I’m excited for the impending release of Sofia Coppola’s new version of THE BEGUILED, but I had never actually seen the 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood, and what am I, an asshole? So I made sure to finally see it.
Right before DIRTY HARRY, Clint and Don Siegel made this one which is less action packed than DIRTY HARRY because Clint is bedridden or hobbling on crutches for the entire movie. Also he’s confined to a girl’s finishing school, and it’s not a DIE HARD type picking-off-terrorists-one-by-one situation either. It’s mostly just flirting.
Clint plays Corporal John McBurney, a.k.a. Johnny, McBee or Mr. Yank, a Union soldier badly wounded on Confederate territory and rescued by 12 year old girl’s school resident Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS). Initially headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page, THE RESCUERS, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE) intends to hand him over to the Confederate soldiers who stop by periodically on patrols, but she decides he’ll die in their prison if she doesn’t help him heal first.
She only has six students, and her decision doesn’t go over well with all of them. Some think it’s treason, and that Yankees are rapists, and one girl says they have tails. They don’t see Union soldiers as the people fighting against the evil institution of slavery, but as the guys killing their dads and setting fire to places (which, we see in brief flashbacks, is something Johnny is prolific at).
But keep in mind this is circa 1971 Clint Eastwood, laying shirtless and helpless in bed surrounded by females. They’ve been holed up here with no men in sight except the sweaty yahoos who occasionally show up and act rapey around them. Some of the young girls are discovering themselves and Martha seems pretty confused, with implications of an affair she had with her dead or missing brother and some attraction to her second in command, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman, THE SECRET OF NIMH, WALKING TALL).
So basically Johnny is like a gender-switched version of one of those SPECIES or LIFEFORCE type succubi, shamelessly oozing male prowess to keep all these ladies in his thrall. I think it’s for survival: to keep them from turning him in, and to create an opportunity for escape once he’s healed. But it could also just be a weird mind game, or an uncontrollable horniness. He seems like kind of a devil character, like in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. In fact, he kicked this whole thing off by kissing little Amy on the mouth when she found him in the woods. What the fuck was that about? It’s sweet when he calls her his “little friend” and she shows him her pet turtle and stuff, but what was he doing there?
She treats him like a schoolyard boyfriend, or a pet. Martha is combative with him, but slowly admits her attraction. Edwina develops a seemingly real relationship with him, getting to sort of know him as she nurses him, making time to be with him but saving the hanky panky for a potential future together. And 17-year old Carol (Jo Ann Harris, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, THE PARALLAX VIEW), who has ’70s hot girl hair and has been called a “hussy” by Edwina, treats him as her personal sex toy. She introduces herself to him by sneaking out of Bible study to wake him up with her tongue in his mouth.
Basically they’re all tip-toeing around the house trying to meet up with him and he’s either taking advantage or leading them on, letting them think they’re the only one. Boy, he sure beguiled ’em.
In their defense, I say again, this is circa 1971 Clint Eastwood. He limps around in basically a nightgown and still seems manly. So intoxicating is his virility that the hens start laying eggs again from him being around. Seriously! And the school is partly run by a slave named Hallie (Mae Mercer, DIRTY HARRY, THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS) who has an air of being smarter and stronger than all these dumb white people, and even she laughs and admits he’s good looking “for a white man” when she shaves him.
I guess Coppola doesn’t have Hallie in her version, because she says it’s about gender and not race, and she’s been criticized for that. On the one hand it sounds bad, because how do you set a story in a race war and say it’s not about race? On the other hand, Hallie’s part, as interesting as it is, does seem like kind of a side issue here.
I’m not sure what other people take from Hallie. This is not the type of movie where a slave is going to fight back or escape, and that’s always uncomfortable to see. But I love her power in refusing to let Johnny believe he’s her savior. He says “you and me should be friends” because he’s on the good side of the war, and she doesn’t let him get anywhere with that. She has him right, too. Much later he threatens her, and she tells him off in no uncertain terms.
I think it works partly because Mercer radiates such a sense of not-putting-up-with-your-bullshit. She’s great. And there’s a part where she sings while milking a cow, and her voice is incredible. Sure enough, she was a blues singer before she was an actress.
Things turn horrific when SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Martha amputates Johnny’s broken leg. It’s not too graphic but it’s drawn out to feel like some Eli Roth shit. When he comes to and realizes what has happened he thinks it was a matter of medical malpractice to punish him for his sexual choices, a position I’ve seen endorsed in some reviews. But Hallie tells him the procedure was necessary for him to survive, and I trust Hallie.
THE BEGUILED got good reviews, but didn’t make good money. It probly didn’t help that some of the advertising had Clint holding a big gun like it was a western. People gotta go in with the right idea or they’re gonna be disappointed. But it’s cool that Clint, who liked the book by Thomas Cullinan and co-produced the adaptation through his company Malpaso, wanted to do something so different.
It’s a very unique story, especially for a Clint movie. It’s got some effectively disorienting filmatism to simulate being injured or drugged, a creepy, haunted atmosphere, little weird bits of interior monologue and quick flashbacks of war and perversity that, along with the score by Lalo Schifrin, make it feel like a horror movie. It has a male lead who is inherently likable but clearly not trustworthy, messing with and then menacing a bunch of women. At first they turn on each other. But he may regret messing with them. There’s a tiny bit of THE WICKER MAN here.
But also some humor, and a turtle named Randolph.
THE BEGUILED is one of those good outliers in the Clint filmography. I prefer the straight up genre stuff, but the occasional experiment makes you respect him even more. I’m glad DIRTY HARRY was the one that caught on, but it would be interesting to see what the sequels would’ve been like. I guess they would have to ignore the end just like MAGNUM FORCE ignored Harry throwing his badge away. So he travels around getting injured in different locations I guess. A nunnery, a women’s prison, space, etc.