Directed by Don Siegel, with whom Eastwood collaborated on several films, it was made a year before Eastwood’s directorial debut with “Play Misty For Me”. Eastwood and Siegel had to battle with Universal Pictures to keep the original ending, and they won out; and, the film was promoted as a standard Eastwood western, which it certainly is not. The Beguiled did poorly in its theatrical release. Nobody was quite sure what to make of it, and some of its content raised a few eyebrows in 1971. The film received major recognition in France, and was proposed by Pierre Rissient to the Cannes Film Festival. “The Beguiled” is Mr. Siegel’s 26th film, as well as his most ambitious and elaborate.
In the closing years of American civil war, a severely injured Union soldier finds himself in the care of an all-girl boarding school. He is found by 12 year old Amy, who takes him to the school run by Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). Five other girls also attend the school, including the romantic and responsible Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and the desirous Carol (Jo Ann Harris). The virginal teacher Edwins falls in love with him, and the sensual teen Carol wants to sleep with him. Mcburney begins an erotic chess game, secretly telling each women exactly what she wants to hear, hoping to gain a foothold of power in the house. Martha reveals herself to be a wounded, sexually confused character who has very personal reasons for not turning Mcburney over to the troops when she has the chance. The Beguiled is entirely interested in what it makes its characters tick. Sexual tension is visible in nearly every scene, even uncomfortably between Eastwood and 12 year old girl who share a kiss early on. The scene where Geraldine Page, armed with only a medical book as guide and brandy as anasthetic, removes Clint Eastwood’s leg with a hacksaw, is truely gruesome. The sexual politics are impenetrable.
Mcburney is an hero whose stories of wartime heroics are a lie. Representing the union, he promises slave Halie (Mae mercer) freedom before threatning to rape her. When his masculinity’s challenged he resorts to threats, threatening to loose Union soldiers on the school. If Mcburney’s a chauvinist pig, the women are stock archetypes. Martha’s rigid demeanor hides shameful secrets and unacknowledged longings. She falls for John after noticing his resemblance to her brother. Geraldine Page (Miss Martha) was very convincing in her role; bringing lots of duality to it. Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina) was eerily convincing in her emotionally un-balanced part. Eastwood seems to be having a blast with the role until things turn really ugly, then he turns mean and ugly. it’s quite an impressive achievement overall and must be counted as one of Don Siegel’s finest films. The period details are richly, even obsessively designed and the acting is top notch from everyone. The crisp cinematography by Bruce Surtees adds enormously to Siegel’s carefully wrought atmosphere of sexual repression.