A strong, self-sufficient Southern business woman stands firm in the face of a Northern aggressor determined to destroy her way of life. Perhaps this is a tale of feminist struggle and triumph against the wiles and temptation of men.
The plot of Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled? Well, yes. But it’s also the narrative of Gone With the Wind, the 1936 best seller which became perhaps the single most popular movie of all time. Scarlett O'Hara’s fight to preserve her plantation after the Civil War became the image of strong womanhood for at least a generation. As a result, pop feminism became entangled in a neo-Confederate narrative. Scarlett is an empowered, feminist hero because of her brave, determined fight against Northern carpetbaggers and the forces of black liberation.
Don Siegel’s 1971 film The Beguiled pushed back against that narrative, exposing the corruption and cruelty at the core of this iconography. Sofia Coppola’s ravishingly shot remake tries to restore the Scarlett O'Hara feminism Siegel rejected. But she can’t do it without, helplessly, restoring some of O'Hara’s racism as well.
Siegel’s The Beguiled is one of the strangest movies to come out of Hollywood, and certainly the most unexpected film in Clint Eastwood’s acting career. The movie is set during the Civil War. The plot involves badly injured Union soldier John McBurney (Eastwood) who is rescued from the Mississippi woods by 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) who helps him hobble to her home at a school for girls run by Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page.)
McBurney, injured and surrounded by women, is a corrupting, concupiscent force. He tells each woman what they want to hear, pledging true love to virginal teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), assuring Miss Farnsworth that he is a Quaker who abhors violence, and then telling 12-year-old Amy he loves her best of all. Eastwood’s performance is a masterpiece of false sincerity, with surface depths obscuring the shallowness beneath. The girls school bubbles and sweats (copiously) with sexual repression, and soon enough women of all ages are throwing themselves at the man in their midst – because, honestly, who wouldn’t throw themselves at a young Clint Eastwood?
The woman in The Beguiled are, however, more formidable than they appear. McBurney does not corrupt them; they are corrupt already. This corruption is indicated in two main ways. First, Miss Farnsworth, that very proper Southern lady, had an incestuous relationship with her brother – a fact we learn through a series of queasy flashbacks. Second, the Miss Farnsworth has a slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer). McBurney charms Hallie too, in part with his flirtatiousness and good looks, and in part by promising that if he escapes he will try to locate her lover, who ran away when the family threatened to sell him.
If enslaved people are people, then the victory of Southern white women, even over a man as selfish as McBurney, cannot be a triumph.
Hallie is hardly the hero of the film, and Siegel’s Beguiled is not anti-racist or pro-Union in any straightforward sense – McBurney, the one Union man we meet, is a thoroughly terrible person. But when we see Miss Farnsworth’s brother attempt to rape Hallie in a flashback, it is a reminder of the sickness which infected Southern society. Miss Farnsworth’s school for girls is built on a system that accepts and encourages sexual violence and exploitation. Hallie, unlike Scarlett’s enslaved Mammy in Gone With the Wind, has her own inner life and her own dreams, which means that the purity and virtue of Miss Farnsworth has to be a lie. If enslaved people are people, then the victory of Southern white women, even over a man as selfish as McBurney, cannot be a triumph.
That’s an insight that Sofia Coppola’s version of The Beguiled is careful to step around. Her Miss Farnsworth, played by the regal Nicole Kidman, is a much purer creature than her predecessor. Kidman’s character has no incest in her past. She doesn’t share a kiss with Colin Farrell’s McBurney either, nor does she surreptitiously open his locked door to let him, perhaps, come to her room. Nor, as in the original, does she have embarrassing dreams about a threeway with him and Edwina (here played by Kirsten Dunst). Where Geraldine Page’s Farnsworth was driven by repressed, obscure lusts, which flitted across her lived-in face like blank shadows, Kidman’s version is staunch, beautiful and resolute. She may be temporarily deceived, but her heart is never seriously compromised. There is no question that she amputates McBurnie’s leg out of necessity, not from revenge – whereas with Geraldine Page’s Miss Farnsworth, the viewer could never quite be sure.
The film ensures Kidman’s purity in part through a simple act of erasure. There is no Hallie in Coppola’s version of The Beguiled. There is a brief explanation early on that the enslaved people at the school have escaped. Without any black presence on screen, it is much easier to present white women in the South as innocent, and to see their struggle against the male invader as empowering. Thus, in the interests of feminism, a film set during the Civil War has virtually no acknowledgement of slavery. Coppola said in an email to Buzzfeed that she did not want to include black characters because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way.” But brushing over the topic is exactly what she’s done. As far as an honest discussion of history and racism goes, Coppola’s version of The Beguiled is more retrograde – more neo-Confederate – than its predecessor from 36 years before.
In Siegel’s version, the scorned Edwina shrieks with rage after she throws the injured McBurney down a flight of stairs. “You lying son of a bitch!” she yells at McBurney’s bent, unconscious form. “You filthy Lecher! I hope you’re dead! Dead! Dead!” it’s an indelible scene, powered in no small part by Siegel’s misogynist, terrified vision of women as irate, unapologetic castrators. Coppola, in an effort to rachet down the misogyny, cuts those lines; Dunst’s Edwina is sorry she hurt McBurney as soon as she sees he’s injured. Changes like this shift audience sympathy subtly away from McBurney and towards the women. They present the women as wronged, their community as violated, and their fight with McBurney as justified self-defense, rather than hardened malice.
But a film that stands more firmly behind Southern white women is also a film that abandons any sympathy for, or even any acknowledgement of the existence of, black people. Siegel’s strange film, with all its vacillations, could be read as a rejection of Gone With the Wind, and of building feminism on the oppression of black people. Coppola’s remake, in contrast, quietly puts Scarlett O'Hara back on her pedestal.