During the American Civil War, a wounded Yankee soldier (Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven) is rescued by the staff and pupils of a Southern all-girls school. The soldier quickly tries to take advantage of the women in the house, but he overplays his hand.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Sometimes a man’s gotta do things he doesn’t particularly like.”
In 1971, Clint Eastwood made two of his most unusual films, The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me. The first one is a western, the other one is a modern thriller, but the movies are strangely similar: they both examine the relationship between gender and power. The movies also deconstruct Eastwood’s macho persona.
Based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled plays like a cross between a John Ford movie and one of William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic stories. The movie is essentially a variation on the fox-in-the-henhouse idiom, but in this chicken coop the fox gets pecked to death by the hen and her chicks!
The Beguiled startles you from the very beginning. One of the very first scenes involves Eastwood’s character kissing a little girl on the lips in an almost sexual manner. It’s a very unusual moment that hints at things to come. Tension is entirely derived from the feeling that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another movie that accomplishes that with this much intelligence.
As a thriller, The Beguiled does a great job keeping us on the edge of our seats, but this is really a piece of the Gothic type. On the surface, The Beguiled tells a story of sexual repression and female hypocrisy (some critics erroneously accused the film of misogyny), but the movie is really about power and gender role expectations.
The arrogant and callous Yankee soldier operates under the assumption that, as a man, he is inherently superior to women. There is a sense of “male-privilege” that Eastwood conveys beautifully. The soldier uses the women in the school as he pleases because all that matters is his own self-gratification. But war has dismantled the power structure that has defined society for centuries and all bets are off. Above all, The Beguiled is about the awakening of feminine power and frailty of masculinity.
The Beguiled works as well as it does because it has a perfect cast. Eastwood’s super-macho image makes his character’s destruction all the more shocking to see. Kudos to the actor for eagerly embracing an unlikable character, and for allowing the film to trash the alpha male archetype, which he has helped popularize in countless films.
The rest of the cast is great too. The standout of the cast is Geraldine Page (Trip to Bountiful), who is spectacularly good as the headmistress — Page’s itchy performance is an extraordinary collection of mannerisms. Elizabeth Hartman (A Patch of Blue), who plays a teacher, has this fragile aura that makes you want to hug her (Hartman’s frailty turned out to be real — she committed suicide in 1987).
Mae Mercer’s (Frogs) role as a slave is small, but she adds another (political) layer to the narrative. Jo Ann Harris (The Parallax View) is appropriately sensual as an oversexed teen. Pamelyn Ferdin (The Mephisto Waltz) delivers the goods as an impressionable young girl. The movie is an example of ensemble acting at its finest.
I also loved the film’s look. This is the first movie by cameraman Bruce Surtees (son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees, Ben-Hur) and the beginning of his long association with Eastwood. Surtees’s work is purposely unglamorous — the underlit sets and drab colors give the movie a post-apocalyptic vibe. Lalo Schifrin (The Amityville Horror) wrote a wonderfully creepy music score.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Beguiled was the least financially successful of the five films Eastwood made with director Don Siegel, yet it is perhaps the best of the bunch. In my opinion, it’s a near-masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1970s. The movie was recently remade by Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette). I haven’t seen the new version and I don’t think I want to — as much as I like Sofia, I just don’t see how you can improve upon the magnificent original. Highly recommended! Color, 105 minutes, Rated R.