In 2017, it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine a studio would be comfortable opening a movie with a major star like Clint Eastwood, somewhere around age 40 at the time, telling a 12-year-old girl that she’s “old enough for kisses,” before planting his lips on hers. That’s one of the many ways in which Don Siegel’s psychosexual Civil War drama, The Beguiled, is more a time capsule of the 1970s than the 1860s. Released in 1971 — the same year that Siegel and Eastwood would unleash Dirty Harry upon the world — this adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel is now being viewed with fresh eyes thanks to Sofia Coppola’s acclaimed, and award-winning, remake. Even though the two films are built from the same narrative skeleton — wounded Union soldier John McBurny (Eastwood in the original film, Colin Farrell in the new one) is brought inside a plantation home doubling as a girls’ school to recuperate — they are worlds and eras apart in terms of mood, atmosphere, and point of view.
Which one is better? We’ll leave it to you to play the compare and contrast game by seeing Coppola’s version, which began its theatrical rollout on June 23, and then streaming Siegel’s adaptation on Amazon Prime or HBO Go.
Judged entirely on its own merits, the ’71 Beguiled is fascinatingly odd — a movie that explores female sexuality through a pronounced male gaze. The film’s split personality is best represented by one particular shot: discovered by infatuated schoolteacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), in the room of 17-year-old pupil Carol (Jo Ann Harris) after lights out, McBurny gazes at the older woman over the bare buttocks of his younger conquest. Siegel frames the character’s betrayal in a way that invites both gasps and leers.
‘The Beguiled’: Watch a trailer for Don Siegel’s version starring Clint Eastwood:
In its shooting style, as well as its pronounced sexuality, the earlier Beguiled is pure ’70s. There’s no invisible proscenium for Siegel; his camera roams freely, and sometimes woozily, around the grounds of the plantation home, making additional use of devices such as voiceover, overlaid imagery, and one hallucinatory ménage a trois where the school’s headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), imagines her guest romancing both her and Edwina in the same bed.
It’s through Martha’s mind that we also witness flashbacks to her younger days, when she and her now-deceased brother carried on a secret affair. That’s a bit of backstory that Coppola eliminates from her version of Martha (played by Nicole Kidman), and it is an element of the story that feels a tad hoary now — a transgression primarily designed for shock value, rather than character insight. (For what it’s worth, Coppola’s other major omission from the original film — excising the school’s sole remaining black slave Hallie — has already generated a number of think pieces, both pro and con.)
What does remain compelling is the pronounced feeling of danger that Eastwood projects as McBurny from the film’s opening moments. Even in his wounded condition, the soldier’s lupine quality makes an immediate impression on the women and the audience. Eastwood’s magnetism is certainly hard to understate, even if it encourages Siegel to walk closely, probably too closely, to the age-old “good girls love bad boys” cliché. Here’s perhaps the most instructive way to think of the ’71 and ’17 films: Siegel’s version could be titled The Beguiler while Coppola’s picture earns the name The Beguiled.
‘The Beguiled’: Watch a trailer for Sofia Coppola’s version:
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