The Beguiled: This overheated, Gothic melodrama is the strangest and the most ambitious Clint Eastwood film ever

Based on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, originally published as ‘A Painted Devil’,and directed by Don Siegel, The Beguiled(1971), is Clint Eastwood’s strangest, boldest and most surprising film as an actor

Take warning by me, don’t go for a soldier, don’t join no army
For the dove she will leave you, the raven will come
And death will come marching at the beat of a drum
Come all you pretty fair maids who walk in the sun
And don’t let your young man ever carry a gun

By 1971, Clint Eastwood’s image as a macho Western\action star was firmly in place. Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and the subsequent Hollywood Western\War films like Hang’em High. Where eagles dare, Kelly’s Heroes , etc.. had made Clint one of the most popular and bankable film stars in the world. So it’s most surprising that, for two of the three movies he made in 1971, he choose to play very vulnerable, and even flawed characters, who comes under attack, not from Nazis, or cattle barons or bandits, but from women. One of them was Play Misty for Me, with which Clint made his directorial debut. Play Misty was a precursor to ‘psychotic women on the rampage’ films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct that would come almost a decade and half later. But his other film, The Beguiled, which he made with his favorite director and his second mentor Don Siegel (Leone was the first), is the most strangest film of his career; not only his , but also Don Siegel’s, who specializes in making minimalist action pictures. Both Clint and Don would go on to make the iconic ‘Dirty Harry‘ in the same year, which would turn Clint into a megastar. but before that, they will give us this really bizarre film, which is undoubtedly Clint’s most ambitious film as a star\actor. The Beguiled was keeping in line with New-Hollywood sensibilities that was producing truly bizarre movies like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is a small-scale, character-driven story that was a big change for Clint at the time – who was mainly doing big budget action films -, though in later years, it would become the norm for him, especially as a director. Just like Plat Misty for Me, The Beguiled has a basic plot that could be summed up as: Red-blooded, heterosexual man’s ultimate fantasy turns into his worst nightmare. In Play Misty for me, it was a sultry, sexy woman throwing herself at the shy radio jockey played by Clint; in The Beguiled, Clint plays a wounded union soldier who finds himself in an all-girl boarding school – the proverbial rooster in the hen-house – and being tended to by both the teachers and students of the institution, who become increasingly obsessed with him. And just as in Play Misty, where the woman turns out to be a raging psychopath who pretty much destroy’s the protagonist’s life; here, mutual jealousies between the woman, regarding their affections for the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unapologetic, free-wheeling sexuality would lead to his doom. The film has a fever-dream like quality, mirroring, both the state of the protagonist, as well as the repressed woman, whose sexual desires slowly rises to the fore in the presence of this really attractive stranger. It looks and feels very different from any film Don Siegel has ever made; complete with over-heated dream sequences, avant-garde editing styles and a group of characters who are utterly unsympathetic and deceitful.

The film is set during the final days of the civil war, when the union soldiers were well into the deep south. The Beguiled opens with authentic sepia-tinted photographs of the civil war; throughout the film,the civil war will be represented by photographs and Eisenstein style quick flashback montages of the war sequences, keeping in with the dream like nature of the film. The first words we hear in the film is from the anti-war ballad ‘The Dove’; in the voice of Clint Eastwood. And as in a dream, technicolor seeps into the monochrome images of a little girl picking mushrooms in the woods. She is 12-year-old Amy (Pamela Ferdin), a pupil at the nearby Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (The location is Louisiana). She comes across Union Corporal John McBurney (Clint Eastwood), of the 66th New York Infantry, hiding in the bushes. He is badly wounded in action and can hardly speak or stand. He begs Amy to help him, and then brusquely plants a kiss on Amy’s lips. Amy appears a little confused by John’s actions, but still, she helps him get to the seminary. The seminary is run by Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) and her 22-year-old deputy, tutor Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman). Although John is a Union soldier, and the members of the seminary are sympathetic to the confederacy, they decide to take him in. Some of the young women are not pleased as they think that sheltering an enemy is treason, but, Martha and Edwina agree that they’ll keep John in the music room until he recuperates and , once he is well enough, he would be handed over to the confederate soldiers. But it’s not going to be that easy, or rather, John is not going to make things that easy. As we get to know him better, we realize that he is quite an immoral cad, who is capable of using every trick in the book for his survival: he lies, cheats, kills, seduces, promises; everything is fair game for him and to top it all, he is the very living embodiment of gorgeous, masculine virility – he is Clint Eastwood after all , then 40 years old and at the height of his rugged sexiness. Although he’s wounded, left with one badly damaged leg, John has the advantage, with his manliness and goes about hypnotizing the residents, finding their weakness and playing upon it. The stolen kiss with the pre-teen Amy is just the beginning – Amy is now a devout worshiper of John. John then applies his seduction skills on the shy Edwina, who has never had a man in her life, and now  longs for a steady lover ; John doesn’t have to make much effort with the promiscuous temptress Carol (Jo Ann Harris), who seems to have some experience with  men before, and is more than a willing initiator in their courtship, but she is highly volatile, driven by her emotions and would pose the main danger to John’s comfortable stay at the seminary. John doesn’t do so well with the house-slave Hallie(Mae Mercer). When his seduction skills doesn’t work with her, he wins her over her with the promise of finding her runaway boyfriend.

