Director: Don Siegel / Screenplay: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp (from novel by Thomas Cullinan) / Editing: Carl Pingitore / DP: Bruce Surtees / Score: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Clint Eastwood / Geraldine Page / Elizabeth Hartman / Jo Ann Harris / Mae Mercer / Pamelyn Ferdin
Captor or Captive? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference…
Don Siegel was a workmanlike director of pictures across diverse genres. After a string of B-Westerns and TV work in the Fifties and early-mid Sixties, he finally hit his commercial stride with Coogan’s Bluff (1968), the first of five collaborations with Clint Eastwood. The quirky Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) followed, along with The Beguiled (1971). The iconic Dirty Harry (1972) came next, but Siegel was destined never to scale such critical heights again, thereafter producing a string of formulaic spy thrillers, along with John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist (1976). He’d close-out his partnership with Eastwood with Escape From Alcatraz (1979).
History doesn’t record why he chose to direct Beguiled, but I suspect he was swayed by Eastwood’s interest in – and acquisition of – the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan and he wanted to continue their creative hot-streak.
I can see the attraction for Eastwood, too. Thanks to Sergio Leone’s ‘Fistful’ trilogy and a string of successful Action & Western movies, his career had reached the point where he could ‘open’ a film – any film – and expect it to be a hit, so it was only natural to pick roles that avoided potential typecasting, yet still appealed to his core audience. How else to explain the quirky Western-Musical that was Paint Your Wagon (1969) or even the comedic byplay with Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules? When surrounded by obvious box-office hits such as Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), such choices begin to make sense. This was Eastwood doing ‘one for the team, one for me, one for the team’ and why not, if it kept his audience on their toes and him engaged in the process? Yet in Beguiled, he makes his boldest choice yet, in playing against his cool, super-heroic persona, with a character who’s disempowered, if not emasculated: no wonder Eastwood’s core audience were confused by what they saw…
The picture opens with a title sequence of sepia-tinted Civil War photos and keeps the sepia, as we see a young girl out mushrooming in a wood. DP Surtees shifts slowly into colour, just in time for her to be startled by the appearance of a Union soldier, who’s badly injured and lost. She decides to help him, by leading him to her boarding-school. However, there’s a party of Confederate cavalry out looking for ‘strays’ such as he. Just when they’re about to be discovered, he asks the girl her age. When she replies “Twelve”, the soldier replies “Old enough to be kissed” and duly does so, thus masking his discovery. Only afterwards, do they exchange names: the girl is Amy, played by Pamela Ferdin, with a knowing aloofness to her character, that I accepted from that moment. Eastwood’s character is Corporal McBurney (or ‘McB’ as he’s then referred to by the girls).
Even nearly fifty years on, this scene retained the power to shock.
Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but I can’t recall seeing an adult male passionately kiss a minor on-screen, even if from some external reason, as here. Whereas extreme violence seems almost commonplace these days, our culture is more protective / prescriptive / prurient towards sexual content in mainstream film than ever before. To see a period piece tackling such troubling material, reminds us of what’s been both lost and gained over time, though I can’t say I was entirely comfortable having watched it. I wonder how contemporary reviews of the time, dealt with all the subtext and allusions it suggests?
In the context of the film, it’s enough to recognise that this one impulsive act of self-preservation on the part of McB is unwittingly playing with Amy’s emotions – and will have ramifications throughout the film. McB is oblivious to the effect he has on her vulnerable, impressionable character.
Once McB is dragged into the grounds of Amy’s school, we get our bearings. A Colonial-era mansion house, owned by Martha and her (missing) brother, now run as a girls-only boarding school. When the fighting draws near, Martha has at least one girl up on the roof at all times, to raise the alarm should soldiers from either side approach. McB’s arrival therefore presents a dilemma to the school, as he’s the first man to have crossed its threshold in a long time. Yet, given he’s so injured, Martha feels duty-bound to care for him, irrespective of the colour of his uniform. As her own VO puts it, ‘If this war goes on much longer, I’ll forget I was a woman.’
