“The corporal seems to be having an effect on all of us.”
The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by Don Siegel
Written by John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice
105 minutes, rated R
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 4.5/5
Sometime during the Civil War, 12-year-old Amy (played by Pamelyn Ferdin) is wandering around the woods near Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, the Confederate boarding school at which she is a student, in search of mushrooms that will absolutely be important later to the plot, when she stumbles upon Corporal John McBurney (played by Eastwood), an injured Union soldier who has been left for dead. Amy manages to get him back to the boarding school, as safe as place as any to be nursed back to health by Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Geraldine Page). It soon becomes clear to McBurney, however, that he is being held captive. Over the course of the film, he plots an escape by conning his way into the hearts of several of the girls, all of whom begin to turn on each other. Eventually, they begin to turn on him. That is the nutshell plot of 1971’s The Beguiled, Eastwood’s third collaboration with director Don Siegel.
Full disclosure right here at the very beginning: I have seen this film in my movie-going life more times than I can accurately count. I saw it for the first time in a film class during my junior year of college. The professor of that class had divided the sixteen-week course into four four-week units (independent films, Hitchcock films, great foreign directors, and feminist films). The Beguiled (along with Tootsie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and All About Eve) was part of that final unit. I was completely blown away by the first viewing. Aside from just being unaware up to that point that Clint Eastwood had done good movies that weren’t westerns or Dirty Harry vehicles, I was impressed at how downright creepy and chilling this movie turned out to be. As a male, the movie made me very, very uncomfortable. Even so, this movie became a staple over the next couple of years, a movie that I was constantly recommending and discussing with friends and colleagues who hadn’t seen it. There night have been a time when I was proclaiming it as my favorite Clint Eastwood film.
Cut now to 2021. I’m making an attempt to review the movie as if I’ve never seen it before. The problem with that is not only the fact that I’ve easily seen this movie fifty times or more, but also the fact that I’m older now. I have a different understanding of the world. There are things about this movie that really bother me now that wouldn’t have bothered me then. Some of those differences in perception are societal (what was acceptable then is not acceptable now), some are personal (I have a better understanding now of how my own perceptions and actions might have been hurting others), and some are knowing now what I didn’t know then (Clint Eastwood, as I am learning while attempting to review every movie he ever made, is a very, very problematic person).
I grew up watching Clint Eastwood movies. My father loved him. My step-father adored him. Even my grandfather, who was not a man who would have enjoyed the violence of Eastwood’s films, spent many hours with reruns of Rawhide. My love for his work is earned honestly. Eventually, as I began to have an appreciation for the art of filmmaking and not just a love of film, I began to admire Eastwood all the more. Eastwood has directed a lot of great and wonderful films. Movies that spoke to me. Movies that stand the test of time as some of the greatest American movies ever made. This is clearly a man of talent and skill. And he’s not only respected by me. Clint Eastwood is respected as a gifted filmmaker throughout Hollywood.
But Eastwood as a person? There’s a lot that I’ve learned that gives me pause. I noticed, naturally, as I’ve done research to write these entries, that Eastwood has a long history of forming romantic relationships with his co-stars (including Jo Ann Harris, who stars with him in The Beguiled). Further research into that has revealed a long history of infidelity against spouses. There are even reports of spousal abuse. There is more than one lover who claims that Eastwood forced them to have an abortion so that his wife wouldn’t find out about their illicit affair. He’s more than a little icky in this regard, and I am constantly forced to question my admiration of him. He has always somewhat stood as a symbol of masculinity to me, but my own definition of “masculinity” in no way includes such outright “misogyny”. I am, right now, in this moment, hard-pressed to come up with a different word to describe what I believe Clint Eastwood truly to be. He’s a misogynist. He would appear– at least, back then– to have no respect whatsoever for women, or for their agency, or for their reason to exist beyond being yet another ghosted girlfriend of a man with pretty severe issues. This realization about a man I once admired makes a review of The Beguiled especially difficult. I don’t see this film now as being as “feminist” as my former professor did.
