Ang Lee’s 1999 film, “Ride with the Devil,” portrays the bitter Kansas-Missouri border war during the Civil War. The film focuses on Jake Roedel, a southern-sympathizing militiaman, who joins a Missouri gang of guerilla warfare using marauders. The film depicts the hatred between the pro-slavery, Bushwhackers, and anti-slavery, Jayhawkers, sides, the war’s dramatic escalation, and the onslaught between the warring states. As the tension and hostility between the two reach an apex, the Bushwhackers strategy for retaliation against the hostile Jayhawkers is to raid Lawrence, Kansas, an anti-slavery headquarters. The gang, led by William Quantrill, rides into Lawrence, killing many of the male citizens and burning much of the city down. After the raid, the gang flees the annihilated city, attempting to escape the Union Army’s counterattack. As the film progresses, Roedel is intentionally shot by a fellow gang member, who holds a grudge towards him due to the disapproval of his German heritage. After Roedel’s recovery, he leaves the gang, is forced into marriage, and by the Civil War’s end, moves with his new wife to California.
This film relates to the themes of our class because it portrays the tension between the pro and anti slavery movements and the hostile escalation their causes ignited. Constant armed clashes between Kansas Jayhawkers, and pro-slavery Bushwhackers were common. The conflict intensified in 1861 when the Civil War began and Kansas was admitted into the Union as a free state. The Lawrence massacre further split the nation from unification. Quantrill and his gang of marauder’s premeditated invasion into Lawrence elevated the futile tension between Kansas and Missouri. Their brutal assault against the city ignited the anti slavery’s deeper hatred towards the pro-slavery movement, advocating heightened military action against Missourians. Lawrence was subjected to Quantrill and his gang’s ruthless guerrilla tactics, which led to the execution of 200 men and the city’s demise. The attack was deliberate, brutal, and filled with hate. After the onslaught, Lawrence became a symbol for each side, representing the cultural differences that initially separated the country, which led to the outbreak of the Civil War. The north viewed the destruction of the city as an act of terrorism. While the south saw the attack as a necessary act of war. Violence became the primary method to end disputes between the border states. The Border War in itself became a scaled-down Civil War due to the conflict stemming from the initial reason the Civil War began: Slavery. The deep tensions laid among Kansas and Missouri acted as a microcosm of the whole nation: North vs. South. It is interesting to view the film’s portrayal of the hatred between the states and the nation as a whole. Although the depiction of Roedel puts a more sympathetic face to the pro slavery movement, it does little to illustrate other Bushwhackers in the same regard. “Ride with the Devil” portrays the feud between Kansas and Missouri as a precautionary tale, advocating that the ideas of two rival movements, such as slavery, can lead to the death of many and destruction of cities.
Ride with the devil. DVD. Directed by Ang Lee. Universal City, CA: Universal, 2000.