The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Beguiled was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Now Playing on Encore Westerns, Retroplex
From 1968-1980, legendary director Don Siegel averaged one film per year. When you look at even the busiest of current studio directors, that’s a pace that no one seems up to matching. That so many of those films were quite good speaks volumes about Siegel’s no-frills style of filmmaking. In 1971, he made two very different films with Clint Eastwood: Dirty Harry and The Beguiled. For both director and star, Dirty Harry was a film in their comfort zone. But The Beguiled may go down as the oddest vehicle either of them took on.
An increasingly goofy slice of Southern Gothic storytelling, the film tells the tale of Cpl. John McBurney (Eastwood), a Union soldier in the American Civil War. Shot in the leg, and bleeding profusely, he is discovered by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a southern girl living at an all-girls’ school in an unnamed Confederate state. Amy helps McBurney to get away from a road and hides him next to a tree as Confederate soldiers ride past. In the first of several extremely uncomfortable moments the film offers up, McBurney gives the twelve-year-old Amy a long kiss to keep her from signaling the soldiers to his presence.
Immediately smitten, Amy helps McBurney back to her school, a large plantation house on an overgrown patch of land. The school is run by Martha (Geraldine Page), a high-strung woman who always seems to be five seconds from blowing up into a psychotic rage. Martha takes McBurney in to fix his leg and help build his strength up to a point where she can, in good conscience from saving his life, turn him over to the Confederate soldiers taking Union soldiers to a nearby prison.
The school is populated by six students, at least two of whom protest giving aid to an enemy soldier. But Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), the sole teacher at the school, immediately takes a romantic interest in McBurney that is as much a result of her inexperience with men as it is love. Carol (Jo Ann Harris), one of the older students, also takes an interest in McBurney that has much more to do with carnal desires than any kind of romance. And then there’s Martha, whose brittle exterior and tightly-wound emotional state is initially thought to be a result of protecting the girls from the war. As the film goes on and the ever-strengthening McBurney starts using a silver tongue to stoke the flames of Edwina’s romantic longings and Carol’s sexual desires, Martha reveals herself to be a wounded, sexually confused character who has very personal reasons for not turning McBurney over to the Confederate troops when she has the chance.
Siegel seems to want The Beguiled to be a feminist morality tale. There is no doubt that McBurney is a sexual predator, one who gets what he wants by sweet-talking inexperienced young women and girls with promises of love, while feigning lust for Martha that flatters her and keeps him in her good graces. But at the same time that he’s willing to paint McBurney as the bad guy (despite casting Eastwood in the role), Siegel turns the women that we’re supposed to sympathize with into one-dimensional stereotypes. Martha is the sexually frustrated older woman. Edwina is the inexperienced woman who falls in love too easily. Carol is a lusty nymphomaniac. The women never grow beyond these roles, failing to become anything more than plot points. By making McBurney the more fully formed character and giving him just enough sympathetic moments to question his apparently salacious motives, Siegel muddies any feminist point he might be trying to make.
At the same time, Siegel offers up lip service to the evils of war. Through flashbacks, he shows McBurney cold-bloodedly killing on the battlefield and burning crops as part of the Union march through the South. Many times it’s mentioned that all of the girls’ fathers are assumed to be dead in battle. And encounters with supposedly friendly Confederate troops are moments fraught with tension for Martha as she never knows when a group of soldiers are going to strong-arm their way into the school and take the girls by force. Despite the shallow treatment these moments are given, for their clarity of purpose, they are still more effective than Siegel’s confused take on the battle of the sexes.
Despite the up-and-down nature of the narrative, Siegel does draw out some impressive performances (especially from Eastwood and Page). Even more impressively, he offers up a tone of barely repressed madness through the character of Martha and an incredibly horrifying scene of home surgery that quickly becomes a piece of Grand Guignol-style black comedy.
As a glimpse at the insanity that a war visits upon civilians, The Beguiled is a loopy but effective film. If the sexual politics that Siegel focuses so much attention on hadn’t been so muddled, it could have been a great cult film. As it is, it’s mainly a curiosity piece for fans of its director and star — an odd failure with some great moments.
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