Clint Eastwood went to several strange and interesting places, dramatically speaking, during his late ’60s/early ’70s transition from playing cowboys to being the fully-realized icon known as Clint Eastwood. (Dirty Harry, released in 1971, completed his ascendance.) Eastwood’s wilderness years featured everything from musicals to war movies, but there’s something particularly fascinating about The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me, both released in 1971 (quite a year for Eastwood), because these two movies pit Eastwood against the unlikely but formidable opponents of scorned women. Of the pair, The Beguiled is the more provocative, since the narrative of Play Misty for Me provides an escape valve—the villain of that piece is a psychopath. In The Beguiled, the principal antagonistic force is the savagery churning inside Eastwood’s character.
Set in the South during the Civil War, the picture begins when a young girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), wanders through a forest and finds a wounded Union soldier, John (Eastwood). She guides him back to the boarding school where she lives with a handful of other young women, some of whom are near adulthood. The school is run by tough but psychologically fragile Martha (Geraldine Page). Initially, Martha says John should be handed over to Rebel soldiers, but, as do the other females in the school, she becomes enchanted by the handsome stranger. While John is nursed back to health, he woos not only Martha but also her second-in-command, the virginal Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). Meanwhile, coquettish Carol (Jo Ann Harris) makes her sexual desires plain to John. Thus begins a dark odyssey involving betrayal, lies, schemes, and temptation. John plays every angle to his advantage, figuring he’ll soon be well enough to exit the school on his own power, and each woman with whom he builds a relationship accepts the face he shows to her. (As viewers, we know he’s lying to all of them.)
Director Don Siegel, the reliable B-movie helmer who emerged during this period as Eastwood’s mentor, does some of his best-ever work in The Beguiled, employing the candlelit interiors and mossy exteriors of the Southern setting to create powerful visual metaphors—the school at the center of the story is a fertile place where wild passions grow. Siegel also stages the movie like a slow-burn horror story, and the revenge Martha takes on John once she realizes his true nature is memorably brutal.
The Beguiled runs a little long, and a director with a subtler touch could have added further dimensions, but nearly everything in the movie works, at least to some degree. Furthermore, the female performances are so good that they sell the story’s premise. Page is stern and twitchy, adding a thread of Gothic grandeur, while Harris, Hartman, and the other supporting ladies present a spectrum of complicated femininity. Eastwood stretches to the outside edges of his skill set, but the role neatly twists his macho energy into menace. While it’s tempting to brand The Beguiled as misogynistic cinema (the same criticism often lobbed at Play Misty for Me), the picture has too many dimensions to support that simplistic a reading. In the world of The Beguiled, everyone is guilty of succumbing to vile impulses.
The Beguiled: GROOVY