FEATURING: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin

PLOT: A wounded Northern soldier finds himself in an isolated girls’ school in the South during the Civil War; he attempts to take advantage of the women’s sexual attraction to him as they nurse him back to health. 

Still from the beguiled (1971)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The Beguiled is stealthily weird, with a fundamental story about men who dominate and women who hold their own concealed beneath layers of other Hollywood genres, including the war film, the captive romance, and most notably, the star vehicle. The Beguiled never lets you get settled, indulging expectations and then subverting them so that you’re never really sure what kind of story you’ve signed onto.

COMMENTS: 1971 was an extraordinary year in the careers of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. With two successes under their belts, they would celebrate Christmas with their collaboration on the hyperviolent, hypermasculine Dirty Harry. Only a couple months prior, Eastwood would make his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me, a tale of a disc jockey who has to fend off the advances of a obsessive fan. (Siegel shows up there in a cameo as a bartender.) But before any of that, another Siegel-Eastwood partnership hit the screen with the Gothic sexual suspense tale The Beguiled. It’s tempting to look for commonalities; all three feature malevolent forces trying to kill Eastwood. He triumphs over his foes in two out of three instances. See if you can guess which one bombed at the box office.

The director and star would forever blame poor marketing for the film’s failure (Eastwood would not work with Universal Studios again for decades), but The Beguiled traffics in a quiet Gothic horror that would be a tough sell even with the best campaign. Although the setting is a Louisiana plantation serving as a girls’ finishing school, it might as well be on an island in the void. We never see beyond the thick woods that surround the property, and the only signs of life beyond the mansion are the downtrodden soldiers who stagger past as they contemplate sating their carnal impulses before returning to the war and their likely demise. Dreadful augurs abound, from the raven tied up on the balcony to the deadly mushrooms that grow beneath the trees. You’re not being paranoid when there’s danger all around you.

It’s fair to wonder if either of the two men most responsible for The Beguiled ever actually understood what it was about. Siegel claimed the film was about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” while Eastwood defensively observed that his audiences rejected the film because they instinctively side with characters who are winners. Neither man seems to have recognized that while Cpl. John “McB” McBurney’s instincts run toward self-preservation, he takes a villainous tack in order to secure his safety. We learn very quickly that McB is by no means a good guy. He forces a kiss on young Amy, declaring that 12 is “old enough.” He lies to Martha about his high moral turpitude as a soldier for the North, falsely claiming to be a peace-loving noncombatant even as Siegel mocks him with footage explicitly contradicting his account of nobility on the battlefield. And of course, he stokes the fires of sexual fulfillment with several of the women at the school, a plan that earns him protectors, but also puts him at risk when they discover his duplicity. McBurney is supremely confident about his ability to dominate the proceedings, even in his weakened state. Being outnumbered doesn’t intimidate him, but rather causes him to roar louder, like a wounded animal trying to intimidate a larger foe. If McB thinks he’s got the edge over the girls, that’s because he has to have the edge. He lacks strength and numbers, so maleness is the best weapon he possesses.

The women of the school are not pure innocents: particularly not Page, the matronly headmistress who harbors deep shame over her carnal passions for her lost brother. (Her overheated dreamscape becomes a grotesque parody of the Pietà that she keeps on her wall.) It’s also noteworthy that of all the women McB woos, the one he actually beds is Harris, recognizing the need to placate the feisty teenager who can put him in grave danger if she feels spurned. But the film also makes clear the peril of their position. They are proud Southerners who describe Yankee soldiers in terms that compare them unfavorably with devils and swarms of insects, but the rebels are no angelic protectors. When Confederate forces stop by, Siegel captures their lecherous male gaze at the young women, and their violent natures are always at the surface. How McB feels trapped in the plantation house mirrors how these women feel trapped in the world. If you’ve been following the recent memed debate over whether a woman would feel safer going out with a man or a bear, rest assured that the preferences of every female in The Beguiled would surely lean ursine.

Hallie, the school’s slave maid, may be the most pivotal character in the piece. McB tries to cultivate her as an ally, dripping honey in her ear with promises of the freedom that will come with a Northern victory, and later suggesting a sexual interest. But she’s having none of it, having double the reason to be wary of him and tartly observing that this white man is ultimately no more trustworthy than any other just because of the color of his uniform. It is telling that Sofia Coppola omits this character from her 2017 remake. Hallie adds a crucial layer of complexity to the story, reinforcing the stakes of the setting—the fight over whether slavery would be allowed to endure in America—and suggesting that solidarity with other women outweighs even the oppressions of race or class.

The Beguiled is a strange battle of wills between two forces equally fearful for their lives but equally certain of the necessity of winning their war. It’s especially odd as a production by a major Hollywood studio featuring one of its leading stars; The Beguiled subverts Eastwood’s fame and upends all the conventions upon which the industry relies. It’s hardly a wonder that marketers were baffled as to how to sell it and that audiences rejected it. For one brief moment, Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel threw their weight behind an art film, and it would take a .44 Magnum to lead them back to the simpler path.


“…it is, make no mistake, one weird movie… What [Siegel] ended up making was a rather daring experiment in subverting audience empathy – almost an art-house I Spit On Your Grave, in which the assault/revenge elements that may satisfy one half of the audience will probably piss off the other, and then vice versa.”–Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

(This movie was nominated for review by GW. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.) 

The Beguiled (1971)
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  1. This is actually my favorite Eastwood movie. Unexpected among his canon of Pale Rider-esque antiheroes, it’s an intimate study of madness and manipulation. You can feel the heat and tension of the women, waiting for release from literal isolation because of the war, and their hunger for sexual release that causes further competition and conflict. The seductive and deceitful Eastwood ends up battling a war on two fronts, and the moment that he realizes he fatally erred in his trickery is true, full circle justice.

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