Southern Movie 47: “The Beguiled” (1971)
In 1971, when The Beguiled was released to American movie audiences, it would have been easy to buy into the notion that Southerners were crazy. For more than a decade, both television news and Hollywood movies had been providing a steady stream of true-to-life violent imagery showing stalwart bigotry and anti-Civil Rights violence. So, it was conceivable in the popular imagination that even a group of otherwise-demure women and girls in a Civil War-era boarding school would do something as outlandish as imprison and maim a wounded Union soldier. Directed by Don Siegel, who had also teamed up with Beguiled star Clint Eastwood on Two on Mules for Sister Sara and Dirty Harry, this “Southern gothic” movie combines regional history with war, sexuality, and suspense.
The Beguiled opens with a series of sepia-tone still images showing violent Civil War battle scenes as the credits roll. These images are overlain by the sounds of battle and punctuated by men screaming. This doesn’t last long, though, and our attention is refocused on a girl gathering mushrooms in a forest. She is wearing a long dress and braids in her hair, and is carrying a basket. Soon, however, her calm foray in the woods is interrupted by the sight of blood, and a man falls from the foliage to the ground. His face is bloody and charred, as are his hands. The girl is horrified, and then we hear a battle raging nearby.
Once the man is on the ground, we see that he is a Union soldier in a blue uniform. He can barely speak but manages to pull her into the bushes with him when a group of Confederate soldiers pass by. And it is in those bushes where he makes his first move, asking the terrified girl how old she is, then kissing her on the mouth after she answers, “Twelve. Thirteen in September.” The man tells her that he is Corporal John McBurney but everyone calls him McB (Clint Eastwood). After the Rebels have passed by, the girl, whose name is Amy, helps him stumble to get help.
Back at the house, we see a black woman, presumably a slave, crouching in a garden plot. A white woman comes outside with a basket, and they speak amiably. The black woman is Hallie, the white woman is Martha, and this large white mansion is the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Inside, we see a small classroom where a young teacher provides instruction to a class of four. One of the girls, who isn’t paying attention, admits that she is too frightened to learn, because she had heard that, if the Yankees win the nearby battle, they will rape all the girls there. Meanwhile, Amy is aiding McB and crying, “Miss Martha! He’s dying,” as she approaches the gate. The women and girls all run out to let them in, and Amy is scolded for leaving the grounds and for bringing McB there. Nonetheless, they pick him up and carry him to the house. As they carry him, Martha Farnsworth shows herself to be a true Southern patriot by remarking that if he were to die, he’d just be “one less enemy soldier.”
Once they have McB on the front stairs of the house, Martha tells Amy to tie a blue rag on the gate, a sign that will tell the Confederates to retrieve an enemy soldier. The younger woman who was teaching earlier, Edwina, protests that he is very weak and has lost a lot of blood, but Martha is unfazed. Inside the house, the girls twitter and lurk, wanting to know if he will die, but Martha tells them that he is doing better and will recover.
This is where the drama begins. In the sewing room, the girls discuss McB in quiet tones, and Edwina speaks fondly and defensively of the new arrival. In her thoughts, we hear Amy declare that she finds him handsome. Back in the music room where he is being held, Hallie washes his back, and Martha tries to put a nightshirt on him. The effort brings back a reminscence of a man who Martha is seen embracing and kissing, then we see him in an oil portrait on the wall. When Hallie mentions the man, whose name is Edward, Martha tells her not to speak of him. (At first, it seems as though this would be her husband, but it’s actually her brother.)
Outside, at the gate, the Confederates do arrive, but Martha does not give it away that McB is inside. The Rebels have a handful of blue-uniformed prisoners, one of whom is nearly shot, but Martha chooses not to hand over McB. She remains coy as the girls, who are looking on, wonder whether she will betray the Yank.
Back inside, McB begins his work to manipulate his way into a better position. He talks to Hallie, who is tending to him, about how they should be friends. They’re both prisoners there, each in their own way, he tells her. Yet, Hallie coldly rejects him and continues her work.
Once the Confederates are gone, Martha and Edwina are talking while they remove the sign on the gate that announces a house full of girls and women. Martha speaks about a time when the school was thriving and how she’d never intended to run the farm and the school. She would like Edwina to be her partner in re-establishing the school to its former glory. Edwina is, of course, pleased.