We’ll get a few interior monologues throughout the picture, together with a smattering of flashbacks, that Siegel uses to add context; in the drive to streamline the narrative, I can see why having ‘actual’ scenes depicting past events, might’ve proven distracting. Not that Martha’s entirely selfless in this regard.
Even this early, we get the feeling she’s in need of a man about the place; if only to help in the school’s vegetable garden. That explains why, when she goes out to meet the cavalry and sees how they’re treating a cartload of other Union prisoners, she doesn’t tell them about McB. It’s a selfish impulse, as much as it is humanitarian. She can do both, it seems: Siegel has Martha offer Edwina, her one-and-only teacher, a partnership in the school, with a promise to bequeath it all to her in her Will. Edwina, played by Elizabeth Hartman, is a straight-laced, twenty-two year old virgin who, we just know, is going to melt for McB… Why else does the plot have this exchange, if not to tee-up a later reversal?
McB’s first meaningful exchange is with Edwina and with the house slave Hallie, as they give him a bed-bath and dress his wounds. I thought Mae Mercer played a difficult role in Hallie with real grit and insight, helped by a script that empowered her character. Although deferential to Martha and the girls as befitting Hallie’s status, her character has a life behind her and Hallie conducts herself as though she’s at the house of her own free-will. Come to think of it, that might very well be the case. After all, she’s the only servant left (the others having presumably been lost to the war or having simply run-off) and delights in teasing the girls as they half-heartedly hoe the garden. Hallie might be a ‘slave’, but in this picture, she’s a slave in name only; an equal participant in events to come.
Of course, McB’s next charm offensive is directed at Martha herself, played with real vim here by Geraldine Page. To appeal to – what he hopes – is this older woman’s tender side, McB lies about his role in the war, saying he’s a ‘Quaker’ and therefore a pacifist, reduced to ‘carrying bandages’. Siegel chops this pretence down, with brief intercuts showing him as a rifleman on the battlefield. I was uncertain of the merits in telegraphing this so obviously, but maybe Siegel lacked a more elegant solution with which to tip a wink towards the audience.
Lastly, we have Carol, played here by Jo Ann Harris. She’s the missing link in this piece: a Seventeen year old temptress, already branded as a ‘hussey’, so we know she’s going to be a troublesome Femme Fatale, once she plants a smacker onto McB’s lips. Then again, she and Eastwood were conducting an affair during the shoot, so there’s that…
Let’s take stock. McB now has the interest of five characters: 12 year-old Amy, 17 year-old Carol, 22-year old Edwina, the older Martha and has begun flirting with Hallie. That’s five people he’s turning upside-down and, in this sultry, steamy Southern heat, things can only go bad: probably from the moment McB shares a glass of wine with a soft-focus, candle-lit Martha. As expected, she invites him to stay-on once healed, to help about the place. We’ve already learnt that she once had an incestuous relationship with her brother (thanks to another troubling revelation) and that it’s her lascivious memories of that, that are steering her impulses now. When McB kisses her, we’re led to believe he’s reviving such memories, with all the weight and pain they carry. Nonetheless, Martha gives him the key to his room (in which he’d previously been confined for the sake of ‘decorum’). Unspoken, is her invitation…
BUT, McB doesn’t make it to Martha’s room, as he’s intercepted in the hall, by Carol and makes a snap decision to go with her instead… This proves fateful, as the sound of her joyous laughter will echo through the house and be heard by everyone. It rouses Martha from an erotic dream, in which she shares McB with Edwina (revealing deeper subtext). Edwina too, who then ascends the staircase and finds McB In Flagrante Delicto. In that moment he’s revealed as a liar, having already wooed Edwina with promises of leaving together…
Understandably angry that this man – the first she ever loved since her own father ‘let her down’ – had now done the same thing, she whammies McB so hard, that he topples downstairs and breaks his leg badly. Now, the women have a choice to make: save his life, or let him die ‘from gangrene’. They opt to save his life, by cutting-off the busted leg. In the absence of any medical support, it’s an understandable decision, but it has the effect of nullifying McB’s potency; especially once he comes around from a laudanum high and learns the truth. As the camera pushes-in to capture the dawning realisation on Eastwood’s face, I was reminded of the look on James Caan’s face in Misery (1990): a similar tale of male emasculation and powerlessness in the care of a vengeful woman, lest we forget.
