While filming Sense And Sensibility, Ang Lee told his producer James Schamus he wanted to make a movie "with characters who have dirty fingernails". The Taiwanese director's wish comes true with this Gone With The Wind-style epic, a mix of history lesson and horse opera that offers a Young Guns perspective on the American Civil War.
Any doubts that Lee may be out of his depth in such an alien time and place are soon dispelled by the scale and ambition of his sixth feature. For while the emphasis is on the periphery of the conflict - the guerrilla tactics pursued by The Ice Storm's Maguire and his nomadic band of gunslingers - Ride With The Devil has its share of audacious set-pieces: a pitched battle between the Yankees and the Bushwhackers, for example, or the harrowing recreation of the 1863 Lawrence Massacre, the largest mass murder on record.
These scenes are undoubtedly impressive, but Lee scores even higher in the way he shows his youthful protagonists growing old before their time, their innocence butchered by cruel circumstance. Jake kills 15 men before he loses his cherry; Sue Lee (folk singer Jewel in a very respectable acting debut) is widowed twice in two years; while Jack Bull sees his dad shot dead in front of him. The boyish cast, with the exception of Rhys Meyers (far too pretty to convince as a psychotic renegade), are outstanding, bringing maturity and gravitas to their performances.
Where the film flounders is in its depiction of an ex-slave fighting on the Confederate side. This may indeed be historically accurate, but Maguire's buddy bonding with Basquiat's Wright has an anachronistic, Lethal Weapon-ish flavour that flies in the face of recorded fact. This, though, is the only flaw in a masterly Western-war drama that's already being tipped as a serious Oscar contender.