Once the women have nailed the windows of the music room shut, we sense the tension. So far we have seen McB try to influence Hallie, and we’ve found out that Amy, Edwina, and Martha all have a fondness for him. That is complicated further when Edwina catches young Carol trying to get into his room later. The next morning, the genteel teacher comes down to feed McB his breakfast, and by the end of their conversation, we see that she is flustered by her feelings for him. Then comes Amy to visit him. She won’t stay but does drop a hint that she told Randolph all about him. Who is Randolph?
Up on the roof, one of the girls is thinking to herself about how harboring McB is treason, and she tries to flag down Confedrates who are passing by. Inside, Edwina is playing the piano for McB and chatting with him. She lets him in on Amy’s not-so-secret: Randolph is a turtle. And we can feel the pair getting closer, but Edwina tells him that she doesn’t really trust men. This is something that McB will have to work on, but they are interrupted by an abrupt Martha bringing his dinner.
Next, McB works on Martha. He explains to her that he is a Quaker and was an unarmed field nurse with his regiment. He claims to have been trying to save a Confederate soldier when he was shot. However, as this tale is told, he also see flashbacks of the real story: McB is hiding among the trees, gunning down Confederates coldly until one of them shoots him, then as he crawls across the forest floor, an artillery shell explodes right by his face. At this point, we know he is a liar, and we’ve now seen him attempt to use his cunning on four different women: Amelia, Edwina, Martha, and Hallie. Yet, Martha is beginning to soften toward him and offers him some wine for his pain if the severe burns hurt too badly, but he oversteps his bounds when he tries to create a romantic opportunity out of it.
Yet, romance is what he may well get. McB gets his sure thing when Carol manages to sneak out of evening Bible study, claiming to have to use the bathroom. She comes in quietly and makes it known that he can have her if he wants. She kisses him lightly and sneaks back out just as she came in.
The next day, Martha is in the carriage and leaving the school grounds to get supplies. Given the plot so far, we know that all kinds of maneuvering will go on while Martha is gone. First, Amelia goes to his boarded-up window and asks if he wants the crutches that they have in the barn. Yes, he does. Hallie is out in the barn milking the cow, so she knows what the little girl is up to. The other girls are working the garden and complaining. Then, while Hallie is shaving McB, they flirt a little bit, and we find out that Hallie once had a man, Ben, who ran away. McB makes another effort to ingratiate her by claiming that he’ll look for Ben when he is free again.
Out in the daylight, a clean-shaven McB is ready to make his big move on Edwina. He is cleaned up and moving around on crutches. The two meet outside on the large porch, and he talks her into sitting with him before she has to teach class. He confesses his love for her, claiming that she is the first woman he has ever looked at this way— and she buys it, hook, line, and sinker.
However, Martha arrives home, and McB must now contend with her. So far he has managed to conceal his efforts with each woman by saying these things only when he is alone with them. Though Martha is surprised that he is out of the music room, she seems open to it. McB declares that he has most of his strength back, and he would be glad to help with the farm work. Without much fuss, Martha agrees, saying it would be nice to have the help. McB then goes on to proclaim how much he loves the land and how he hates what the war has done to it, but in another flashback, we see him setting fire to it.
So far, McB has done a good job of hiding his advances on the various women and girls, but he is about to screw up. As Edwina teaches an etiquette class, Carol sees McB walking outside. He is now in long pants and a shirt, and out of the nightshirt that he wore as a convalescent. She asks once again to use the restroom, and is allowed to go. Carol finds McB in the gazebo, playing solitaire, and offers herself to him again. She has her shirt open, and they make out a bit, hidden the vines that cover the gazebo. But when Edwina is told that Carol isn’t in the bathroom, she goes looking for her and walks up on the amorous couple. Edwina is terribly upset and lets it out that it was her father, who constant cheated on her mother, that was the cause of her mistrust of men. Nearby, as she walks away, Carol hears McB tell Edwina that she means nothing to him, so Carol goes and ties the blue bandana around the gate to alert passersby of a Yankee prisoner. Just then, three men amble by, see the rag, and come onto the property ready to seize a Yankee. McB hides for a moment but is discovered. He fights off the first man, but the others descend on him and he is trapped. Resorting once again to lies, McB tells them that he is from a Confederate regiment out of Texas, and when Martha appears on the scene, she confirms slyly that he is her cousin from Texas. The men admonish Martha that this is no time for jokes, and Martha retorts that whoever put that blue rag on the gate will be punished.
Now halfway through The Beguiled, McB’s real problems are emerging. He is walking freely around the grounds, eating at the table, and lounging to pass the time, but he has excited several women with several different agendas. The patient mother-hen Martha has her eye on him. The idealistic Edwina only half-trusts him but wants him nonetheless. The cunning Carol continues to seduce him. And the child Amy has her own naive kind of affection for him. All of this is about to catch up with him.
