“It Ain’t Right and It Ain’t Wrong. It Just Is”

Civil War Culture, Civil War Memory Class, Slavery

Another trimester of my Civil War Memory class has come to an end.  This is my second go around with this particular elective and overall I am pleased with the results.  This trimester I decided to focus the course on Civil War films.  We viewed five full-length movies and numerous small videos that span the spectrum from NPS and American Experience documentaries to YouTube videos.  I am confident that my students both enjoyed and profited from the course.

Yesterday we finished viewing the movie, Ride With the Devil, which attempts to capture the chaos of the “Border Wars” in Missouri and Kansas.  The movie follows a small band of “Bushwhackers”, including Tobey Maguire (Jake Rodell or “Dutchy”), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), and Simon Baker (George Clyde), along with Jewel (Sue Lee) who plays a young widower.  The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the confusion of the guerilla war along with the intersection of ethnicity and shifting loyalties.  One of the highlights of the movie is an excellent recreation of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas.

My favorite character has got to be Daniel Holt, who is a former slave but remains loyal to his former master’s son, George Clyde.  Holt’s character goes through the most dramatic transformation throughout the movie, but it is a subtle transformation.  You hear very little from Holt at the beginning of the movie.  His character sticks close to George and is routinely referred to as “George Clyde’s Nigger.”  As the movie progresses Holt emerges from the shadows as a result of George’s leave from the group and his evolving relationship with Rodell.  At one point Holt shares his full name with Rodell as well as his own personal story, including his mother’s sale to Texas.  One of the most important scenes for this character comes during the Lawrence Raid where Holt confronts a large pile of free blacks who were murdered by the very men he was fighting with.  On the trip back to Missouri from Kansas and the loss of George Clyde in battle Holt experiences his first real taste of freedom.  A bit later, Holt shares with Rodell that he will never be known as “someone else’s Nigger.”

The changes in Holt’s character take place slowly, but gradually and sets up the viewer for the final scene in the movie.  The final sequence follows Rodell, Jewel, and Holt west to start new lives.  Rodell confronts Pitt Mathieson one final time in what many anticipate will be a shootout.  After allowing Mathieson to take his leave on a suicide run into town Rodell sums up his war experience: “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong.  It just is.”  In the final scene Holt take his leave from Rodell for one final time.  After tipping his hat to a sleeping Sue Lee and baby the two men say goodbye with a poignant gesture.  Holt rides off alone and free and in contrast with Rodell’s previous comment finally adds a morally redeeming quality to the movie.  The movie ultimately becomes a story of freedom and emancipation.

The scene is punctuated by Holt taking control of his horse and doffing his hat.  No doubt, I am making too much of it, but it reminds me of some of the most popular images of Civil War generals.  At that moment Holt embodies the glory that has traditionally been attached to these men.

12 comments… add one

  • Jim Cullen Feb 25, 2010

    A gem of a movie, and one I use in my Civil War course as well. I'm just amazed it got overlooked. I think it's because a movie starring Jewel could not be considered serious. But Ang Lee is such a tremendous director. Gorgeous to look at, and consonant with broader historiographical trends that emphasize the ambiguities of borders and loyalties.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2010

      It is unfortunate that it didn't receive more attention, but perhaps that also tells us something about what people want in their Civil War movies. They want Gettysburg and Gods and Generals – movies that reflect their traditional view of the war and clear moral contrasts. It's the reason that we probably like this movie. I also thought Lee did an excellent job with the pace of the movie. He allowed the characters to evolve gradually w/o too many of those Hollywood moments of self-revelation.

  • Harry Feb 25, 2010

    This is a beautiful film, as we've come to expect from Ang Lee. I think one of the problems with the lack of success of the movie is the character of Holt. When the film was released there was something of a knee jerk reaction to the character, that it somehow perpetuated the myth of black Confederates. But as you point out the role is more nuanced, and perhaps reflective of those few free blacks who did serve as soldiers (keeping in mind that this film concerns irregulars), though I suspect, like white soldiers, their reasons for doing what they did are legion.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 25, 2010

      You may be right about that Harry. The Holt character is much more complex than just about every description I've seen of “black Confederates”, “colored Confederates” or whatever you want to call them. It does bring into sharper light the desire on the part of many to emphasize the straightforward loyalty of black Southerners to the Confederate cause. Holt doesn't fit their agenda or narrow understanding of race relations during the war. Thanks for the comment.

  • toby Feb 26, 2010

    Just reading David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman. Being from Missouri, Truman had strong Civil War connections, both Union & Confederate. His paternal grandfather owned three slaves, though he took no part in the war & freed his slaves in 1865. On his mother's side, his grandfather was a “Union man” but an uncle by marriage rode with the Confederate guerillas, while another was in the regular Confederate army.