You may have noticed that I have given this film 4.5 out of 5 stars. I want to clear that up before I get too deeply into a review. This is a great movie. It’s creepy and intense and never boring. It doesn’t end in a manner that you’re expecting. The acting (especially from at least two of the women involved) is top-notch. It’s well-filmed (cinematographer Bruce Surtees deserves accolades for one sequence shot through the bannister of a stairwell alone) and well-edited. My opinion that this might be the first truly excellent movie that Eastwood participated in is certainly defendable. That assessment, though, is based solely on the artistic merits inherent in the film. More sensitive viewers, especially those that hop on this film based solely on my recommendation, need some fair warning before proceeding.
This is a very misogynistic film.
The plot hinges on a theme of sexual repression. The story, after all, takes place in a boarding school for young women. There are no men– with the exception of the occasional Confederate soldier checking in to make sure that no one has seen any damn Yankees wandering around– anywhere in sight. The film seems to be taking a stance that Eastwood’s mere presence in the boarding school throws everything into turmoil. These impressionable young women have no idea how to conduct themselves in the presence of such a virile, handsome stud. Yes, eventually, it becomes clear that McBurney had an endgame that involved tormenting these women. Yes, he eventually pays for it (boy oh boy, does he pay for it). None of this changes the fact that the entire plot hinges on the psychological manipulation of young girls. The only one of the women involved in this macho mindfuck that isn’t an impressionable teenager is Miss Martha (played by an absolutely terrifying Geraldine Page), and the film slowly reveals via flashbacks that her own progression as an adult female with a mind of her own was stunted at an early age.
Let’s start with her…Miss Martha used to run the seminary with her older brother, Miles (played by Patrick Culliton). Flashbacks reveal that her relationship with her brother was incestuous. There you go…this woman is messed up. The script seems to imply that her obsession with McBurney, her obsession with keeping him in the boarding school, her refusal to report his presence to Confederate soldiers, her willingness to actually lie to them about his identity when his presence becomes known, is a direct result of a pipe dream to have him replace her brother. All of this behavior begins to make sense when you remember that McBurney has been wearing Miles’ clothes and sleeping in the music room, the room where Miles composed most of his music. It’s not enough for this script, though, to make her just a little off; she turns into a jealous hellion when she tries to bed McBurney, offers to let him stay at the school as her partner forever, and then CUTS HIS GOD DAMN LEG OFF when she discovers that he is fooling around with Carol (played by Jo Ann Harris). Yeah, she’s a bit of a mental trainwreck, but it’s the jealousy of a woman that one has to really look out for, no?
I mentioned Carol, so we’ll move on to her . . . Played by Jo Ann Harris, Carol is painted from the first moments that we meet her as a teenager with a troubled past. It is implied that she was sent to the boarding school because of her behavior with men. She was 22 when this movie was filmed, but she plays an experienced teenager here, one who flirts shamelessly with McBurney until she eventually convinces him to come up to her room in the middle of the night and have sex. Of course he does. So . . . now we have a woman in this narrative whose sole motivation is sex. She’s hot and willing. She’s in heat. As a viewer, we’re supposed to see nothing wrong with McBurney bedding a teenage girl. She came on to him, right?
Now, let’s talk about Edwina (played by Elizabeth Hartman) . . . Edwina is the teacher at the boarding school. Conversations between her and Miss Martha show that she is the next in line to take over as headmistress when Miss Martha retires. It is also discussed that she is a virgin with no experience whatsoever with men. It is unclear why Miss Martha would leave her in such a position as to be the one to take care of the evil man in their midst, but she does, charging Edwina with the dressing of his wounds and feeding him. Edwina becomes quite enamored of McBurney and they begin to make plans to run away together as soon as McBurney is well enough to leave on his own accord. It is her that walks in on McBurney and Carol in the act of coitus. It is her that pushes him down the stairs and breaks his leg (the leg that, as I mentioned, will soon be amputated in a very unsettling scene in the dining room). It is her that loses the most when McBurney turns on them. Or does she? Did McBurney only pretend to love her? Does the film imply that Edwina’s sexual repression is the eventual source of her insanity? Maybe McBurney really does love her, but the temptation of hot little Jo Ann Harris would just be too much for any man to bear. The movie doesn’t make any of this clear. The only point that the movie seems to be making understood in regards to Edwina is that she only has herself to blame for being such a prude.