Late that evening, a small group of Confederate soldiers come to the house to tell Martha that their regiment is leaving the area. The three men offer to stay behind and protect them, but it is obviously from their demeanor that what they really want is to get at the females housed there. Martha deftly outsmarts them and shows them the door. Meanwhile, McB is hiding upstairs and uses the opportunity to make out with Edwina. Once the soldiers are gone and everyone comes out of hiding, the girls are sent to bed, and Carol stops McB on the stairs to offer once again for him to come to her room. He realizes what has happened: Carol tied the blue rag. He calls her out on it, and she replies that he shouldn’t do things to make her jealous.
As McB descends the stairs, Martha is waiting with a bottle of wine to offer him. He accepts and as they talk, Martha asks him to stay on and run the farm. McB says yes, and after consuming their wine, she intimates that the two of them can become a couple. In flashbacks during this scene, we learn a bit more about Edward, first that he is dead and won’t be coming home, and second, that he and Martha had a passionate incestuous relationship. Of course, McB doesn’t know this, and he and Martha make out at his bedroom door, which she leaves open. Now, McB has a choice: three women – Martha, Edwina, and Carol – are all waiting in their beds for him, and he has to go to one of them.
After a kinky dream sequence where it looks like he goes to bed with Martha and Edwina at the same time, McB is heading upstairs. He stands in the hall between Martha’s room and Edwina’s room, looking back and forth, when Carol appears. Perhaps knowing that she could be the death of him, he half-shrugs and follows Carol to her room as quietly as he is able, but he still makes a noise. He goes into Carol’s room, and she graciously allows him to climb in bed— but they are caught by Edwina, who has an absolute screaming freakout! Edwina throws him down the stairs, and he breaks his leg severely.
By now, all of the girls are up, and they work together to carry him downstairs. They lay McB on a table, and Martha declares that she will amputate his leg. She claims that it will gangrene if she doesn’t. Hallie and Edwina protest the decision, but Martha replies that she’ll be saving his life.
When McB wakes up a one-legged man, he is both horrified and furious. He berates Martha for her vindictiveness and tells a sobbing Edwina to get away from him as well. But he has to face that the fact that Amy, who weeps as she tells him, thought that he loved her. For the rest of movie, he is no longer a suave trickster navigating delicately but a fierce antagonist terrorizing the house and everyone in it. Carol comes to his window at one point to say that she hopes he will continue to want her, but all he wants is to get out of his room. She frees him, and McB goes to Martha’s room where he steals Edward’s letters, Martha’s locket, and a one-shot pistol.
While the girls eat their lunch, McB fires the pistol to announce himself, and Martha and Hallie run out to see what is going on. McB is at the top of the cellar stairs, telling them that he wants wine and that if anyone tries to lock him down there he will shoot them. He also informs Martha that he will, from now on, get in bed with anyone who wants him to. After she walks away, he tells Hallie that he might start with her, and she replies, after a flashback of a rape attempt by Edward, “Then you better like it with a dead black woman, because that’s the only way you gon’ get it from this one.”
After drinking some wine in the cellar and reading Edward’s letter to Martha, which presumably let out their incestuous secret, McB comes back upstairs and berates the hypocrisy of the women and girls as they eat. Hallie hisses at him to just leave, but he won’t. He explains to all of the girls why Edwina got angry, why he was in Carol’s bed, and why Martha left his door open. McB blows the whole thing wide open, in part because he has renewed confidence after finding out from Amy that a Union regiment is camped nearby. But McB makes a huge mistake when a pleading Amy comes to him, holding Randolph the turtle, and he takes the small animal and chucks it onto the floor, killing it. Here, he divests himself of his last ally, and Amy screams at him that she hates him. He tries to apologize but she isn’t hearing it.
McB leaves the room, and Edwina tries to follow him, but Martha stands in the way. Edwina slaps her to the floor, though, and follows her man anyway. Back in his bedroom, McB lies on his back quietly, and Edwina comes in and blocks the door with a heavy couch. McB is confused by this, but Edwina smiles at him, professes her love, and presumably they sleep together.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Martha tries to figure out what to do. None of them will be safe until he is gone. They can’t shoot him because he has the only gun. A few other ideas are mentioned, and they finally decide that Amy should gather his favorite mushrooms so they can poison him. When Martha asks Amy if she can do that, Amy replies coldly, “I know exactly where to find them.” We have returned to the place where we started, with Amy gathering mushrooms in the forest.