But then, John lands the ultimate prize: the frosty Martha herself; who seemed to be quite hostile to him initially, but after a point of time, warms to him like nobody else in the seminary; John’s rugged masculinity stirring long dormant memories and passions inside her – including the memory of a forbidden incestuous tryst with her own brother. Obviously, John’s skills at lying and sexually manipulating his victims comes in handy while dealing with Martha, who is a complex, bizarre character herself, and is dying to find a substitute for her ‘brother’ in her life. She first gets John into her brother’s clothes, and then invites him to her room for a quite drink. The scenes of courtship between John and Martha are staged in a Rashomon style montage by Siegel. When John explains to Martha how he was wounded, he says he is a pacifist Quaker medic, while a flashback reveals that he was a infantryman who did his fair share of killing; including treacherously shooting confederate soldiers in the back. Later, when Martha begins to entertain the idea of keeping John on to help run the school, he claims, ‘I have a great respect for land’, but a flashback shows him torching haystacks as part of the Unionists’ scorched earth campaign. It’s a fitting device to showcase the developing infatuation between two  deceitful people. Now the seminary pretty much in his control, the defining moment arrives for John: he has to choose which woman he is going to sleep with. He cannot put it away anymore (nor does he wants to). Martha has made her intentions clear that she wants him to be with her(and so have the other two women). The night when Martha keeps his door unlocked, John, clutching his crutches, walks out of his room and  come to the cross point between Edwina and Martha’s rooms. He pauses for a moment to  think which door to open. But then, he is lured away by Carol to her room. And as they noisily make love in her room, their sounds reaches Edwina who barges into Carol’s room and finds John and Carol in bed. In a fit of jealous rage, she strikes John, sending him plummeting down the stairs. His leg that has not yet recovered fully, is now fractured at three different places. Martha, who was expecting that John would come to her room, takes a look at the wounded leg and decides that only way to stop gangrene from setting in and saving John’s life is to amputate that leg. John is heavily sedated and Martha performs the operation. John wakes up to find one of his legs missing and he flies into a rage. He blames Martha for acting out of vengeance for turning down her sexual advances. He later gets drunk, get hold of a gun and starts violently threatening the inmates of the seminary. He exposes Martha’s hypocrisy and proves she was had an incestuous liaison with her brother. He also exposes the other women for what they truly are: sexually repressed, immoral women panting for his affections. But in the middle of his rage, he does something unpardonable: he accidentally kills Amy’s pet turtle, thus angering and alienating Amy, the only true friend he had in the seminary.  Now that John has spoken the truth and unmasked their hypocrisy, the women decide that he must die, especially with the Union forces fast approaching. They decide to kill him in the most painless way possible: by feeding him his favorite mushrooms, albeit this time poisoned. John, though by this time is sufficiently chastised, and prepares to leave the seminary with Edwina, who has genuinely fallen in love with him. Martha and the women invites John to a final dinner with them. At the dinner, he apologizes to everyone for his behavior,but, it’s too late. He has eaten the poisoned mushrooms, and he collapses and dies. The women convinces each other that John died of exhaustion. The next day, the women sew his corpse into a burial shroud and carry him out of the gate to bury.

