Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.
Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.
The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple: During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.
Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing. As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story. There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.
Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.
Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).
Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs, floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).
On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.
Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid, featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.
Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs. Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.
And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops, expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.
(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).
In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge. The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.
That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.
In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.
Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.
***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.
And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.
The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.
In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary. In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.
True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women. However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).
Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him. Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.
Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.
It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.
Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.
(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).
Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).
Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.
(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)
See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).