The same year that Dirty Harry cemented Clint Eastwood as one of the 70’s biggest box office draws, that film’s star and director Don Siegel made another picture that cast the action hero in a much different light.
In The Beguiled, the biggest enemies of Eastwood’s Union soldier aren’t The Bad or The Ugly or Zodiac-like killers: they’re his own sexual desires and the group of repressed Confederate women who have imprisoned him at an all-girl’s boarding school.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, the ‘71 film was lurid and even campy, with underlying sexual tension in the scenario employed as a straightforward plot device.
This new remake from Sofia Coppola, meanwhile, operates a on more subtle level: moody and evocative, it gives a little more prominence to the individual female characters, and turns motives for everyone around into more ambiguous affairs.
The result is a film that’s more tense and perhaps atmospheric (it was even shot on 35mm film, and feels it), and certainly less tawdry. Still, it lacks some of the fire and dynamic punch that Eastwood and Siegel brought to the earlier movie.
Colin Farrell replaces Eastwood here as John McBurney, an Irishman who reveals that he joined up with the Union soldiers as a mercenary because he needed the money.
A devastating leg wound lands him at a school for girls run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who patches him up and keeps his presence hidden from passing Confederates at the insistence of the other girls. It’s the Christian thing to do. And maybe there are some ulterior motives.
While John strikes up a good rapport with Martha, he also claims to fall in love with the lone other teacher at the school, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). And then there’s the eldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning) making googly eyes at the Corporal… surely, this is a situation that cannot last.
Story-wise, this Beguiled is (nearly) the same as the previous film; writers Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp even get an awkward “based on a screenplay by” credit.
But you couldn’t ask for two more disparate directors than the action-oriented Siegel and the woman behind Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and the different decisions they make here with the same story are illuminating (Coppola claims to have never seen the original film, which, if true, is even more food for thought).
And then there’s the nearly-50-year gap between the two productions. Eastwood’s McBurney was crude and amoral, dismissive and even abusive towards the women – and yet we are expected, in some senses, to root for him!
As opposed to that relic from the past, Farrell’s take on the character is softer and more gentler, and generally kinder all-around. And yet when the plot kicks in and the character takes a (perhaps justified) turn, I found him even more despicable than the earlier version. He might hit too close to home, as opposed to Eastwood’s movie star antihero.
This 2017 version of The Beguiled is not better than the 1971 film, but it’s not necessarily worse: it’s the same story told from a different perspective, with some different shading; both films are worth watching, and there are at least a couple of distinctions that make for an interesting side-by-side comparison.