It’s easy to picture the scene we’ve been hearing so much about over the past few weeks: A horde of shiftless young men, drunken and menacing, elaborately unkempt and reeking of smoke and grime, descends on Lawrence in the August heat. No, it’s not the Kaw Valley Kickball League playoffs. I speak, of course, of Quantrill’s Raiders. And if you’ve been taking in the solemn ceremonies, groundbreaking Twitter re-enactments, and typical tasteless Missouri pouting that has caught the eye of commentators on the national stage, then you may be in the mood to check out some cinematic treatments of the historical events commemorated this week.
For authenticity and all around amazingness, it’s hard to beat 1999’s Ride with the Devil . Although director Ang Lee brought considerable star power to bear, including a young Tobey Maguire and Jewel at the most gem-like phase of her career, one heard so much about the film’s shooting on location in the Kansas City area at the time it felt more like a homegrown production. Numerous local extras participated, and quite a few local actors landed bit parts (e.g., anyone you know on this list ?). The film was based on the novel Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell, an author many may remember from last year’s Read Across Lawrence title and Oscar-nominated adaptation, Winter’s Bone.
For sheer lack of authenticity, but boasting an even more star studded cast for its time than Ride with the Devil, check out Dark Command, in which a fictionalized “William C. Cantrell,” played by Walter Pidgeon, is fended off by Lawrencians before a proper sacking can get underway, thanks to a thorough bucking up by John Wayne, who plays a Texan new to town. History lesson though it may not be, the film still rates as a Western made in the genre’s prime (1940), with Claire Trevor, Roy Rogers, and Gabby Hayes sharing screen time with the Duke.
As for the John Wayne-Quantrill connection, True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn can’t be left out of the discussion as a fictional example of a former Quantrill raider gone legit. In fact, now might be a good time to compare Wayne’s portrayal of the character with that of Jeff Bridges if, like me, you haven’t gotten around to seeing both adaptations of Charles Portis’ novel yet. I suppose I should also mention Clint Eastwood’s Josey Wales, a character whose wife and son are murdered by a marauding band of Kansas Redlegs (wait a minute, Kansans wouldn’t have done something like that . . . must have been more of those courageous Texans), after which he joins up with Quantrill’s right hand man, “Bloody Bill” Anderson, to seek revenge. The library’s DVD of this classic was actually donated to the collection by me, after I received it as a birthday present from a good friend who is a University of Missouri alum (why he thought I’d want something like that sitting around my house next to DVDs of the KU basketball team racking up NCAA championships, I’m not sure). And last but certainly not least among depictions of Quantrill pals and depraved Missourians is 2007’s instant classic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford , my personal favorite of all the movies listed here. Based on Ron Hansen’s novel of the same name, it includes detailed depictions of post-Civil War Kansas City and St. Joseph, although it’s one of the most beautiful and interesting movies you’ll ever see about anything.
As for the actual facts of the matter, the Library has two documentaries to bring us back to reality after such a heavy dose of mythmaking. Legacies of the Civil War, which features Lawrence’s own Katie Armitage, and Bad Blood: The Border War That Triggered the Civil War may kill the emotional buzz of revenge, rivalry and rhetoric, but prove how powerful the story remains in the sober light of scholarship, riveting without any help from Hollywood.