That night at dinner, McB and Edwina come in together. As the uncomfortable groups eats, they pass the mushrooms to McB, who chows down on them. Edwina sits beside and him, and they tell everyone they’re leaving together . . . to get married. Martha questions Edwina’s decision, but Edwina intends to go forward with it. Finally, the secret is revealed when Edwina serves herself some of the mushrooms. Martha shouts at her to stop! Everyone freezes. Then McB understands that he has been bested. He begins to sweat and leaves the room.
In the final scene, we see the women and girls sewing him up a cloth tarp. Edwina, who has been crying, puts a white handkerchief over his gray face, and they carry his body outside the gate. The tone of the film becomes sepia once again, and “THE END” appears on the screen.
Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, The Beguiled plays hard on stereotypes of Southern women to create its intended effects. Mainly, we have the schoolmistress Martha, who we see in flashbacks as committing incest; Edwina, the goody-goody teacher who wants idealized love from a man who wants to be physical; and the sex-starved Carol, a seventeen-year-old who throws herself at McB. Then, we also have the duped twelve-year-old Amy, who poisons McB over a combination of sentimental notions about her first kiss and deep anger over a murdered pet, and the ever-present slave Hallie, who presents a mix of obedience and strength and who may be the only round character among the females.
About this, Brian Eggert, writing for the website Deep Focus Review, asked: “Does the viewer see McB as an innocent victim imprisoned by a group of women, physically incapable of escaping his exceedingly jealous, fatherless, husbandless, and sexually repressed captors?” That’s one way to see it. However, The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody wrote:
[The soldier] is given shelter in her small rural-Mississippi girls’ school, where the middle-aged Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) teaches the ladylike virtues that are quickly forgotten in the presence of a virile man. Teacher and students alike pant after the strong but soft-spoken enemy, and their jealousy and pride lead to horrific spasms of violence that Siegel plays for shock value.
While The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby had this assessment:
The film thus begins as a quite odd Civil War romance, evolves into a battle of the sexes in which the man is more vanquished than victor, and then turns into the kind of grotesque character comedy that might—mistakenly, I think—be identified as gothic horror.
Whatever the genre or sub-genre may be, The Beguiled is very much a story about the character of the South. McB may a damn Yankee, a liar, and a lecher, but on a human level, he is still a victim, and we can feel a little compassion for him. The girls and women, on the other hand, are basically aggressors, who either want to see McB imprisoned or executed or seek to use his condition to manipulate him. They are confused by conflicts between the ideals of Southern culture, the lessons of Christianity, and notions of basic human decency. Young Amy helps the wounded man even though he is a “blue belly” and is scolded for it. More than once during the film, when it is suggested that McB be handed over for prison or left to die, someone retorts that Jesus said we should even love our enemies. This very South conflict – between the politics and the religion – pervades the whole story: did Amy err in judgment by bringing him there? should the Southern cause be held above the teachings of Jesus? is a Yankee beneath human decency? The main question being this: are you a Southerner first, or a Christian first?
The Beguiled also portrays other complexities of race in Southern culture. For the white women and girls, Hallie straddles the line between one-of-us and not-one-of-us, which is a longstandining Southern approach to African-American slaves and later servants, i.e. “the help.” Of her volition, Hallie also rejects McB’s notion that they are on the same side, as the liberator and the potentially liberated. Of course, we don’t know whether she does so because she values and loves Martha Farnsworth and the girls, or whether she is biding her time until freedom becomes a reality, or whether she fears what may wait on her outside the gates, or all of those things. Whatever her ideas and feelings, she does know that she has no reason to trust a white man, not even one who claims to be fighting for her.
Finally, there is the issue of social class, specifically the hypocrisy of supposed upper class. Notwithstanding Edwina’s prudishness or Carol’s coquettishness, Miss Martha Farnsworth, the aging Southern belle who passes on the traditions of her dying way of life, is easily the most despicable character in the movie. She has little compassion for the man she nurses back to health, until she sees that she could use him: to work the farm and be her sex toy. She has committed incest with her brother. She uses McB’s accident on the stairs to cut off his leg, probably as punishment for preferring the younger women to her. And ultimately, it is Martha who devises the plan to poison the man who has put himself completely outside of her control. While she claims to be protecting the girls, she is really ensuring that her own aristocratic power is maintained. Though McB was cunning and strong, he was no match for that.