The Beguiled

Dir: Don Siegel, 1971. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Mae Mercer. Drama.
The Beguiled

In the strange mega-career of Clint Eastwood, no matter what your overall opinion of the guy is, it can’t be argued that his choices have been fascinating. Before becoming the acclaimed and active old-man director of middle-of-the-road bores he is today, he was a huge super-duper action actor and in his heyday made some interesting zigs and zags (all from 1969-1973 when he made ten films).

Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, giving him international box office clout, he made the bizarre musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. The same year Dirty Harry cemented him as America’s premier tough guy, he directed the female stalker thriller Play Misty For Me (1971). He followed that up directing the completely awkward Breezy (1973) about a romance between senior citizen William Holden and a teenage flower child. Also in 1973 High Plains Drifter, which may be his greatest directing accomplishment, was released. Eastwood plays a drifter in the old west and the film opens with him raping a woman (of course, she ended up falling for him). Right in the middle of those crazy four years he made the oddest and maybe most psycosexual film of his career, The Beguiled, a sorta Gothic Civil War almost-ghosty story (in the sense that people are haunted by memories), about female lust. It’s as if Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women went on a Picnic at Hanging Rock

The Beguiled was based on a 1966 novel called A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, and the script was by Albert Maltz (one of the original Hollywood Ten jailed and blacklisted in the '50s, best known for his first produced screenplay, the Noiry This Gun for Hire). At an all-girls boarding school in Civil War ravaged Louisiana, life goes on while the continuing threat of Yankee hordes lives in the imagination, their own horny old Rebel soldiers just outside the gate pose a more dangerous threat. Headed by Martha Farnsworth (the great stage actress Geraldine Page) and her junior teacher, the romantically fragile Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman, Oscar nominated a few years earlier for A Patch of Blue), the female students range in age and types from the sexual attention starved (Jo Ann Harris) to the turtle loving Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, who looks very familiar to anyone who was raised on a diverse amount of '70s TV), and of course they have an outspoken slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer), who is also haunted by the memories of a past relationship like the other two adult woman in the house. When Little Amy finds a half dead Union soldier on the grounds, the house takes him in and heals his wounds. Once the blood and beard are cleaned from his face he turns out to be the glorious Clint in all his masculine vitality, complete with his puffy pompadour.

He instantly goes about manipulating all of the females in the house, whose desires and needs range from sexual to paternal. They even go so far as to cover for him with their own soldiers. But jealousy breaks out among them, leading to his falling down the stairs and Martha chopping off his leg, ostensibly to stop gangrene from setting in (a symbolic castration). Clint goes from being an angel to a devil, representing danger, and now the women need to get rid of him. Aided by a menacing and haunting score by the great Lalo Schifrin (Mission Impossible), the film becomes almost a psychological horror film, first for Clint and then for the women.

This was the middle film in the five collaborations between actor Eastwood and director Don Siegel (which began with Coogan’s Bluff and continued with Two Mules of Sister Sara, Dirty Harry, and finally Escape from Alcatraz). This collaboration marked a second-act peak in Siegel’s career, that began with gritty B movies after WWII, the highlight of which was the sci-fi masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers in ’56. The Beguiled marked the most peculiar off-center veer from Siegel’s usually tough guy filmography. For Eastwood, back in ’71, it also looked like a strange one-off from his usual straightforward action persona, but he would continue to surprise throughout his career (sometimes successfully and often not). Besides some of his directorial choices he would often do films that on paper felt like the usual, but actually had a different under-taste to them (the homoerotic action buddy flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot being an obvious example).

For some The Beguiled can come off as an egomaniacal star-trip and even misogynistic, though I would argue that overused word. There is no hatred of women here and the mistrust comes from both sexes. If it’s a male fantasy, the fantasy soon turns into a nightmare, and the filmmaker surprisingly seems to be sympathetic to the female point of view. While other controversial films of the period like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs carry violent sexual politics that can be split down a line and easily defined, The Beguiled never really seemed to cause a stir, yet it's much more sophisticated than so many other period films about sexual repression from that era. Besides it’s other strong merits, for just being more challenging than the usual Eastwood opus, The Beguiled deserves a second look.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 12, 2015 2:18pm
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