Published on July 31st, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Beguiled 
Summary: With a plot that was made for softcore porn, this is a total change of pace for Don Siegel & Clint Eastwood. This thriller may be the precursor to modern reality dating shows, as jealousy and deceit boil over among boarding school girls.
R | 105 min.
Director: Don Siegel | Screenplay: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp (based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman
Studio: Universal Pictures
One depraved, desperate man alone in a house full of young women who haven’t been around a man in months. Both reality television and the adult film industry have thrived on storylines like that–but it’s not exactly what comes to mind when you think of the movies of Clint Eastwood.
For his third collaboration with director Don Siegel, Eastwood played against his gunslinging antihero type as a vulnerable but manipulative man with a shaky moral compass. The Beguiled is more Stanley Kubrick than John Ford, where battles are carried out in the mind rather than on the open plains.
The plot was ripped from a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, taking place in backwoods Louisiana during the Civil War. Union solider John “McB” McBurney (Eastwood) is found badly wounded by young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) while she is picking mushrooms in the woods surrounding her boarding school. McB is taken back to the school where his injuries are treated by headmaster Martha (Geraldine Page), her assistant Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and several other girls. His hosts juggle the idea of giving him up to the Confederate army but slowly each begins to develop feelings for their male guest as jealousy and deceit boil over in the house.
The Beguiled is entirely interested in what makes its characters tick. Sexual tension is palpable in nearly every scene, even uncomfortably between Eastwood and 12-year-old Ferdin who share a kiss early on. This is not a film that’s easily digested as it makes nearly everyone look bad before it’s over. The only men seen in the picture are shown as rapists, killers, drunks, and liars–while the women are shown as jealous, vengeful, needy temptresses.
When the movie is over, the only character who maintains any level of dignity is the virginal Edwina, who is played briliantly by Hartman. This is also easily one of my favorite performances of Eastwood’s career. He’s a guy that’s been knocked by acting snobs for only playing one type of character but it’s pictures like The Beguiled that show him as a guy willing to take risks despite massive popularity. As McB, we see him terrorized and totally out of control in parts while also enjoying his rugged charm at other points.
Like many movies of the early-’70s, this one suffers from awful sound quality and an even worse soundtrack. Although taking place in the Civil War south, The Beguiled‘s original score sounds more suited to a romantic period piece in 1800’s Europe. Also, the movie is heavy on voiceovers from its female characters–which come off as distracting and cheesy.
Eventually, as the women of the film start to figure out McB’s true motivations, they begin to turn on one another and also reveal their true colors. We see layers of psyche peel away as time goes by in the secluded boarding school and this is where The Beguiled ultimately succeeds. Men watching the film will likely feel jealous of McB’s situation in the first two acts, especially upon the introduction of the sultry Carol (Jo Ann Harris), but will ultimately be glad they were watching from a safe distance.
In addition to being a film about lust and our desire for forbidden fruit, The Beguiled carries a heavy anti-war message. Common for films of the Vietnam era, this picture paints war as an unforgiving and destructive ordeal with no clear heroes. McB is depicted burning villages and rather than feel protected by the patrolling soldiers outside, the girls of the boarding school feel afraid they will only be raped by them. In one of the movie’s more pointed pieces of dialogue, a character equates soldiers to slaves, saying they have no choice in the things they do.
Most of this picture is very dated, so much so that you may laugh in certain scenes but The Beguiled is a well directed film from Siegel and well acted by its cast. Some scenes play comedically today because of their over the top nature but the movie is downright frightening in parts. For example, when McB is strapped down to an operating table after a lustful late night transgression, its hard not to look away from the screen. Also, the film’s climactic dinner scene shows Siegel’s brilliance as there is so much happening under the surface while these characters exchange false grins and pass the vegetables.
Fans of Eastwood’s more traditional work will likely be frustrated with The Beguiled but it’s worth a watch if you are interested in seeing his acting prowess. I just hope no turtles were hurt in the making of this picture…