Wednesday’s Editor’s Pick: The Beguiled (1971)

by on December 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Jan 4 at 7:00 at 92YTribeca [Program & Tix]


Host Elliott Kalan (staff writer for The Daily Show) makes another choice pick for his “Closely Watched Film” series. He and a “special guest will discuss men and women, the sexy side of the Civil War and whatever happened to dream sequences,” after a screening of the movie that director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) described as “the best film I have ever done, and possibly the best I will ever do.”

Interesting fact! The first thing Eastwood ever directed was The Beguiled: The Storyteller, a 12-minute making-of documentary shot on the set. Perversely, it has never been released as a DVD supplement and is notoriously difficult to find.


Benjamin Strong elaborates on the significance of this Eastwood-Siegel collaboration in The Village Voice:

Arguably Eastwood’s most perverse film, and a movie to which Gran Torino pays direct homage. The Beguiled was Eastwood’s third collaboration with director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry was their fourth and Escape from Alcatraz their fifth), and both men considered this overlooked gothic Western their finest work together.


Siegel goes all out in effecting a simmering creepiness that is sui generis. Using melodramatic candlelight, horror-film scoring, and psychological montages and voiceovers, the director unearths the buried sexual anxieties underwriting the Civil War costume drama. McBurney’s eventual comeuppance is terrifying to watch, but as with Gran Torino, we’re not going to spoil anything for you. Let’s just say that in The Beguiled, Eastwood, that most macho of cinema legends, finally meets his match in the fury of women scorned.


Director John Landis (Animal House, An American Werewolf in London) discusses this “really kinky and odd film” in a spot for Trailers from Hell:



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Combining the conventions of both Western and Grand Guignol chiller, and often directed as if it were an art movie, this is one of Siegel and Eastwood’s strangest – and most beguiling – collaborations. Eastwood is the Yankee soldier, who after being wounded during the Civil War, takes refuge in an isolated Southern seminary for young women. Shut away from the world, the women project their romantic fantasies on to him, and he responds with callous, male manipulation. But jealousy and resentment raise their heads, and he finds himself in a world of brutal revenge. Beautifully shot by Bruce Surtees, carefully paced, it’s a haunting, elegant work that seems to have influenced the troubled sexuality of Eastwood’s own Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.

Dave Kehr for the Chicago Reader:

Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood took time out from their popular series of Universal programmers for this very personal exercise in American gothic—one that should have played the art houses rather than the drive-ins. The film is hushed, evocative, full of menace and barely suppressed hysteria.


Richard Brody for the New Yorker:

In Siegel’s gothic Civil War Western, from 1971, a wounded Union soldier plants a slow and tender kiss on the lips of a twelve-year-old girl who rescues him, and she likes it. He is given shelter in her small, rural Mississippi girls’ school, where the middle-aged Miss Martha Farnsworth teaches the ladylike virtues that quickly go to to the wind in the presence of a virile man. Teacher and students alike pant after the strong but soft-spoken enemy, and their jealousy and pride lead to horrific spasms of violence that Siegel plays for shock value. His direction tends towards the expressionistic: distorted views, subjective angles, and echoing voice-overs that seem to burrow deep into the characters’ lust-crazed consciousness. The story may sometimes come off as a ribald soldiers’ tale that Siegel, born in 1912, had been awaiting a sexual revolution to tell; still, his intense, intelligent breakdown of the film’s wild outbursts reveals subtleties of love, despair, and shame beneath the schematic luridness.


Peter Conheim and Steve Seid were inspired to curate a series, “Southern (Dis)comfort,” by the film. From their Pacific Film Archive program notes:

Clint Eastwood plays a wounded Union soldier nursed back to health at a remote all-girls school in Louisiana, and after a good long battle, what more could a soldier want than to be surrounded by pubescent teenage girls in the middle of nowhere? Alas, this situation sets in motion a chain of events both quite within, and yet quite out of, his grasp. Geraldine Page and doomed-in-real-life Elizabeth Hartman turn in terrific supporting performances. Part plantation melodrama, part gothic horror and part salacious romp, The Beguiled plays like a Technicolor nocturnal emission, somehow green-lighted by a Universal Studios expecting to market a squinty-eyed Eastwood Western.


Mark Asch for L Magazine:

Most atypical for Siegel is The Beguiled, starring his flinty muse Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier convalescing in a sequestered Deep South school for girls. It’s a Gothic premise and a lush, viny atmosphere, but Siegel’s rhythms favor the staccato strains of primal instincts over restraint: as period pieces about the repressed sexual urges of laced-up schoolgirls go, it’s a far more libidinous precursor to a certain Peter Weir movie. (Picnic at Hanging Cock, anyone? Um, strike that.)


