70s Rewind: THE BEGUILED, Clint Eastwood in a Weird, Southern Gothic Experiment

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70s Rewind: THE BEGUILED, Clint Eastwood in a Weird, Southern Gothic Experiment

Sofia Coppola's new version of The Beguiled will debut at the Cannes Film Festival next week, ahead of its theatrical release in the U.S. on June 23, which makes this is an opportune time to consider Don Siegel's 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood.

Both movies are based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, first published in 1966, that follows a badly wounded Union soldier who is given refuge in a Southern girls' academy, where "his presence sets in motion a tragedy of jealousy, hate and lust." (At least, according to Goodreads). As adapted by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (writing under their pseudonyms John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice), the film dramatizes that premise.

Clint Eastwood portrays John McBurney, the aforementioned Union soldier who is stumbled upon by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), the youngest of eight girls enrolled at an Academy owned by Martha (Geraldine Page) during the Civil War. Nearly unconscious and unable to walk on his own power, McBurney is carried into the large, plantation-style residence, where he is treated under watchful eyes by Martha, her slave Hallie (Mae Mercer), and Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), the 21-year-old teacher.

As the story begins, the tide is obviously turning against the Confederacy. Still, McBurney is an enemy combatant and should be handed over immediately to the Confederate soldiers who patrol the area. Martha hesitates, though, and that leads to big trouble ahead.

In the early 1960s, TV veteran Clint Eastwood had to go to Europe to break out big in Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns. When he returned, he teamed with Don Siegel to make Coogan's Bluff, in which a deputy sheriff from Arizona goes to New York in search of a killer. Siegel's riveting, mid-tempo style of action suited Eastwood well, and they paired up again on Two Mules for Sister Sara, also starring Shirley MacLaine in a Western that was anything but traditional.

I first saw both those films, plus The Beguiled, when they were broadcast on network television, edited for time and censored for content, in the mid-1970s. Of those three, Coogan's Bluff was the only one that met my expectations of Eastwood as a larger-than-life hero.

beguiled_poster-350.jpgWatching The Beguiled again recently on HBO, uncut and uninterrupted by ads, was a much more satisfactory experience, especially from a visual perspective. Bruce Surtees, who'd been a camera operator on both Coogan's Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara, made his debut as director of photography and did a beautiful job.

Candles are the only apparent source of light in the nighttime interior scenes, which reinforces the period setting and lends those sequences an air of mystery. The outdoor sequences, shot on location in Louisiana, reek of thick moss, contributing to the trapped circumstances of the characters.

The supporting performances hit their marks accurately, from Ferdin as the young, devoted Amy to Darleen Carr as the more conservative Doris to Jo Ann Harris, my personal favorite, as the over-heated Carol. Mae Mercer cuts a strong figure as Hallie, a slave who is growing tired of containing her rage.

Geraldine Page is very, very good as Martha, a woman haunted by her past but determined to control her future. Elizabeth Hartman does her very best with a role that is underwritten and ultimately frustrating; it's difficult to ferret out her true motivations after everything she's seen.

As for Eastwood ... well, it's a tougher proposition. In the time period in which it was made, Eastwood was still developing as a dramatic actor and could not hit every note for which he reached. The script was also confused on his character, and perhaps director Siegel was as well. McBurney is meant to be a hero, I think, and he doesn't always tell the truth because a prisoner of war's first obligation is to escape.

So, from that perspective, McBurney's lies and deceptions are understandable and well motivated, no matter that the women are easily persuaded and (mostly) gullible. (The title proves to be quite accurate.) That introduces another uncomfortable factor that runs throughout: a queasy current of dawning sexuality. Martha and Hallie have been separated from their male partners for some time, while the younger women are, appropriate to the era, all virgins and thus susceptible (?!) to McBurney's roguish charms (???!!!).

If that assumption is not sufficiently risible, things get even more hazy is in the second half of the story, where the motivations of nearly everyone come into question.

In other words, The Beguiled is more layered, even more problematic -- and open to interpretation and later repudiation -- than I had anticipated, so I am very much looking forward to Sofia Coppola's reading and presentation of the material.

Eastwood and Siegel followed this up with their reactionary smash hit Dirty Harry, which changed quite a few things on the cinema landscape. They worked together for their fifth and final time on the tight, terrific thriller Escape From Alcatraz. Eastwood also made his directorial debut in 1971 with Play Misty for Me, which opened another creative door for him that is still paying dividends today.

Geraldine Page eventually earned an Academy Award for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful shortly before she passed away in 1987. Nominated for an Oscar for her debut role in 1965's A Patch of Blue, Elizabeth Hartman left the business in 1983 and took her own life four years later.

I wouldn't call The Beguiled a must-see movie, necessarily, but it's wormed its way into my subconscious and is certainly a fascinating, weird experiment in the Southern Gothic cinema sub-genre.

70s Rewind allows the writer to ruminate on his favorite film decade.

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70s RewindClint EastwoodDon SiegelElizabeth HartmanGeraldine PageJo Ann Harris

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ManateeAdvocateMay 18, 2017 2:37 PM

I still dig this flick and I'm REALLY looking forward to the new version.

Peter MartinMay 20, 2017 10:59 PM

Agree about the new version! I'm really interested in seeing how Coppola interprets the material. Also, since it's not beholden to a star turn, as the 1971 version was to Eastwood, I wonder how that will affect things too.

wabaliciousMay 22, 2017 3:48 PM

Strange film, it was always one of my least favourite Clint Eastwood films partly because it was so far outside his usual wheelhouse. It's a good film and all but Clint seducing the young girls and generally being an untrustworthy deviant was quite shocking to me when i watched it as a kid. I was more used to him being a slightly less objectionable anti-hero i suppose. But the new version looks good from the trailer, it seems like it'll be pretty tense and the casting is good. I'm looking forward to seeing what Colin Farrell makes of the Eastwood role, but since i've already seen him playing more villainous parts (unlike Clint) i think it might not have the same impact seeing the "hero" being such an absolute bounder.

MARGARET WYNNMay 29, 2017 11:41 PM

I really disagree that McBurney was written as a hero. In the first scene, when Amy finds him, he plants a VERY age-inappropriate kiss on her lips, telling her that she's "Old enough for kissing". He is already playing her.
He is a coward and a deserter. His own troops are close by, but he doesn't want to leave and rejoin them, mainly because he ran away from battle in the first place. He lies about being a Quaker who carried bandages, not arms, while a flashback shows him shooting several cornered enemies while he's hiding in some bushes. After telling the women how much he reveres the land, there is a flashback to him burning down someone's crops. He manipulates each of the women in a way calculated to appeal to each of them differently. He threatens Hallie with rape. He dashes Amy's turtle against the wall for no good reason, sealing his eventual fate. There isn't anything heroic about him.
On the other hand, the women don't get a pass, either. Miz Martha is an incestuous, lustful hypocrite. The sexy teenager is a spiteful liar. The youngest girl is a cold blooded, calculating killer. Romantic, virginal Edwina has enough of a temper to shove her supposed beloved down a flight of stairs. And they only hint at it, but the slave Hallie may well have run the absent Miles through with a pitchfork, although that one is justified.