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‘The Beguiled’ Isn’t Just a Sofia Coppola Movie

The 1971 Clint Eastwood–starring version is a haunting masterpiece

(Focus Features)
(Focus Features)

1971 was a banner year for Clint Eastwood threatening people at gunpoint in movies directed by his friend and mentor Don Siegel. As the title character in Dirty Harry, he looms godlike over a gut-shot bank robber, dangling his .44 Magnum above the wounded man’s head like the sword of Damocles — an implacable avatar of Nixonian law and order. In The Beguiled, Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney struggles to handle a pistol while listing drunkenly on crutches in front of a group of schoolgirls and their headmistress, who has recently amputated his leg without his permission. "Why the hell didn’t you just castrate me?" he howls, while the youngest of the girls tries to calm him down by handing over her beloved pet turtle. In a rage, Clint smashes the turtle on the ground, bloodying the floor and reducing its owner to tears. He didn’t even ask the poor thing if it felt lucky.

One of these sequences is obviously more famous than the other, but it’s only by putting these bizarro-mirror-universe-twin Clints side-by-side — the smirking sharpshooter and the hobbled turtle-murderer — that their shared legacy can be appreciated. Harry Callahan’s obscene, large-caliber potency and John McBurney’s aching phantom limb are two sides of the same alphamale coin. Taken together, Siegel and Eastwood’s double-barreled double-bill compose a remarkable single-year Auteur Twofer even if The Beguiled is typically remembered, if at all, as a curiosity. Sold by Universal as a psychedelic Western to capitalize on Eastwood’s genre stardom, The Beguiled flopped with the same mainstream audience that made Dirty Harry an era-defining blockbuster, grossing just over $1 million. It’s possible that more people will watch Sofia Coppola’s new version of the film — which stars Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, copped a Best Director prize at Cannes, and is out Friday — in its first weekend of release than saw Siegel’s film during its entire theatrical run.

The release of The Beguiled 2.0 means that some light will be thrown on the original– and also plenty of shade. In interviews, Coppola has carefully downplayed any traces of influence. "I saw it before I started working on this and didn’t watch it again," she told Film School Rejects. At Cannes, the narrative was that the director had revised the story’s notorious sexism by reversing the point of identification — that instead of siding with the wounded Union soldier taken in by the female inhabitants of a secluded seminary in Louisiana at the end of the Civil War, Coppola had shifted the perspective to align with the distaff characters.

Certainly, Universal’s already hotly debated social media campaign frames the film as a campy feminist romp, an angle that unfortunately reduces its creator’s intentions and artistry as surely as it undersells the complexity of the older film. To write off Siegel’s Beguiled as a politically incorrect relic — or, in the words of Variety’s Owen Gleiberman’s side-swiping Cannes Variety dispatch, a "mediocre Tennessee Williams play staged by Sam Peckinpah as a third-wave feminist horror film" — is to avoid wrestling with one of the true heavyweight American movies of the ’70s. Because the original The Beguiled is a paradoxical and problematic masterpiece that even a filmmaker with Coppola’s gifts would be hard-pressed to improve.

For instance: Colin Farrell is surely a subtler and more resourceful actor than Clint Eastwood, but his casting as McBurney in Coppola’s film doesn’t resonate on the same level as having one of Hollywood’s true conservative figureheads (a mantle that Clint picked up, along with his gunslinger’s posture, from John Wayne) as a liberal Northern "blue belly" (especially within spitting distance of his turn as noted civil rights advocate Harry Callahan). Eastwood was more than willing to play with his image, and started the process by giving Siegel a copy of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil on the set of Two Mules for Sister Sara. In his 1993 autobiography, A Siegel Film (which features a loving, eloquent foreword written by Eastwood), the director explains that the problem with the project was that no two members of the creative team could agree on exactly what it should be. Each new writer hired to contribute a screenplay draft had a different vision, seeing it as variably an old-fashioned Western, a hothouse Southern Gothic, and a love story with a happily-ever-after ending; the final script credits went to a pair of pseudonyms, "John B. Sherry" and "Grimes Grice." And yet it’s this same sense of confusion, a refusal to stay within the boundaries of a single genre or a coherent ideology, that makes The Beguiled so remarkable.

