparent that the love/hate relationship between history andHollywood is anything but new in society. His remarks also solidify any notion one might have about the film being made as not to tell history as it happened, but to entertain and make the most profitable grandeur films in the process.

Even in the south, before filming had begun, controversy surrounding the historical integrity of the film was brought into question during the search for the actress who would play Scarlet. “Several chapters of the Daughters of the Confederacy threatened to boycott the film because an English actress landed the role. Indignation grew so intense that it spilled over onto the floor of the Daughters’ national convention. Peace finally came when the group’s president-general, Mrs. Walter LaMar, assured the ladies that as a world traveler she had met many British women and found them most delightful.”**

Construction of Hollywood Sign

Hollywood and the film industry, it seems, has always tried and most likely will continue to exploit history for the simple fact that there is money to be made. As historians, it is our duty to continue to watch films that are based on historical events and to critique them based on their relevancy to history and to the truth. For it is in this critiquing by historians, that films that are based on history will hold on to true historical integrity and be a truthful memory for future generations.  

* Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2001), 189.

** Chadwick, 188.