By this point in the film, we have a sexually-repressed virgin, an older woman with a history of banging her brother, and a promiscuous teenager that can’t function without spreading her legs. I am very confused as to why this film is considered “feminist”. I bought it in class at the time, but I’m not so sure that I do now. Is it a feminist film because the evil man gets his just desserts at the end of the film? I would find this assessment much more viable if the women involved hadn’t done anything to deserve the evils they perform on one another. As it stands, these women turn on each other, all vying for the love and affection of a rather disgusting human being.
The movie itself does not take very long to paint McBurney as a man unworthy of the attention laid on him. Flashbacks throughout the film reveal that he is not completely telling the truth about how he ended up almost dead in the woods. We witness with our own eyes in the real-time story him tell one woman one thing while telling another woman another. And then there’s his introduction to Amy . . . less than ten minutes into the film.
The film opens with Amy wandering around the forest looking for mushrooms. She stumbles upon McBurney and agrees to help him seek shelter. He makes clear that he is a Union soldier and that he will be killed if he is seen by the Confederate soldiers who left him for dead. As they move through the woods, him using her as a crutch of sorts, they are forced to hide in some bushes to avoid being caught. Amy is agog at the sight of the soldiers and their horses and weaponry. The following dialogue takes place:
MCBURNEY: How old are you, Amy?
AMY: Twelve. Thirteen in September.
MCBURNEY: Old enough for kisses.
And he kisses her. A twelve-year-old girl. To keep her quiet. He could have, I don’t know, put a hand over her mouth. He could have just shushed her and reminded her that it was imperative to his safety that she not speak a word. No, he kisses her. Full on the mouth. It’s creepy and it immediately sets a tone for McBurney’s character. Every action towards a woman for the rest of the film is immediately suspect.
As I pondered what really bothers me about this film being considered a “feminist film”, I was reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Death Proof, released in 2007 as the second half of Grindhouse. In this film, Kurt Russell plays a stunt driver who uses his souped-up muscle car to stalk and run over unsuspecting women. He meets his match in a set of women who turn out to be far craftier than he ever thought possible. At the film’s end, they overpower him and beat the crap out of him. This, to my mind, is more of a “feminist film” than The Beguiled. In the former, a man hates women, treats them vilely, and he gets what he deserves as a result. In the latter, the man gets what he deserves, but the movie seems to think that the women are also getting what they deserve. In Death Proof, the women have done nothing to deserve such vile treatment other than being women. In The Beguiled, every one but poor little Amy (who convinces herself that McBurney must love her or he wouldn’t have kissed her, and doesn’t understand why he– in the film’s climax– would kill her turtle) is a victim of their own unsavory behaviors. How dare a women be a virgin! Or not a virgin! Or want to keep a willing suitor all to herself!
While doing research for this entry, I discovered two things that I found fascinating. First, Don Siegel himself cites The Beguiled as his favorite film that he ever did. I am unclear on the distinction between “films he did” and “films he did with Eastwood”, but a conversation with Mr. Siegel about why he has picked this film as his favorite might be enlightening. On one level, I certainly get it. The film– as I have mentioned– is quite good and works as an excellent film, content of the movie aside. The script hits all the beats for suspense. The acting– even from Clint, who seems to be doing more acting here than he ever had before– is enthralling. The film is shot beautifully. This movie delivers a Gothic tale better than most other films that immediately spring to mind. However, Don Siegel passed away in 1991, decades before the era of #MeToo, and one does have to wonder if Siegel’s lasting impressions of this film would have survived to this day. It is, very obviously, a problematic movie. With that said, I also discovered that there was a remake of this film made in 2017. It stars Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, Elle Fanning as Carol (though, in this version, she is named Alicia), and Colin Farrell as Corporal McBurney. I confess to being curious about it. It is written and directed by Sofia Coppolla, a talented filmmaker well known for feminist points of view in her material. Would the same story presented from the point of view of the females populating the narrative leave such a misogynistic taste in my mouth?
Ultimately, when all is said and done, I still quite enjoyed this movie. I stand by its excellence as one of the first truly great films that Clint Eastwood participated in. It is not an easy view, however. Even in 1971 the content alone might have made audiences squeamish. In 2021, though, it is bothersome for different reasons. More sensitive viewers should keep that in mind.