Hollywood Period Epics: ‘Great Gatsby’ and ‘Ride with the Devil’

During a nearby conversation over Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” I overheard someone say, “If you did not appreciate ‘The Great Gatsby’ (movie), it is because you did not understand the novel,” said a self-proclaimed champion of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

After hearing novel-grounded objections, said champion revised his position and said, “Well, you should not go see a Baz Luhrmann movie with any other expectation than to see a Baz Luhrmann movie.”

Disregarding the obnoxious can’t-pin-me-down arrogance of the speaker, there is another problem here that is bred by the American movie industry—Hollywood epics like “The Great Gatsby” have not expanded their selection of narrative building blocks, but have only made the colors of their works more wild and striking.

Great Gatsby Leonardo DiCaprioThe problem is not mainly with spectacle as substance (what the speaker above means by a “Baz Luhrmann movie” in his second comment). The problem with “The Great Gatsby” and other Hollywood epics is that the story is made up of the most widely appealing (vulgar?) story morsels common in the lowest forms of entertainment.

There is the writer jamming the experience of his life out on his typewriter (Nick’s plastic credibility as a writer is his alcoholism). There is the girl trapped in a loveless marriage (Daisy is also drawn to an adulterous affair but her husband has a mistress already so nothing wrong here). A mysterious tycoon (Gatsby) turns out to be a mobster (this hero has a dark, dark past) driven not by money, but by love.

We know this stuff. These tropes are the fabric of American entertainment in all forms. From Hollywood to soap operas to the narrative framework given to otherwise boring biographies on History Channel and A&E. Something could be said for Fitzgerald’s influence in making these blocks our favorite to build with (what I think the speaker above is getting at in his first comment about “understanding the novel,” which many consider to be the “great American novel”).

But since we know this stuff so well, the only thing for Hollywood filmmakers to do is to repackage it. The audience knows the basics of forbidden love, ill-gotten fortune, &c., so the only thing new is the spectacle. The spectacle becomes the engine for entertainment because filmmakers will not reconsider the choice of vehicle.

What struck me most in Luhrmann’s adaptation is the absence of Nick’s skepticism of the spectacle in “The Great Gatsby,” the movie, as it was portrayed in the novel. He is swept up by the grandeur and the movie is crafted to do the same to its viewers. There are no favors for those who were not entertained. There are only those who enjoyed the party and those who did not.

None of the above comes as new observations, and there is more that could (should) be discussed with regard to the four-stars, exclamation point, advertising lingo that has become the tyrant of our daily conversational language and then infected our storytelling.

But it came to my mind after re-watching Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil,” a motion picture that fits the notion of a Hollywood epic only with its period detail and running length.

“Ride with the Devil” differs so sufficiently from other Hollywood period epics because of its narrative restraint, a distance achieved by drawing on the ellipses between dramatic plot points.

N.B. I have not read Daniel Woodrell’s novel, “Woe to Live On,” and I have no doubt many of the merits in Lee’s motion picture belong to the book’s author but avoiding the Hollywood temptation to over-dramatize a period epic should not be diminished. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus exercise a restraint mostly unseen in similar movies.

Ride with the Devil Ang LeeThere is a scene where Jake “Dutchie” Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull (Skeet Ulrich) enjoy evening supper with a family while hiding from Union soldiers (“Federals”). Jake takes leave of a sing-a-long to go on watch because of Federals likely to visit during their night patrols. Jack Bull remains inside despite the risk.

Jake tightens his belt and holster outside; he’s on the lookout. Some clouds pass over the moon. The setup is really tense given the prior-seen violence between Jake and Jack’s Bushwhackers and the Federal-allied Jayhawkers.

Watching the scene, we expect a showdown, or at least, a Union patrol to make a surprise visit and send the heroes running (the heroes are always retreating and falling back in this movie, playing against the heroic types in Hollywood epics). But nothing happens. There is a cut and that’s that.

The whole movie works off this restraint, shunning all the Hollywood fanfare we are so familiar with. The chief example is the expectation of some final climax between Jake Roedel and Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). The two come into conflict with each other over and over, promising to kill each other but their final meeting is less climactic and becomes more real, stranger because of it.

There are many other examples of this restraint in “Ride with the Devil.” Jeffrey Wright plays Daniel Holt, a freed slave fighting against the Yankees (already playing against Hollywood-type here) who tells the racist Jake he would like to learn to read, but there is no white-man-teaching-the-black-man-to-read here.

Ride with the Devil Ang Lee TobeyJake does not even repent of his racism, but there is a solid, egalitarian friendship that develops between the two (the issue of “government schoolhouses” is the devil in this Confederate-POV movie, not the abolition of slavery, which takes the back seat unusual in Civil War period films). Jake does not involve himself in the slaughter of innocents in Quantrill’s raid of Lawrence, Kansas, but he snaps cruelly at the Yankee-sympathizers whose lives he spared.

Jack Bull gets shot in the arm, and instead of surviving from a mere flesh wound like Bruce Willis, he dies. Not only does he die, but also it seems like he dies, not from gangrene or infection, but from the trauma of amputation. The restraint here does not only apply to violence but to sex as well when Sue Lee (Jewel) and Jake take to the marriage bed.

As a Hollywood period epic, “Ride with the Devil” does not concern itself with parading social issues (Spielberg’s “Lincoln”) or with the horrors of war and the resolve of the human spirit during it (“Cold Mountain”), but, with its Jake “Dutchie” Roedel-centered story, it speaks to both of those and a lot, lot more.

Instead of the swollen-because-there’s-nothing-here epics like Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” Lee’s motion picture feels closer in spirit to an older Hollywood where everything felt fresh.

P.S. Oh, and Tobey Maguire of “Ride with the Devil” is much less annoying than the Maguire of “The Great Gatsby.”

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