The Film: The Beguiled (1971)

The Principals: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Don Siegel (director) 

The Premise:
Union soldier John McBurney (Eastwood) is wounded deep behind enemy lines. A pigtailed little Confederate finds him, and takes him home to her all-girls boarding school.   Headmistress Martha (Page) initially plans to hand him over to a Confederate patrol, so he can be locked up in a prison camp. But after one look at that strong jaw and those sideburns, Martha decides to keep him.  All the girls rejoice to have a man about the place, especially one who has such fantastic hair, and looks so good in an open shirt.  McBurney’s thrilled too! He thinks he’s died and gone to heaven. But hell hath no fury like a horny all-girls boarding school, and floorboards and bedstands creak.

Is It Good: It is an absolute delight. It’s pure Southern Gothic camp, but with just enough grit to make it feel all right.  After all, it’s Clint Eastwood, so you know it’s full of sweat and swagger — and he’s never strutted more than he has in The Beguiled.   People tend to dismiss him as playing only cowboys and cops. Few realize that he’s also played a lot of horndogs and sex addicts.  (There are few films he’s not knowingly framed as a sex symbol, but Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled, Play Misty For Me, Tightrope and True Crime are probably the most obvious. Watch them in a row, read his Wikipedia bio, and wonder at art imitating life.) 

This film boasts Eastwood at his sexiest, but also at his creepiest.   In the first scene, McBurney kisses a 12 year old. (I’m guessing she’s 12. She acts younger, and yet must have been older.)  Later on, he continues to wrap her around his finger, presses her say that she loves him, and pretends to be jealous of her pet turtle. He may actually be jealous of the pet turtle. It’s hard to say. He’s not a nice guy, as proven by the fact that even the school’s preteens aren’t off limits.  

McBurney also participates in a menage a trois.  Ok, so it’s only a dream sequence. It’s still one of the best dream sequences ever, because it actually has Eastwood standing in for Jesus in the Pieta.  Let me repeat that for emphasis — Eastwood becomes a sexy, bare-chested Jesus Christ in a fever dream version of the Pieta.

Yes, this movie a crazy and wonderful thing.  There are lesbians, there’s incest, there are inner monologues torn straight from a Harlequin novel, and a title track sung by Eastwood. There’s a fair amount of blood, too.  It never goes as far as it could (this isn’t Lars von Trier) but it still takes a few nasty turns without completely wallowing in misogyny. No one is especially sympathetic in this (except maybe the turtle and the school’s pet crow), and everyone gets a turn being victim or villain.  The threats of rape and the S&M flavoring might be why it doesn’t get a lot of discussion when anyone does a retrospective on this all-American icon.

Is It Worth a Look:  If promises of a cock-of-the-walk, preteen kissing, threeway-having Eastwood haven’t convinced you of that already, I don’t know what I can say.   What about the trivia that it was (supposedly) nearly titled Pussy Footing at the Old Plantation?

In all seriousness, The Beguiled really marks a “path not taken” in Eastwood’s career, which makes it worth visiting.  As you know, 1971 was his biggest year. He cemented himself as a second icon in Dirty Harry, and he made his directorial debut. But in the short span he had before typecasting himself as Harry Callahan, he was willing to experiment a little, and he made this.  Had the script landed in his lap after he’d asked “Well do ya, punk?”, I doubt he would have ever done it, even with his pal Don Siegel on board.  It remains one of the weirdest and riskiest films he’s ever made. It left a mark, as its eerie trappings undoubtedly influenced Play Misty For Me (which Eastwood prepped for by filming a “making of” about The Beguiled and Siegel) and High Plains Drifter

If you’re a Siegel fan, it’s also worth checking out as it was reportedly his favorite of all the films he made.  I think it’s one of the oddest movies he directed in an incredibly eclectic career, but you could debate that.  It certainly makes me wish he’d taken a few more forays into horror.

Random Anecdotes:  Mae Mercer (Hallie) also appears in Dirty Harry as the mother to the young boy blown away by Scorpio.  Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail) later revealed that while filming the last scene, she stabbed Eastwood in the foot with one of the giant Civil War needles, causing him to scream and panic that a spider had bitten him. 

Cinematic Soulmates:  Play Misty For Me, Fatal Attraction, Misery