McB deals with the horrifying truth by assaulting, if not Martha’s vineyard, then her wine-cellar. Once the demon drink has taken hold, he announces to the group that he will have his vengeance on them, by bedding whomever he sees fit… When Amy tries appealing to his better nature, he accidentally kills her pet terrapin, thus sealing his fate as far as she’s concerned. To Martha, he states that ‘no-one lost a leg from a breakage’ and accuses her of only instigating such a drastic act, because he went to Carol’s bed instead of hers… McB doesn’t hang around to hear her response, as he then stumps-off back to his room to sleep-off his hangover. While Edwina breaks-free of Martha’s clutches to finally claim – and forgive – the only man she’s loved, the rest are drawn-in to a plot of Martha’s…
The final key scene, is a ‘dinner of reconciliation’ at which McB is presented by a bowl of mushrooms picked ‘especially’ for him by Amy. Inevitably, he tucks-in to the feast, as Edwina announces that she’d proposed to him, that he’d accepted and that they’d both be leaving the next day. Had Fate been kind, this would’ve been the Hollywood ending, so it’s to Spiegel’s credit that he shoots the end of the book. Because OF COURSE Amy’s ‘shrooms are poisonous and McB’s hearty appetite ensures his doom; an end only realised, when Edwina is offered some and Martha calls out to her not to eat… To spare us the Hero’s death-throes, McB staggers outside, leaving us to hear his groans and Edwina’s sobbing.
As a grisly denouement, Martha supervises the girls as they sew McB into a body-bag of their own making; Spiegel having the camera watching from the roof, as they carry him back to the woods from whence he came.
With such a downbeat ending, I can understand why Universal’s marketing teams might’ve struggled with Beguiled. Adopting strap-lines such as ‘One man… Seven women… In a strange house!’ was their way of ‘beguiling’ Eastwood’s audience into giving it the benefit of the doubt. Unsurprisingly, their tactic of rolling it out across the domestic chains, instead of letting this brave picture build a natural audience would fail, relegating the film to the status of a ‘lost classic’. Yet its themes – sexual manipulation, anti-war – are as relevant today as when the film was made, amidst the ongoing horror of the Vietnam War.
One could make a case that Beguiled was actually an early ‘feminist’ movie, as much as a ‘wish-fulfilment’ revenge-fantasy… The post-Sixties era of ‘Women’s lib’ was just around the corner, to empower women to make better, more informed choices about their lives and this film is almost a rallying call to the impending Zeitgeist. Almost.
Though it has troubling scenes & themes, this is both an important and trite movie when seen objectively. By that, I mean that while it explores a ‘realistic’ seam of human experience, it’s also devoid of substance. The whole thing barrels towards its inevitable pay-off with barely a glance at the scenery or the deeper motivations of its characters. It all feels a little ‘one-note’ and ‘flourish-free’ at-times, as though Siegel was so focussed on its main arc, that he couldn’t see where it might need more work. Nowhere else in his filmography, is there another picture quite like Beguiled and when watching it, I just got the feeling he was out of his comfort-zone. Eastwood wanted to shake-up his audience and confound their expectations, but I can’t help thinking we might‘ve seen a better (and more commercially successful) Artistic Statement had he picked another Director.
As I stated at the outset, Spiegel was a workmanlike Director of action-thrillers and westerns: period drama? Not so much.
That said, I think Beguiled remains an important film. Despite its lack of polish, it remains thematically bold if not downright provocative and for that alone, it’s to be celebrated. In an age when contemporary cinema is driven by conformity and an obsession with existing franchises, material that dares to challenge the status-quo deserve to be championed – and seen by as many people as possible…
That Sofia Coppola directed a remake in 2017, only adds weight to that view (though there’s an argument about ‘whitewashing’ to be made, over her decision to erase the part of Hallie). If you’re going to remake a film from an artistic standpoint (as opposed to ‘rebooting’ a tired franchise), it will help your cause if its themes are as relevant to a contemporary audience as they were on its original release. The Beguiled has them in-spades…
It’s been months since I’ve seen a woman’s face. I’m easily amused.