A curiosity of the early 1970s, to say the least, The Beguiled stars Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier who seeks refuge in a Southern girls’ boarding school in the midst of the Civil War. Initially intent on turning him in, the headmistress (Geraldine Page) instead decides to keep him under lock and key as he heals, which allows him a chance to woo his way to freedom. It turns out, however, that trying to simultaneously romance the headmistress, her prim teacher (Elizabeth Hartman), a frisky student (Jo Ann Harris), and even the little girl who first found him (Pamelyn Ferdin) may have been a bad strategy, because what begins as a swooning pastoral soon develops into a kinky, Southern Gothic nightmare.
Directed by frequent Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel, The Beguiled is hardly elegant, yet it does occasionally slip into moments of dreamy reverie. This is especially the case whenever Siegel and cinematographer Bruce Surtees employ superimposed imagery, including a shot that combines Eastwood and the girl hiding in the woods with the image of approaching Confederate soldiers. The ethereal aesthetic is also heightened by occasional voiceovers, in which we hear some of the women’s interior conversations. (“If this war goes on much longer, I’ll forget I ever was a woman,” the headmistress says to herself.) Yes, the voiceovers tell rather than show, but they also offer a peek into what this soldier, as a specter of manhood, means to each of the women in the mansion.
As the headmistress and her students warm up to their patient/prisoner, it would take only a slight nudge to push The Beguiled into the realm of soft-core porn (and some of the clumsy staging suggests we’re headed in that direction). Yet things go eerily awry during a night of intended consummation, during which the use of candlelight suggests some sort of sordid ceremony. Suddenly, The Beguiled takes a provocative turn into psychological horror.
Page brings notes of longing, protection, and even perversion to what is essentially the movie’s lead role.
As Martha, the headmistress, Page brings notes of longing, protection, and even perversion to what is essentially the movie’s lead role. Early on, she calls the soldier a “somewhat unwelcome visitor,” and the key to her performance is all in the “somewhat.” Eastwood, meanwhile, gives a slyly cynical performance. Is he a flirt, a lecher, a predator? Or simply a desperate man trying to survive in a strange situation? I like the editorial touch of providing flashbacks which undermine the soldier’s words. At one point, he tells Martha that he loves to work the land and could help her maintain the school’s fields, even as we see images of him, in uniform, setting fire to Confederate haystacks.
The Beguiled opens with sepia Civil War photographs and then slowly transitions into color. The creepy finale, involving another disturbing ceremony of sorts, transitions in reverse, preserving these women and their actions in the sepia-stained past. Just a few years after this film’s release, Peter Weir would offer up a somewhat similar meditation on femininity and intrigue with Picnic at Hanging Rock. If that film, in which a group of boarding-school girls disappear on a field trip, evokes a mood of quiet wonder, The Beguiled uses similar ingredients to conjure up something distinctly different. Here, feminine sexuality is not only seen as mysterious, but downright sociopathic.