The Beguiled (1971, dir. Don Siegel)
“You mean I shoot him in the back?”
“Yeah, you get rid of him.”
“I don’t shoot anyone in the back.”
“….Clint Eastwood would shoot him in the back.” – Don Siegel directing a scene with John Wayne in The Shootist
When it was announced that Sophia Coppola’s next feature would be a remake of the 1971 film The Beguiled, it seemed almost too good to be true. Elevating pulp has made for some of the greatest films of all time (The Godfather, Jaws, etc.), especially when such a specific director puts their eye to it. And any way you slice it, The Beguiled is pulp to the core. The film tells the story of John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) an injured Union soldier who stumbles upon an all girls school in rural Louisiana during the Civil War. The school reluctantly takes him in. As the students and their headmistress (Geraldine Page) nurse him back to health, he awakens the sexual desires of the students and staff. Needless to say, his promises lead to jealousies…which lead to fights…which lead to a pet turtle being killed…which leads to McBurney being strapped to a table as the headmistress saws off his leg.
From the outset, The Beguiled makes clear its intentions. It starts with sepia tone photos of soldiers in the midst of the Civil War, they fade into one another like a Ken Burns documentary. We’ve seen this before. We know the history. But eventually the photos turn to color. And as a twelve year old girl named Amy picks mushrooms in the woods, she stumbles upon McBurney, the red-purple blood of his injury punching itself off the screen. McBurney quickly grabs Amy and hides as Southern soldiers approach. He kisses Amy to keep her quiet as the soldiers pass. It’s a deeply uncomfortable moment. Immediately you understand that this isn’t a Gettysburg-style exploration of war – but a grindhouse style exploration of desire. It’s a claustrophobic, sweaty, dirtball movie. It’s an exploitation film, full of perversity, and dicey politics, masquerading as a costume drama. Eastwood is maniacal. The students are all types (the religious one, the repressed one, the manipulative one). The Beguiled is Gone with The Wind for the key party era.
The film was directed by Don Siegel, a journeyman director, who started in the montage department at Warner Brothers working on films like Casablanca and The Roaring Twenties. By the 1950s he had moved into features. Today he’s known primarily for making crime and prison films. He made five films with Clint Eastwood and had a huge influence on Eastwood’s style. Honestly, I haven’t seen enough of Siegel’s films to make any sweeping generalizations about his themes or obsessions. But I will say that after looking over his filmography, it’s strange he’s not referenced more. An iconic 50s hysteria film (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), an iconic renegade cop film (Dirty Harry), and an iconic prison film (Riot in Cell Block 11), not to mention 40+ others.
Throughout The Beguiled, Siegel keeps returning to a juxtaposition of our basest desires against the structures that be. He contrasts the supposed “civility” of the school against the madness at the gates. One moment the girls are learning how to properly fold a napkin, in the next, the headmistress is daydreaming about her incestuous affair with her brother. Ultimately every allusion of goodness is shattered, on and on until you realize that there is no black and white, just shades of weirder and weirder gray.
And if the bizarre plot weren’t enough to hook you, there’s atmosphere seeping from every grain. The film is beautifully shot with flickering candle light, evocative framing, and heavy Spanish moss draped over all the trees (Is there a more cinematic vegetation than Spanish moss? Something about how ancient and ominous it looks). Particularly effective is the amputation scene where Siegel creates maximum impact without ever showing the act itself. The whole sequence is cut together with only the sounds of the saw at work – no shrieks, no cries of pain. One shot in particular has Eastwood’s pained face in the foreground and the sawing being done in the reflection of a nearby mirror. Fantastic.
Eastwood remains one of the most perplexing figures in Hollywood. On the one hand, he’s a cynical, anti-establishment outsider who made films about agnostic, morally corrupt dudes, on the other hand, he’s the ultimate symbol of old school conservatism, arguing with chairs and doing anti-cocaine PSAs. Like Charlton Heston (Civil rights and loves guns, huh?), he’s one the most traditional revolutionary figures out there. He made one of the most brilliant, subversive war films of the last decade, American Sniper AND one the laziest, brain flattening musicals ever to grace the projector, Jersey Boys.
So The Beguiled holds a strange place in his oeuvre. It was released the same year as Dirty Harry, and obviously hasn’t had 1/100th of the impact. While he tends to be remembered foremost for his tough guy roles, there was a time when studios positioned him as a genuine, albeit evil, sex symbol. In fact, as weird as The Beguiled is, one of the most shocking aspects is that Siegel allowed Clint Eastwood to keep his feathered, flowing haircut. It’s absurd to see McBurney take off his Union cap and out fall a golden mane of California Highway Patrol hair. Yes, he’s supposed to be a attractive – but surely that could’ve been accomplished without treading so close to “I can’t believe it’s not butter” territory .
As much as The Beguiled fits neatly into the category of Southern Gothic movies, the one film I kept coming back to was The Sound of Music. If only because it’s also about a large household where order remains against the backdrop of a rapidly decaying world. This type of movie could be its own genre right? Like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Doctor Zhivago – films where a small group of people sit inside eating caviar while on the streets they’re sabering the proletariat. At the end of the day, that was perhaps my biggest takeaway from The Beguiled, the reminder (not that we needed it) that the thin little stitches holding society together are always one blonde haired stranger away from unraveling.
- Apparently there was time when actors wanted to sing their film’s theme songs. Eastwood sings the theme of The Beguiled over the opening credits, an act he would repeat in Gran Torino. Robert Mitchum sang the theme to Thunder Road in 1958. Even Will Smith performed the theme to Men in Black. Not sure why this stopped. Fingers crossed that Harry Styles does a number for Dunkirk.
- As much as we should remember Siegel for his films, his mustache deserves equal praise. In my mind it’s up there with Woody Allen’s glasses or George Lucas’s neck rolls as being integral to our understanding of their work.
- At one point Daphne (a student in the house) is learning to play the harp. Whatever happened to the harp? Has the sound been corrupted by movie montages? Every dream sequence starts with a harp. It’s a bummer to see certain instruments resign themselves to the past. I guess the harp is also just a huge instrument,so it requires a tone of space, but then again, so does the piano. Maybe it’s because no one has really updated the attitude with which you play the harp? It’s still a pale skinned recital instrument, anyway….