After recently watching Sofia Coppola’s first rate remake of the 1971 gothic western, The Beguiled, I was motivated to take a look at the original Don Siegel directed film which I have not seen since it was first released back in 1971. Both films stay close in plot, but head in alternate directions when it comes to a point of view. That may be in part due to the gender difference of the directors as well as the mores and attitudes that have evolved in the more than forty years separating the two works.
The plot is based on a 1966 novel called, A Painted Devil by Patrick Cullinan. Both films follow the same storyline; they open in a similar matter. The Civil War is in progress; we’re in Virginia, Southern territory, as we watch a young girl of twelve wandering in the nearby woods collecting mushrooms. She comes upon a wounded Union soldier. The soldier is Corporal John McBurney (Clint Eastwood/Colin Farrell). He pleads to the girl for help. She assists in bringing him back to the boarding school where she and six other women of varying ages are living. The school is headed up by the mistress (Geraldine Page in the original and Nicole Kidman in the new version). What ensues is an unruly civil war, a battle of the sexes.
It’s at this point where the points of view between filmmakers diverge. Don Siegel’s version, though less violent than other Eastwood flicks, is infused with the male fantasy of one rooster in a hen house filled with chickens, all ready to serve at his pleasure; from the head mistress, portrayed by Geraldine Page down to the twelve-year-old girl who rescues him. One uncomfortable scene has Eastwood kissing the young kid full on the lips. In Coppola’s version, Kidman’s head mistress, while you get the impression she is interested is more prim and proper, and in the end more diabolical. Coppola’s scene of the women sitting at the table watching Farrell eat the poison mushrooms is much more menacing and evil than Siegel’s similar scene in the original. Pay attention to Kidman’s wicked stare. It’s downright nasty, especially for the Christian woman she claims to be.
The amputation in the Siegel/Eastwood version is portrayed as castration, revenge by Page and the others. Eastwood’s McBurney rants that a one legged man is useless. They should have just killed him. In Coppola’s reimaging, the amputation comes across as more of the taming of a wild animal, a disruptive force. In either case, the ladies get their due. It comes full circle when the young twelve-year-old is told to go out and pick some ‘special’ mushrooms for McBurney who showed a fondness for the vegetable earlier.
Coppola’s film is about trust, jealousy and ultimately betrayal, beautifully portrayed by an excellent cast. The film’s composition and the cinematography are outstanding, a photographic portrait of the lush Southern Gothic imagery that sustains the look and style of the film.