Over the course of this week, I'll be looking at five Westerns from the past 20 years, a particularly fascinating period in a genre that has long since left its glory days, but continues to produce some gems.
Adapted from: Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell
Starring: Skeet Ulrich, Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker
Written by: James Schamus
Directed by: Ang Lee
Jake Roedel and his best friend, Jack Bull Chiles, are lifelong best friends from Missouri, growing up together before the shadow of the American Civil War stretches across their lives. Jack Bull's father, the rich slave owner Asa, is killed in a raid on their home, his son barely escaping with his life. As a result, he and Jake, who defies his own father, join up with the First Missouri Irregulars, Bushwhackers, in order to take their place in the fight. During that time, Jake forms a relationship with a slave, Holt and starts examining the true horrors of the war, questioning his place within it when his friends start dying around him.
Book One of Daniel Woodrell's Woe to Live On opens with a quote from Charles R. Jennison, a famous Jayhawker soldiering during the period of the novel; "Playing war is played out!" In those five short words, much of Woodrell's exploration of war through his narrator, Jake, is established. The way in which Jake narrates his story, with a sense of detachment and observation, establishes a central conflict between his adventure-type experiences of fighting alongside his friends ("playing war") and the horror that eventually starts to wear him down as the violence escalates and the meaning is lost ("played out"). Woodrell uses this tension to write a visceral coming-of-age story that focuses on the personal, rather than the political.
When Ang Lee first read the novel, the coming-of-age aspect "in the worst possible time in American history" was something he focused on as well as the relationships at the story's heart:
"[it's] not simply a war movie. It's more about the love and friendships that take place during the war." Talking with Jack Bull in one of the film's early scenes, Jake comments that he's not entirely sure why the North is so invested in eradicating slavery, but other than that, little time is devoted to the motives for war. This is something that is carried throughout Woodrell's work and the adaptation; the political ideologies that drive the war are inconsequential to the men fighting it.
Take the character of Holt, the novel's most fascinating figure, given life by an elegant performance from Jeffrey Wright. Holt is a slave, his mother was sold into Texas and, as far as he's aware, could be anywhere from there or she could simply be dead. He's fighting alongside men who would happily keep him enslaved, who distrust him (Jake especially, at first) and who would happily kill him were it not for the protection of his popular and, importantly, white friend, George Clyde. Holt simply acknowledges he will not be entirely accepted by those around him, but fights as a way of claiming his freedom (in a similar way to Jake's refusal to obey his father), something he finally does at the end of the film.
Holt's circumstances feed into the ongoing notion that both the film and the book explore; whose side you fall on in this war depends far more on where you grew up, the way of life you had and who your friends are rather than any political leanings. The Jayhawkers en masse are not given much individual characterisation beyond the letters that Jake reads, something of a motif throughout the novel and adaptation. The letters reveal that the Jayhawkers they're killing are simply men like themselves, grieving for or missing their loved ones. They are simply men fighting because they feel they have to, they just happen to be on the other side with relationships akin to those that Jake experiences.
Because so much focus is placed on those relationships, Woodrell's novel can sometimes have the feeling of a 'boys' own' adventure as Jake gallivants about the countryside with his friends. That is certainly how Jake seems to view at first; through his narration we get stories by campfires and a visceral thrill as the adrenalin kicks in for the action sequences. But these are punctuated by some breathtaking moments of violence and cruelty. The novel's introduction to Jake exhibits both as he narrates the derring do of disguising themselves as Jayhawkers to infiltrate their camp. Shortly after, he shoots a teenage boy in the back in case he grows up to become a "hound" like his Union supporting father. It's a scene that unsurprisingly does not making it into the film, jeopardising as it does the sympathy for our main character.
The tension between the thrill of "playing war" and the reality of the violence inherent in that is something that is carried over into the film. Schamus' screenplay and Lee's direction cleverly denote the shift in Jake's attitudes over the course of the film in the way that the moments of violence are experienced. The action sequences are almost fun at first, a caper to be witnessed as the Bushwhackers fool the Jayhawkers. When Jack Bull, Holt and Jake hear shots in the distance, they gallop from their woodland bunker to save the day with a thundering, elevated score. They are the heroes, we think, we wanted them to achieve their rescue. However, they don't succeed and Jack Bull is mortally wounded in the process.
It's at that moment that Lee starts to turn the film into Jake's realisation that war, as infamously stated, is hell. That conflict between playing and reality comes to a head during the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, a recreation of the infamous massacre that took place in 1863. It is scored by a heroic-sounding march, all soaring brass and driving drums that signal something positive, something valiant. The images do not back that up; men are being shot in the back, women dragged into streets as their husbands are shot in front of them, black men's bodies piled high in the streets. As the raid comes to a close, the score begins to sound more sinister, the notes deepen and finally, there is silence.
The rest of the film continues this quiet as Jake returns to an ally's home and to the domestic lifestyle he has not known for years. Both iterations of the story end with him finally accepting marriage with Sue Lee, a widow and the mother of Jack Bull's illegitimate daughter. Like Holt, Jake finds a form of freedom away from a war that would soon be lost. It also feels fitting that Jake's freedom comes in that great American tradition of travelling away to find a new home; in the film, it is California, in the book, it is Texas. The war is "played out" for them and a new life with new responsibilities beckons.