Tomorrow, Sofia Coppola's latest feature The Beguiled will go on general release at what feels like the right time. Though gender representation in film remains off-balance, this month alone, Coppola's female-centric Southern gothic, starring Colin Farrell as a wounded Union soldier who unwisely attempts to seduce the women of an all-girls boarding school (including Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) as they nurse him back to health during the American Civil War, arrives on the heels of record-breaking feminist superhero movie Wonder Woman and flip-the-script women-behaving-badly comedy Rough Night. Those two films were rare – movies about women with sizeable budgets – but Coppola’s appears set to be something perhaps even rarer: a remake due more approval than its predecessor.
Coppola’s The Beguiled already has significant buzz and a Best Director award from Cannes, while the film that inspired it, a feminist statement made decades before such things were in vogue, flopped and has for years been somewhat forgotten. In 1971, the year of Don Siegel’s original The Beguiled, the biggest movies on release included A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and Get Carter, all of which boast male-majority casts and feature the sexual abuse and torture of women as a means to progress plot. At this time, American studios were making more adult, thoughtful and downright experimental movies than ever before, but their boundary-stretching boldness rarely extended to matters of gender.
In 1971, cinema icons looked like Bond, Shaft and 'Dirty' Harry Callahan, brutish gunslingers with a taste for women physically and little more. The Beguiled somehow jostled its way into this world, sprung from an unlikely source. Siegel, along with star and monolith of masculinity Clint Eastwood – taking the McBurney role – delivered this picture of outrageous feminism the same year they unleashed their most macho movie, Dirty Harry, after they’d both spent careers producing features about near-parodically butch men. The Beguiled’s own studio didn't trust that audiences at the time would get it. The promo poster features Eastwood brandishing a gun in classically dominant and heroic fashion, where the movie in reality emasculates him, transfers power to its female characters before the credits and acts as a searing deconstruction of cinematic gender roles.
From the off, we're lured into a trap. Siegel wants to wrongfoot us: A character who looks and talks like Corporal McBurney – charming, all-American handsome and always ready with the right honeyed words – is reliably the good guy, and Eastwood in this period represented a kind of throwback hero, ever-righteous and immeasurably desirable. In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood's directorial debut which came out the same year as The Beguiled, women are attracted to Eastwood's radio DJ character, to the point of violent obsession. In Eastwood's biggest hit of '71, Dirty Harry, women are disposable – either victims or sexual objects.
Those films' two lead characters, Dave Garver and Harry Callahan, are very different but they share a casual misogyny not uncommon in cinema’s male heroes at that time. Corporal McBurney of The Beguiled shares it too, but where Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry condone such behaviour as male gaze movies, The Beguiled is viewed largely through the eyes of its women, and what they see in their film’s wannabe lead isn’t pretty. Matron Miss Martha (Geraldine Page) and her Mississippi belles, though initially attracted to the man they bring into their home out of compassion, ultimately come to view McBurney as despicable, a figure with primitive attitudes towards women, who we see in flashbacks mercilessly murdering Confederate soldiers and torching the Southern countryside.
This film suggests man is to be reviled for his macho qualities, not admired. Siegel’s uneasy gothic chamber piece reveals itself as a horror with a twist: whereas horror movies inspire revulsion, The Beguiled is constructed in such a way that we welcome our nominal protagonist's grisly comeuppance. In this film, the women display strength by robbing the male 'hero' of his, the aggressive, philandering 'man’s man' character meeting resistance when the usual male-heavy environment of early '70s cinema is swapped out for a group of women with actual agency. The eventual revenge on Eastwood's entitled hunk by the women of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies is depicted with such a delicious irony, it feels like the payback of every female character who was ever just eye candy to the viewer, a floozy for the hero to bed or a faithful stay-at-home partner left to ponder the movie on the sidelines.
Siegel’s The Beguiled opens with a montage of real Civil War photography, of men and their war toys, men in their death throes, massacred male bodies. It's clear that this is a man's world, and men have made a doggone mess of it. At the climax, the real protagonists of Siegel's film returning to a state of peace means closing the gates to foreign and friendly soldiers alike, and shutting out men from this idyllic space altogether. How much Sofia Coppola's remake will mirror Siegel’s movie remains to be seen, but there will be one major difference between the versions. Coppola's film has arrived at a time when there's healthy conversation around and analysis of a woman's role in cinema, but back in 1971, a film in which an all-female cast of characters forcibly took over the show and symbolically castrated the male for his ingrained misogyny must have seemed singularly radical.
The Beguiled is released in UK cinemas on 23rd June