A psycho-sexual thriller set in the Old South towards the middle of the Civil War, just before Grant begins his siege at Vicksburg, Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, based on a book by Thomas Cullinan, is a lurid tale of mistrust, manipulation, and sex that gets shockingly close to greatness but never quite gets there. A long-term professional who developed a good working relationship with the rising star Clint Eastwood, Siegel crafted a tense little tale with several interesting dimensions and several very good performances to anchor it all.
In Mississippi there lies a small girl’s school, a seminary run by Martha Farnsworth with six students ranging in age from about 10 to the late teens and a single helper, Edwina, about 22 years old. The youngest, Amy, is just off the grounds picking mushrooms when she comes across the injured Corporal John McBurney whom she helps to the school. A Yankee deep in Southern territory, the girls of the school don’t quite know what to make of the tall, masculine example from the other side of the conflict (he must have a tail, one insists), but Ms. Farnsworth insists on doing her Southern best at hospitality to bring him in and patch him up before handing him over to the local patrol for imprisonment.
Off the bat, things feel off. McBee, as he’s called, steals an innocent enough kiss from Amy when she finds him. Ms. Farnsworth and the older girls, especially Edwina and the very modern looking young woman Carol (played by Clint’s lover of several years, Jo Ann Harris), look at McBee’s unconscious body with obvious lust. We see flashbacks of Ms. Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother, long disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As soon as McBee is lucid, he’s being overly nice to every single girl in different ways depending on their age and inclination.
There’s very little in terms of overt expressions of deeply held emotions (they do come out at a later point), but everything in the first half or so is understated. It’s an extremely subtle movie for a very long time, and this is where it’s most interesting. McBee is obviously manipulating every one of these girls in an effort to escape. He doesn’t care which of them helps him get out, but he needs one of them to do it, and that becomes his problem. He’s proper and respectful to Ms. Farnsworth. He’s loving to Edwina. He’s exciting to Carol. He’s endearing to Amy. But it crosses up one night when he promises to come up to both Edwina and Carol’s room, but Ms. Farnsworth unlocks his door hoping for him to come to her. He goes to the young, pretty Carol and gets caught by Edwina who screams at him in a genuine display of emotional fragility, falling down the stairs which leads to an unnecessary amputation of his leg by the displeased Ms. Farnsworth.
Everything up to the beginning of that night is subtle, tense, and very, very good. Siegel, though, either didn’t trust the audience to understand what was going on or he just couldn’t help himself and he created a rather obvious montage of a dream of Ms. Farnsworth where she, Edwina, and McBee are writhing around on a bed, ending with McBee in a position reminiscent of the Pieta she has a copy of in her bedroom. It’s weird and out of place while drawing unnecessary attention to itself and distracting from the lowkey type of tension that had been playing out for about forty-five minutes. It’s a misstep.
McBee wakes up to find his leg missing, and he is displeased, especially when he receives word from Amy that the Southern army he was running from never came back. Instead, they’ve run off, replaced by a Union army just a few miles down the road. Angry, he finds his way into Ms. Farnsworth’s room, finds her gun and her letters from her brother, and he holds the place hostage as long as his strength will hold out.
The hidden emotions of the first half strip away to rage and fear for a good while as McBee lords over his torturers and gets drunk, but the subtleties return for the final dinner, another wonderfully tense scene. The ending is a mix of emotions because we never really had anyone to root for, and there’s still no clear winner though there is a clear loser. Everyone was trying to manipulate at least one other person save little Amy who just wanted to show McBee her turtle that he smashed against the floor in anger. There’s also a black slave, Hallie, who is as invective towards McBee, the Union soldier, as any of the others in the house, calling him a slave for having to follow orders in the army. She receives some of McBee’s charm for a while, but when he threatens to rape her after his leg got cut off she makes it clear that she’s not going to let that happen in any peaceful way.
The film is populated with these interesting, unique characters, and the subtle tension of the overall situation, barely removed from the war outside, is what makes the movie work best. It works least when it goes obvious and big, but, fortunately, this movie focuses on the small most of the time.
This is a very good little film with strong performances from Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in particular. It’s a mostly forgotten gem that deserve reappraisal.