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The setup is Boccaccio’s tale of Masetto, modulated into psychosexual fable — the descending crane locates a Brothers Grimm sepia forest, only it’s the Civil War, with Union soldier Clint Eastwood bleeding in the bushes. He’s helped by pre-teen Pamelyn Ferdin, the youngest of the occupants of a local all-girl boarding school, where Geraldine Page reigns primly and Elizabeth Hartman teaches the pretty young maids French, a “smilin’ language,” while the war smokes outside. A circular pan-zoom leads the wounded corporal through the gates, Eastwood quaking in fevered POV but increasingly steady as he plays on the desires and insecurities of the repressed matriarchal universe he has invaded. The pastoral fields only hide the Gothic chiaroscuro inside, muffled incest and bludgeoning horniness, the atmosphere so weighty with starved estrogen that even the skeptical maid (Mae Mercer) begins doting on the limping guest’s torso; Eastwood evokes Sleeping Beauty for his hosts, soon Page and Hartman are hopefully leaving doors unlocked at night, a ménage-a-trois forming in the headmistress’ mind, then dissolving into a macabre pietà. But Prince Charming gets uncloaked as lecher with willowy filly Jo Ann Harris, so Page caps the castration anxiety by severing his splintered leg. A deliberate anomaly in the oeuvres of Eastwood and Don Siegel, a break from macho policiers for excoriating inquiries into male unease amid female empowerment. Ants and caterpillars, wounded ravens and overheard thoughts, though the patch of gentility, isolated in the middle of a nation-splitting conflict, is as perilous as the director’s writhing urban landscapes, his patented outsider-hero turned into a scheming cad, about to be induced into the community at dinner via a 360° turn cut short by news from the outside world, along with his own sexual arrogance. Hobbling on crutches with pistol in hand after his amputation, Eastwood’s castrated blue-belly is as much of a sharp fraying of his screen image as Siegel’s keen staging of hothouse hysteria is of his, men as accomplices in unleashing the women’s force, the camera not in fear or hate, but in awe.


Kalen Eagen for the Six-Reel Shuffle:

Here is a film so ahead of its time that even today it feels like something relevant, wise and alien. Yet it is equally locked into and cogent about its own era, and also manages to be intriguing in its depiction of history. Set during the end of the civil war, The Beguiled aims its thematic guns on nothing less than the clash between national red and national blue, depicting the worst of both worlds in a battle for American supremacy. At the same time, it envisions men as salacious, liberal liars, and women as conservative, repressed rage-machines, and in doing so anticipates centuries of harbored, built-up animosity between the two sexes. Shit, this is one cynical little monster, and one of the great social terror pictures of the 60’s and 70’s, hanging right beside classics like Don’t Look Now and, especially, Rosemary’s Baby. Like that film, The Beguiled embraces metaphor over plot and logic, and builds toward a calculated leap off Lunatic Ledge. It’s never as bracingly scary as either of those aforementioned movies, but I think it’s more sharply satiric, and no doubt much funnier.
The women are the product of stern, religious-minded morality, and John represents unbridled desire and self-interest; these traits are hyperbolic extremes of the political right and left, respectively, and of women and men, and it’s a credit to Don Siegel’s even-handed humor that the scales don’t ultimately tip in any one direction. Nearly everyone here is equally weird and destructive, and as the film ends—with the North beginning to claim its victory over the South—we sense a definite time-bomb already starting to tick. The South will indeed rise again, and then slip again, and then rise, and then slip… It’s so exciting to me that a film from 1971 could see this phenomenon as a perpetual give and take, a battle destined to wage for a long, long time, and perhaps serve as the defining characteristic of this particular country—a struggle between unrestricted freedom and self-imposed oppression.
Few films are confident enough in their craft and concept to go all the way over the edge, and this is one that gets away with each of its nutso indulgences. The intermittent voice overs, the arty/trashy dissolves, the gore, the ever-more over-the-top performances, etc. All good, all entertaining, all relevant to the central idea. In short, this is a movie that proves unequivocally that the best and most memorable way to inspire thought and conversation is by mashing it into pulp, and serving it to the viewer like a bowl of tasty, poisonous wild mushrooms. Once you watch, you’ll never get it out of your system, and the country surrounding you might seem just a little more violent and hopelessly absurd.


Kathleen Murphy for Film Comment (May/June 1996):

In Coogan’s Bluff (’68) and The Beguiled, Eastwood took tutelage under director Don Siegel, his American filmfather. Interestingly, in both films, The Man with No Name’s existential arrogance shades into specific sexual insolence, erotic allure used as lethally as a gun. It’s probable that Siegel and Eastwood aren’t consciously exposing manipulative machismo as a species of whoring. No question, though, that The Beguiled, the third film by Siegel and Eastwood, does-with a vengeance.

In this Grimm fairy tale, he could be a 19th century Coogan, working his main chance, but Beguiled has more in common with Boxing Helena, genders reversed. The dominant POV keeps shifting between McBurney and his avid auditors. When the young soldier is first brought in, unconscious, Page gazes hungrily down at the handsome head at her breast, savoring eyelashes on cheek, fine mouth relaxed in almost feminine curves, unruly blonde mane. It’s the kind of titillating shot that in most movies (especially soft-porn and splatter flicks) would frame the face of a beautiful sleeping woman, helpless and vulnerable to rape.
Later, much recovered, McBurney leans back smiling, smug in his sexual power, to indulge in a fantasy that stars him as each woman’s lover. This rather conventional casting segues into Page’s more outre dream: she, McBurney, and Hartman in a sexual romp, climaxing with his naked body sprawled across her lap in perfect reflection of the painting of a Pieta that hangs beside her bed. Though he’s the source of reawakened fertility (in women and chickens), the ravaged McBurney ends up a symbolically castrated gigolo, “planted”-in parts-by The Beguiled‘s convent of twisted sisters.


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