    Truman's guerilla uncle was known as “Jim Crow” Chiles (apparently he danced Jim Crow pretty well) – wonder if the Chiles name was borrowed for the Skeet Ulrich character in the film? Chiles was a bully and a brute who was killed after the war by a lawman.

    Despite his Union support, Truman's grandfather's farm was looted by Union soldiers many times, possibly because of his two connections to the Confederate forces. Once, the looters were led by James H. Lane himself.

    The war's lingering bitterness was brought home to Truman when he turned up at his grandmother's house, resplendent in his National Guard uniform, which was still blue at that time. His grandmother could see only James Lane and his looters, so she told him to go away, take off the uniform, and never wear it in her presence again.

    Interestingly, Truman (in his youthful letters) often expressed an unthinking racism that may have come from his slaveowning forebears. As he was also the President who integrated the Federal service, and faced down the Dixiecrats, I am interested in seeing how he developed.

    Apologies for the digression – just another example of the war's “long shadow”. I missed Ride with the Devil in the cinema, but my daughter recommended it to me, and she knows pretty well what I like. So it is a treat in store.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2010

      No apologies necessary. It's a very relevant story. You will definitely enjoy the movie.

    • Bob_Pollock Feb 26, 2010

      Just a minor point – All slaves in Missouri were emancipated in January of 1865 by executive proclamation.

      • toby Feb 26, 2010

        Thanks for that. I wondered what the mechanism was, since Missouri was not included in the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment had probably not being fully ratified. So to say “Truman's grandfather freed his slaves” is not accurate.

        McCullough records that in April, 1865, Truman's grandfather, Anderson Truman, brought his former slaves by wagon to Leavenworth, Kansas, where they had chosen to begin their freedom. Sounds like he did not waste any time.

        • Kristen Jun 28, 2010

          That would make sense, since Leavenworth had a thriving free black community at the time. Many slaves who escaped before and during the war, if they had resided north of the Missouri, chose Leavenworth as their new home.

    • Kristen Jun 28, 2010

      The Chiles family was one of the founding families of Independence, Missouri, which is Truman’s birthplace. There were several branches of the family throughout Jackson County, and as far as I’ve found in my research, nearly all owned slaves (and a fair number of slaves at that). They intermarried with the other leading families on the border, many of whom were slaveowners as well. Depending on how much research the director/writers conducted, the name Chiles would have come up frequently in both primary and secondary sources.

      Even though I study the Kansas-Missouri border, I still haven’t seen Ride With the Devil. Shameful, I know. I’ve been told that their depiction of Lawrence is pretty dreadful, and so I wondered if the rest of the movie was worth the time. It seems like now’s a good opportunity to check it out for myself.

    • Falcon Taylor Feb 28, 2011

      Hey Kristen – I just found your post from last year. I am also studying the Border War & in particular, Jesse James & the Missouri guerillas. I will be giving a presentation for my Civil War Roundtable next Sept/Oct here in Orlando Fl. I have read 13 Jesse James biographies as well as “The Devil Knows How to Ride” (Quantrill bio). If you or anyone you know has any more info, books I need to read or leads on this subject I would be most appreciative.

  • J Spring Aug 19, 2013

    I’m a huge fan of this film, too. However, one little correction to the initial post is that Holt is not a former slave of George Clyde’s father, but was owned by a neighbor of the Clyde’s. George and Holt grew-up as boyhood friends. When Jayhawkers killed George’s father and brothers and then tried to kill George, Holt saved his friend’s life and for that act of loyalty George bought Holt’s freedom from his master, but couldn’t afford to also free Holt’s mother and sister.

    One interesting thing about Holt revealing his Christian name, Daniel, is his then referencing it in relation to the bible story of Daniel and the lions’ den which Holt clearly identifies with. He’s also a “Daniel” surrounded by lions who for various reasons do not harm him, but they certainly don’t accept him. He’ll ALWAYS be George Clyde’s “pet n****r” to these men regardless of his deep personal friendship with George. George also realizes this inequality in their friendship and is uncomfortable with it, but it’s just the way it is: he’s the son of a planter and Holt is the son of a slave and there will always be a wall between them. George’s Confederate comrades would NEVER accept Holt as an equal of George in any way, and this creates a strain between George and Holt.

    Holt finds true friendship with Roedel because Jake is also an outsider: son of German immigrants who strongly supported the union, and for that he’s looked upon with suspicion and distrust by his fellow-Bushwhackers. The funny thing is that his comrades are right to be suspicious because Jake’s only loyalty to “the Cause” is his friendship with Jack Bull and the affection he has for Jack Bull’s family who stand to lose everything if the war is lost. Once Jack Bull is dead what does “the Cause” mean to an impoverished “Dutchman” like Jake? I think Holt sees that Jake is adrift even before Jake realizes it which is why Holt very subtly urges Roedel out of the war by encouraging his marriage to Sue Lee.

    This is such a brilliant movie on a so many levels. Its characters have such immense depth to them and the performances are terrific across the board.

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