Friday, 4 January 2013

Movie Review: The Beguiled (1971)


A perfect psychological drama, The Beguiled delves into the jungle of sexual politics and emerges with a deliciously ripened fruit. One of Clint Eastwood's least Eastwood-like roles adds to the intrigue.

In the middle of a Civil War battle, Union soldier John "McBee" McBurney (Eastwood) is severely wounded and separated from his company behind Confederate lines. He is found by 12 year old Amy, who takes him to an all-girls school run by Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). In addition to Amy, five other adolescent girls attend the school, including the romantic and responsible Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and the desirous Carol (Jo Ann Harris). The slave Hallie (Mae Mercer) is a loyal servant at the school.

Martha is initially adamant that McBee will be turned over to a Confederate patrol as soon as his wounds are tended to. With a limited amount of time to avoid a prisoner's fate, McBee immediately sets about endearing himself to the girls, attempting to stoke a romance with Edwina, acquiescing to Carol's aggressive advances, attempting to convince Hallie that they are on the same side of the war, and working on the stern but lonely Martha to convince her that she needs a handy man to help run the school -- and maybe more. Even Amy continues to harbour a crush on the man she found in the woods. With four girls and one slave all beginning to see value in McBee, jealousies erupt and tensions rise to superheated levels.

Set entirely in and around the school, The Beguiled is a sharply executed war within a war. McBee may have thought that he survived the brutalities of a Civil War battlefield, but he promptly ignites another, more incendiary conflict within the school walls. One virile man dropped into the company of eight women proves to be a combustible mix, and McBee will need to deal with the explosions that result from his lighting various real and imagined pent-up passions.

In the role of John McBurney, Eastwood is either on his back recuperating or hobbling around on crutches. His mere presence, rather than any gun, represents the threat, allowing Eastwood to actually act. Soft spoken, calculating and relying on a combination of pity and persuasion, he dominates the movie with a macho magnetism that knocks the world of the ladies around him off its axis.

Geraldine Page's Miss Martha proves to be the most resilient of the women that McBee needs to conquer psychologically, and Page brings to the role her authoritative aura, a woman leading and protecting other women through a war. Of course she has an ignoble past and present needs, and once McBee finds these weaknesses, he relentlessly bores in.

Elizabeth Hartman and Jo Ann Harris are excellent as polar opposite personalities, Hartman's Edwina too quickly to fall in love out of romantic hope than practical conviction, while Harris smolders as Carol seeks nothing other than a satisfying sexual conquest.

In many ways a movie significantly ahead of its time, The Beguiled tackles repressed sexuality, incest, rape and in a disconcerting fantasy sequence that retains a spellbinding punch, threesomes and passion between women.

Director and frequent Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel adapts the Thomas P. Cullinan novel primarily with a view to exploring the evil that women are capable of. McBee is ultimately the catalyst, and he barely commits a physically violent act within the school. But his presence and immoral behaviour in spreading lies, false affection, and empty promises to any yearning heart are more than enough to trigger bedlam in a previously staid environment.

Hell may have no fury like a woman scorned, and in The Beguiled, several women scorned at once prove capable of creating a hell like no other.






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