It’s apparent that the rules aren’t going to apply from the first sepia-toned scene, with Eastwood himself crooning a folk ballad softly over images of a weeping willow –a hypnotic opening whose spell is quickly broken when Corporal McBurney informs the 12-year old girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) who has found him wounded in the woods that she’s "old enough for kisses" and forces her into a silent lip-lock as Southern troops ride by. The kiss is an act of self-preservation — he’s trying to keep her from screaming and giving away his position — but it’s also tinged with pedophilia, and shows that this damn Yankee is going to be absolutely unscrupulous in using his attractiveness to corral and control the women around him. If The Beguiled is basically a fox-in-the-henhouse parable, then Eastwood, his shirt bloodied but his hair luxuriously coiffed, is the fox.

Film programmer Kyle Westphal has suggested that The Beguiled is essentially a comedy about the rules of attraction: "Every scene in the film is just heaving with desire — Eastwood’s [character’s] desire for these women and also the women’s desire for Eastwood — but none of the characters quite understand exactly what they want." In contrast to Eastwood’s spaghetti Western heroes, who were badass but essentially sexless, McBurney is a smooth operator. He expertly switches up his shtick for each potential conquest in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, prodding proprietor Martha’s (Geraldine Page) middle-aged insecurity just as deftly as he stokes 17-year old Carol’s (Jo Ann Harris) hormonal fury. For wallflower teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), he adopts a gentleman-suitor persona that bamboozles her until she catches him in bed with Carol, at which point all hell breaks loose.

Reviewing the film in 1971, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it "a sensational, misogynistic nightmare," and certainly some of the imagery down the home stretch, with Eastwood lying semiconscious on the operating table while Page wields a surgical saw, taps a deep vein of masculine panic. But there’s also genuine, maddening ambiguity in both the psychological architecture of the script, which keeps emphasizing its antihero’s self-serving cruelty and craftiness before turning him into a victim, and gives each of the women distinct, vivid motivations even as they descend into stereotyped hysteria. The revelation that Martha still carries a torch for her late brother is presented without much in the way of judgment, and Hartman’s beautifully modulated acting as the virginal Edwina keeps the character from being one-note. There’s also the matter of Siegel’s luridly expressionistic direction, which uses stylized lighting — an array of lanterns and candelabras — to give the action the look of a shadow play. The amputation sequence in particular offers up a brilliant mix of sinister silhouettes, subdued gore, satirical phallic symbolism, and swift, subliminal editing that makes what we’re seeing seem a lot more gruesome than it really is.

The Beguiled is similarly confrontational when it comes to race. Siegel doesn’t sanitize the attitudes of the characters on the battle lines or on the home front, either. McBurney throws his supposedly enlightened attitudes in the faces of these unreconstructed southern belles at every opportunity, but the way he treats Martha’s African American slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer), when the chips are down is shocking. Much has been made over the years about the fact that the criminal asked to count whether Harry Callahan "fired six shots or only five" is black, and for good reason, but Dirty Harry’s warped politics have nothing on Hallie telling McBurney, who has threatened to rape her along with the rest of the (white) women at Farnsworth: "You’d better like it with a dead black woman because that’s the only way you’ll get it from this one." Siegel intercuts their exchange with a flashback to Hallie being attacked by a white farm hand, placing the Corporal’s threat in a larger context of racialized sexual violence. It’s impossible to separate the exploitation-movie excess from the withering social critique.

There’s no comparable moment in Coppola’s Beguiled: "I did not want there to be a slave character … because this is a subject I consider too important to be treated on the surface," she told The Upcoming. Whether or not that answer mollifies critics who’ve previously accused the filmmaker of whitewashing and exoticization, it might account for why the new film doesn’t have the same uncanny, unsettling power as its predecessor. It’s telling that Siegel, an unsentimental pro who directed a few of most enduring old-school genre movies of all time — including the magnificently paranoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Killers (1964), featuring Ronald Reagan as a sociopathic villain — considered The Beguiled his favorite among his films, and that he and Eastwood fought with the studio to keep its amazingly downbeat finale intact. At the end of Dirty Harry, the hero throws his badge into the river as a gesture of defiance against a bureaucracy that he thinks is keeping him from doing his job. In the final shot of The Beguiled, it’s Corporal McBurney — a man who’s all too proud to wrap himself in Union garb even after he’s showed his true colors — who’s left on the curb like so much trash. It’s startling, bleak, hilarious, politically evocative, and, finally, unshakable — the perfect anti-grace note for a movie that deserves to live in infamy.