In the immediate background of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971) is the American Civil War. A union soldier (a self-described Quaker, though that is probably a lie) is injured in battle and with the help of a young girl makes his way to a school for Southern girls, housed in an old mansion in the apparent middle of nowhere. There he is nursed back to health, almost. In the foreground is a vicious sexual battle. The Union soldier at first seems the predator. Ultimately we discover that the entire school is full of predators.
Two images early on in the film announce that we’re in for an unusual experience. As the 12-year-old girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) helps Eastwood’s character, Corporal John McBurney, stumble through the woods towards her school, Confederate soldiers ride nearby. Amy and Eastwood hide in the wreckage of a fallen tree. To keep her from calling out, Eastwood kisses her, a prolonged and extended kiss. Once it’s over, she’s enthralled. But there will be retribution. The second image is of a raven tied to the rail of the upper balcony of the school. Ostensibly it’s tied there so that its broken wing can heal. The bird and Eastwood have symbolic linkages, of course. In a final image near the film’s end, the raven hangs dead from the cord that pins it to the rail.
In The Beguiled we have a number of competing narrative lines. One is a Civil War drama, though in fact the Civil War is only a backdrop. We also have a Gothic Southern horror story. We also have a psychological drama of sexual tension and repression. As soon as Eastwood arrives at the school, grievously wounded though he is, tension starts to boil. The black woman, a slave, who cooks and cleans at the school, mentions how dried up all the women of the school have become in the absence of a man. One of the school girls, Carol (Jo Ann Harris) not of the same upper class origins as the rest of the group, talks about how much she has missed the company of a man. The school mistress Martha, played by Geraldine Page, switches unpredictably between the demeanors of an ardent Southerner who plans to turn Eastwood in as soon as he recovers to a coy giggly admirer. Then there is the young school teacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) an Ophelia-like woman, 22-years in age, inexperienced in love, who falls for Eastwood. (She plays her role as a brittle Bette Davis kind of character). The premise here is that of women hot for sex, with Eastwood as their object.
However, Eastwood returns their attention in kind, beginning with his prolonged kiss with Amy. He’s a dissembler of the first order. Although he presents himself as a peaceful, respectable soldier waging war out of necessity, he is actually the opposite. As he tells of his love for the land and for farming, images flash through his mind of burning haystacks and a farmer’s fields. He calls himself a Quaker who never toted a rifle and who was wounded while trying to save a fellow soldier, when in fact his memories show him carrying and shooting the rifle in battle. It’s not clear what he was doing when he was shot and then injured by shrapnel. He encourages the attentions of every girl and woman at the school, doing his best to make Edwina fall in love, reminding the 12-year old that he loves her, bedding Carol, paying court to Martha.
The women at the school are afraid of Yankee soldiers, of course, but there is a greater fear of men in general. Fear of rape is always in the air, and at one point Martha faces down two Confederate soldiers who have come to the school because they know that young women live there. Rape is clearly on their minds. But contending with that fear is what the film portrays as the fierce, ruthless drive towards sex that affects everyone.
When McBurney’s deceptions are discovered (following a dream sequence in which Martha, Edwina, and others fantasize about him, at the very moment he is having sex with Carol), there is grievous retribution, even more so after he goes on a drunken rampage and kills Amy’s turtle (!). Of all the weirdness in the film, the childlike Amy, always skulking about (she ties up the raven), takes the prize. McBurney, of course, is a scandalous predatory cad without scruples. The women are portrayed as repressed and ultimately murderous maniacs.
Eastwood’s rough but quiet monotone of a voice grows increasingly irritating as the film progresses, but it also contributes to a tone of dread, fear, and paranoia that penetrates the film (not unlike the pervasive mood of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, dir. Don Siegel). His raspy, off-note, miserably mumbled singing accompanies the opening and closing credits of the film—he was much better in Paint Your Wagon, 1969, dir. Joshua Longan, but only by degree). The film is full of shadows, shut doors, closed windows, people creeping along hallways, spying on others, not to mention the amputation scene. The atmosphere reminded me of a Hitchcock film, of a Shirley Jackson story (The Haunting of Hill House), where the fear of unseen presences or revelations becomes the driving force of the narrative, even of such a film as 200 Maniacs, where ghostly residents of a ravaged Southern town resurrect a century after the Civil War to take revenge on Yankees.
The interest of this mess of a film is its creepiness, its distorted portrayal of gender wars, and the dreadful uncertainty of what’s to come next.