Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Pamelyn Ferdin, Mae Mercer
Plot: An isolated school for women take in a wounded enemy soldier (Eastwood), healing him up before turning him over to the authorities. Unless the soldier can manipulate his way to freedom first.
Out of all of Eastwood’s Westerns, The Beguiled is perhaps the most unusual. Eastwood’s cowboy heroes are often borderline villains, who are only shining in a positive light, because of circumstance rather than an inescapable sense of decency. Here, perhaps Don Siegel throws the spotlight onto Eastwood’s knack at playing nasty characters, with a hero that shifts constantly from the good guy to the villain of the piece. Perhaps the Beguiled isn’t so much a Western, but a Gothic story where several heroines find a fox in their coop, and are so hypnotised by the strange monster in their midst, they are made unwittingly helpless.
The story starts off simply enough. Eastwood is a soldier fighting in the Civil War, his Northern forces pushing further South every day. However, in a firefight gone wrong, he ends up being left for dead, burns over his body and bullets shattering his leg to pieces. He is found by a young Southern maid, who takes him to her school, an isolated community of women who fend for themselves. Despite fighting for the opposite side, they feel obliged to help the wounded man out of a sense of ethics. Eastwood, regaining his senses slowly over time, realises if he stays here, he will end up being turned over to the Confederates. But the women’s guard is down for good reason; he is bedridden and cannot hope of escaping in his condition. Therefore, he turns to psychological games to break his way from his prison. The Beguiled becomes a movie about Eastwood using his natural charm to win over women who haven’t met a man in their lives. Even before he starts his advances, the young girls are prying through windows, hoping to glimpse this ruggedly handsome soldier. At first, Eastwood isn’t so much a cruel manipulator, as hedging his bets. The headmistress won’t tolerate him, so he tries his luck at charming her successor, the sweet-hearted teacher who dreams of being whisked away by a charming prince. He also seeks empathy from a slave girl, while using his beauty to wrap a young girl with an over-active sexuality around his finger. However, then things begin taking a turn for the darker. As Eastwood recounts tales of his valour, Siegel cuts to flashbacks of Eastwood’s time in the war, proving the exact opposite: this man is a merciless killer with his back against the wall. He tries his luck at charming a young girl, under the age of ten, at the hopes that she might unlock the secret of escape. The women aren’t much better, preaching Christian values, while throwing each other under the bus at the first chance they get to curry favour from this mysterious man. The headmistress has an even darker past than Eastwood up her sleeve that is perhaps revealed too early by Siegel, but it hardly puts her in the role of hero in Eastwood’s absence. The Beguiled might lose favour due to a lack of clarity over who we are meant to be rooting for, but what it does do is push the Western genre into new and exciting territories. For those of you bored of the stock Eastwood cowboy movie, this dark thriller has something new in store for you.
Its themes might unsettle. There are a few moments that feel culturally outdated, especially seeing as this is a film which revolves around a sisterhood crumbling in on itself thanks to the women’s need for a man. It also is unclear whether Siegel is panning religion or not. In trying to live an honest life, isolated from greed, the women have left themselves completely unprepared for the male threat. Eastwood wastes no time in turning their lives apart, most of the time, the girls handing over their free will, before he has so much as introduced himself to them. It also fails to pick a side between the Unionists or the Confederates. When we meet other male soldiers, they are just as bad, if not worse than Eastwood, suggesting that Siegel isn’t rekindling an argument over the Civil War. Perhaps the best way to enjoy Beguiled is to simply remove critical readings from the equation. Siegel isn’t trying to pan religious communities, nor is he trying to be sexist. Sofia Coppola might have tweaked a few moments in her reboot, but her interest proves that feminism is accessible from The Beguiled’s storyline. He simply thinks up a scenario and asks: what if? What if a man was let loose in a house full of naïve but resourceful women? Who would win? And Siegel directs the resulting carnage exactly how you would expect from the prominent movie director. There is a nail-biting tension to the twists and turns of this movie, an unsettling nature to the events. The final third is glorious, making up for the perhaps over-played male fantasy angle. A disturbing scene is sure to turn the stomachs of every man in the room and audiences will be wowed at how Eastwood’s character reacts in the aftermath. The finale is perhaps a little anti-climatic, dated in how it is told, but nonetheless shocks, as the tables turn so often, it is a wonder every character doesn’t keel over out of dizziness. Stick the Beguiled out to the end and it is bound to leave an impression: good or bad.
Final Verdict: A tense thriller full of psychological and sexual torment that explodes into a nail-biting and shocking final third.