The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by: Don Siegel.
Written by: Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp from the novel by Thomas Cullinan.
Starring: Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Darleen Carr (Doris), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), Charlie Briggs (1st Confederate Captain), George Dunn (Sam Jefferson), Charles G. Martin (2nd Confederate Captain), Matt Clark (Scrogins), Patrick Culliton (Miles Farnswoth), Buddy Van Horn (Soldier).
In the same year that director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood teamed up to make the iconic Dirty Harry, they also collaborated on The Beguiled – a much lesser known film, but an incredibly fascinating one. It’s one of the oddest films either of them ever made – and gives a very different portrait of Eastwood than we have seen in pretty much any other movie. They marketed the film is a typical Civil War Western – but it is anything but that. The sexual/gender politics of the film are, well, complicated to say to the least. The film is brilliant and strange and unforgettable – and with the Sofia Coppola remake coming out this year, one only hopes the film will start to be more widely seen.
The action takes place during the Civil War, on a Southern school for girls – ranging in age from 8 to 17 or so. The headmistress is Martha (Geraldine Page), an aging woman, who has never married, with a complicated past with her now deceased brother. Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) is the teacher – and while she is younger than Martha, her future looks to be about the same. In the opening scene of the film, one of the younger students – Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), finds a Union soldier, John McBurney (Eastwood), bleeding to death in the fields near the school. They bring him back to the school – and although he is the enemy, and they fully intend to turn him over to the Confederate soldiers when they have they have the chance, until then, they decide to help him – nurse him back to the health. McBurney, who knows he is doomed if they turn him over, starts instead to work his charm on the women who haven’t had a man in their life for a long time – if ever. The young Amy sees him as a hero – an object of fascination. Martha sees him as a potential man of the house – someone who can run the “help” if they decide to start farming again – and perhaps a husband as well. The younger, more naïve Edwina almost immediately falls in love with him – and sees a world open to her she never imagined – one where she can someone’s wife, and not “just a teacher”. There is also Carol (Jo Ann Harris), one of the older students – who doesn’t love McBurney, but does want to have sex with him – if for no other reason than to see if she can – and with no other men around, as practice.
Eastwood’s McBurney is a liar and a conman – and he’s good at it. He is able to expertly read what each of the women want, and say the right things to win them over. We know early he’s a liar – he tells Martha he got injured selflessly trying to save a Confederate soldier, that his conscience wouldn’t let him leave wounded – but as he talks, we flash back to the real story – a violent one where McBurney guns down a Confederate soldier, and not in the most honorable of ways. He is able to say the right things to string along Martha, Edwina, Carol and Amy – and the other women he deals with, in limited ways (including a slave – played by Mae Mercer, who gets a chance to show enough to make you wish they gave her more to do). Yet, McBurney isn’t really that smart either. He basically has three choices in front of him – one of which would guarantee him safety, one would pretty much do the same, and one would completely screw him if it got out – so which one does he pick? And when it comes out – it sets in motion the violent end of the film that he essentially brought on himself.
This is an interesting role for Eastwood – and one I cannot help but think that perhaps he wouldn’t have done just a year later. In 1971, Eastwood was a major star to be sure, but you can tell by the three movies he made that year that he wanted to break out of the Westerns he had been making until then (at least somewhat). Alongside The Beguiled, he also directed his first film – the psychological thriller Play Misty for Me, where he starred as DJ, and of course, Dirty Harry, the urban crime drama/thriller. The Beguiled was made, in part, because you could market it as a Western – and it reteamed Eastwood with Siegel for the third time (they’d do two more – and alongside Sergio Leone, would be the director Eastwood most cites as his mentor). Yet, the film is wildly different that a typical Western – in fact, other than that brief flashback sequence that shows the real way McBurney got hurt, there is no real action to speak of. There is also no heroes in the film – the various soldiers who happen upon the house, are if anything, worse than McBurney – they do nothing to hide their intent in stopping by and offering their “protection” – and that doesn’t matter if it Union or Confederate soldiers. The women are not any better either – after McBurney’s betrayal is discovered, all the women react violently to him – and he is increasingly hurt and maimed. Their motivations are mostly simple – but the film doesn’t even make the young Amy innocent (she is all too gleeful a participant in the climax). The most complex character is clearly Geraldine Page’s Martha – harboring her own dark secrets, and then going above and beyond to “protect” her school – her girls, and herself.