Though the film is  mainly conceived from the man’s perspective, director Siegel gives equal space to his women characters as well. John’s seduction games begins as a way for his survival, but as he starts making ones conquest after another, it becomes a means for feeding his ego. He starts enjoying it to an extend that it becomes sadistic; he starts being subtly cruel to the woman, pitting one against another. This game of deceit is mirrored in Siegel’s direction; every scene seems to have a counterpoint; like the scene where Edwina is teaching the girls to be real ladies, and is training them in the correct use of napkins; in the midst of the scene Carol excuses herself and goes off into the garden to have some fun with John. John is playing a game of solitaire, when Carol interrupts him. Later, when Edwina returns to the garden after the lesson, she catches carol and John kissing. But John has such a hold on Edwina, both physically and emotionally, that she is not willing to believe what she has seen with her own eyes and allows herself to be manipulated by John , who soon starts getting intimate with her. Carol catches John seducing Edwina, and overcome by jealousy, she ties a blue ribbon on the plantation gate – a sign to warn the confederate soldiers of danger. The soldiers barges in and has a confrontation with John, who is saved in nick of time by Martha who convinces the soldiers that he is a relative. But the soldiers themselves are quite bewitched by this all-girls sanctum sanctorum, and they hover around, posing a continuous threat to John’s idyllic existence.  An even more bizarre scene is the ménage à trois dream sequence involving Martha, Edwina and John. At first, we believe that it’s John who is having this dream, after having a  cosy romantic dinner with Martha. We see John returning to his room and falling into a reverie, in which he reminisces kissing the different women of the seminary. then suddenly, we see a naked John walking into Martha’s room and they start making love. They are soon joined by Edwina, and it becomes a threesome. The scene abruptly cuts to Martha waking up in her bed, and we realize that we were in her dream. It’s like a dream within a dream, and we realize that there’s some sort of a spiritual connection between the evil outsider and the seemingly pious and virtuous inhabitants of the seminary. This phantasmagorical sequence is elevated by Lalo Schifrin’s eerie score and Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography – Multiple exposures, odd camera angles, movements and lighting – and Carl Pingitore’s editing – all jump cuts and dissolves. This sacrilegious reverie,complete with tolling bells and church organ on the soundtrack, is photographed to recall the painting of Van Der Weyden’s pieta hanging on Martha’s wall: the icon of Christ cradled by Mary following his crucifixion. This religious metaphor runs throughout the film, and we get many more images : crucifixion, The Last supper etc. John first appears to be a Christ figure to the women, who has come to liberate them from their repressed sexual desires. Clint is dressed throughout in flowing white dresses to accentuate this divine parallel. But soon enough, the women come to realize that he is the devil incarnate in this garden of Eden; tempting the women to bite the forbidden apple. Of course the women are no paragons of virtue, and the scene of cutting John’s leg, as well as his final murder, is akin to his  crucifixion; Martha and the women crucifying John for exposing their hypocrisy. Before John’s death, we get  The Last supper scene, where Amy turns Judas, by picking the poisonous mushrooms. The scene itself is shot in a way to remind the audience of Da Vinci’s famous painting. Though the film was branded misogynistic on it’s release, that’s really oversimplifying it. It’s more than just ‘Hell hath no fury like a women scorned‘ narrative. A lot of things in the film are kept ambiguous, where the viewer can draw his own inferences about the events and characters. The film also explores war-time paranoia: with John’s invasion of the seminary as a metaphor for the Union army invading the confederacy; the threat of death, rape or deceit hanging over every scene of the film.

It’s interesting to note the progression of John’s character(and Clint’s performance). At first he is all bloodied and bearded, and kept locked up in the music room, totally dependent on others. In the next stage, he gets a couple of crutches to move around. then he gets a shave from Hallie, and we, and the women,  see him in all his gorgeousness.All through these stages, Clint’s performance is very subtle and charming. He changes his voice and body language to fit the perception of whichever women he is seducing. By the time he has his full blown sexual encounter with Carol, he is pretty much a megalomaniac, who believes he is untouchable. But then, he loses his leg, and realizes that he has woefully underestimated the women,  and he hits the ceiling. Clint’s performance becomes over the top: screaming his words out,  gritting his teeth, heavily rolling his eyes and exaggerated body language. In the end , he comes back to his earlier demeanor : subtle and charming. Indeed, This is one of Eastwood’s best and most complex performances. Clint, who usually acts very subtly through squints and monosyllables, gives a performance here, that’s alternatively fiery, charming and expressionistic. Clint looked at the role as a welcome change from what he referred to as ‘Operatic acting’, where he is mainly called upon to do crazy things: like lighting a cannon with a cigar. Here he is called upon to embody a real character with real emotions. Of course, With such a different theme and such an unheroic role for Clint Eastwood, it’s no surprise that the film was a flop; taking in less than a million dollars in the same year, when Dirty Harry was the year’s second highest grossing film. ‘The Man with no Leg’, as the film was dubbed by a lot of it’s critics, was wrongly marketed by Universal Studios, as a kind of sexually charged Hot-house drama. Clint was so angry with Universal’s marketing that, when his deal with the studio was up, he left to join Warner Bros, and wouldn’t make a film for Universal until 2008’s Changeling.

But the film was well received in Europe , especially France, where Don Siegel was compared to Luchino Visconti and Luis Bunuel. Don Siegel too considered this his favorite film. it’s the only time in his career, when he tried to make an overtly art film, or at least a film where the craft is really calling attention to itself. It aspires to create a certain atmosphere: of unease, dread, claustrophobia and deceit, as opposed to his other films, where the technique is invisible. He was always a craftsman who came up the ranks in the old studio system; the kind who always stayed within the budget and schedule. Of course, this was no runaway production; Siegel shot the entire film in just 10 weeks on location in Louisiana- on a real plantation estate and home built in 1841. The performances of the women, especially Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman are the best thing about the film. Page’s brilliant portrayal of the outwardly sweet and matronly, but inwardly dark character is a precursor to the more popular Nurse Ratchett character played by Louis Fletcher in One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest, while, Hartman brings great depth and poignancy to the vulnerable Edwina, who may be the only pure, sympathetic character in the film. A rather disturbing and tragic postscript to this disturbing film is, that Sixteen years after the release of this film, both Elizabeth Hartman and Geraldine Page died within three days of each other, the former throwing herself out of her high apartment window – she was suffering from depression –  and the latter suffering a fatal heart attack.