For action star Clint Eastwood, the opportunity to play Cpl. John "McBee" McBurney in the 1971 film The Beguiled, a period piece based on the novel of the same name (originally published as A Painted Devil) by Northeast Ohio native Thomas P. Cullinan, represented a chance to play against type. As a Civil War soldier who takes refuge at an all-girls boarding school in rural Mississippi and then systematically falls for several of the school's residents, McBee comes off as particularly vulnerable and even emasculated. That's hardly the stereotypical role for Eastwood, a tough guy who had gained a rep as a steely eyed anti-hero at the time he starred in the movie.
Already a major star at the time that director Don Siegel shot the movie, Eastwood couldn't turn the period piece into a hit. It flopped at the box office (at least in the U.S.).
It's not likely that Sofia Coppola's remake of the movie will do any better, despite the accolades it's already received: The movie won Coppola the Best Director prize at Cannes. The movie opens areawide on Friday.
Though she cuts a few scenes and characters (notably that of Hallie, a black slave), Coppola doesn't alter the original storyline much. She lets Colin Farrell, who plays McBee, keep his Irish accent by making him a recent immigrant who enlisted as a Union soldier.
Like the original film, The Beguiled commences as McBee stumbles upon an all-girls boarding school in the middle of a particularly isolated plantation. The school's head mistress (Nicole Kidman) instructs the students to take him in, and they nurture him back to health, hiding him from the Confederate soldiers who occasionally happen upon the school.
In the original film, the sheltered women struggle to contain their feelings for McBee. Who can really blame them? The young Clint Eastwood was quite the hunk. Here, Coppola adds nuance to their affections. Martha keeps her distance from the man, and even Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) doesn't entirely trust him when he pronounces his love for her.
While the original film suffered from a protracted end, Coppola efficiently brings things to a climax and doesn't dwell on the gossiping that goes on as the women try to position themselves to outdo one another.
The cast certainly lives up to the billing here. Kidman and Farrell both bring real depth to their characters. And Coppola capably captures the time period.
But the ultimate point isn't clear. Is it that the Civil War took a personal toll? That women at the time were much stronger than we might think? That human sexuality can be destructive? The movie's meaning is a muddled mess. No wonder the French loved the original movie and bestowed such high honors upon this remake.