“Old enough for kisses”
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen inside a Confederate girls seminary (boarding school) unwittingly thrust into the position of harboring a wounded Union soldier during the Civil War, Don Siegel‘s The Beguiled seeks to provide some dark answers. Based on Thomas Cullinan‘s novel A Painted Devil and adapted by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (despite the use of pseudonyms after Claude Traverse‘s uncredited rewrite), the film focuses on Corporal John McBurney’s (Clint Eastwood) precarious situation. He’s the enemy—a man two students would let die for no reason other than honoring their father’s own patriotism against everything he stands for. “McB” has only his charm to save him, stories manufactured to endear him as a necessary masculine presence in their best interests. And he uses it.
This is a premise that inherently sets him up as the antagonist because he’s in survival mode and willing to do whatever may give him an advantage. So he appeals to young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin)—the girl that finds him bleeding in the forest—with a kiss. He plays up his appreciation for everything that Head Mistress Martha (Geraldine Page) does to nurse him back to health when any less charitable person would have let him rot in a Confederate prison. And he preys on the compassionate innocence of the girls’ teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) while fanning the lustful flames of promiscuous teen Carol (Jo Ann Harris). If McB plays every angle presented, one might bear fruit. In doing so, however, he earns not one shred of sympathy.
It’s therefore weird to watch Siegel shine him in a victimized light. I thought maybe I read the cues that had me thinking this wrong, so I did a web search only to find corroboration in the form of a quote where the director stated he based his themes of vengeance around the “basic desire of women to castrate men.” That’s a pretty inflammatory statement to make, one that only makes sense if the women onscreen are shown to possess malicious intent in their actions. But they don’t. The whole Southern Gothic flavor that eventually shows us exactly how much power they wield over this situation doesn’t arrive until there’s about twenty minutes left. Until then it’s lambs being led to slaughter at the hands of a wolf.
I get it: he does what he must. But that doesn’t excuse him from fault when things go awry. Whether Siegel and the writers want to paint the women (of varyingly young ages) as sex-craved fiends who can barely stop themselves from taking a peek at the first attractive man they’ve seen in months or not, McB doesn’t receive the right to be innocent after leading some along before finally settling on the one with the least amount of chastity. He doesn’t get to accuse his saviors of being teases and they don’t get to be vilified for standing up for themselves when his anger proves violent and uncontrollable. Every action is made with emotion rather than intellect, but the spiral towards malice is his and his alone.
So it’s difficult to truly praise the film since everything I liked about it is in direct conflict with Siegel’s goals. And those goals are never effectively drawn to make me pause and wonder if I read things wrong. This is especially true after McB begins to earn the women’s trust. There are multiple opportunities for him to be turned over to the Confederate army and yet he remains safe nonetheless. He’s even offered work to which he accepts with a wry smile devoid of thanks and full of treachery. He reads their empathy as a game, deciding to feed into the looming stereotype of Union soldiers as rapists instead of proving it wrong. They ultimately care about him and yet he sees them as “things” to use.
The film for me is best in those moments where McB’s actions push the women towards cold, calculating pragmatism. There’s a shift wherein the women must survive him. He becomes volatile and full of excuses, his façade of deceit revealed once his strength returns to no longer need the ruse. One by one those who didn’t see him as a monster do, their own transformations into deceivers more understandable than his. I say this without a shred of uncertainty since Siegel provides us glimpses at the truth when lies are spoken and internal monologues that reveal intent above assumption. The real enemy is war and the places it forces the human mind to go, but it’s McB’s dishonesty that leads to their response. Not the other way around.
Each character has a past—some sordid, others tragic. Men are consistently drawn as oppressors and it’s with good reason. Whether slave (Mae Mercer‘s Hallie), innocent exploited by a family member (Edwina), or the pious proven not (Martha), these women find sanctuary in each other away from the men who’ve started this war and killed both good and bad remorselessly. McB enters their sanctum with the potential to prove humanity prevails or to remind how it does not. He can give them hope by dispelling the rumors of the “enemy” and yet he choses to play them against each other until reaping what he sowed. At a certain point they’ll reach a breaking point and he will become the literal and metaphorical target of their hate.
In this respect the story isn’t about “women’s desire to castrate men” but a human desire for justice and equality. It’s about embracing an inner strength to show men willing to prey upon the weak that they’ll find no weakness here. Hallie exists as a reminder that “freedom” would afford little power in comparison to her current place and so she stands up to McB’s manipulations like no one else does. Martha finds herself in a position of authority to help when she has every right not to—even if that “help” may seem cruel by some. Edwina discovers how her love can empower her to revile and forgive. And don’t forget little Amy, the child that exposes just how dangerous it is to underestimate youth for naiveté.
The star of the show for me is Page, however, the sole character with complexity beyond selfish desire. Eastwood, Hartman, and Harris are good and natural in their roles too, but they’re motivated by hearts and lust too heavily to see the nuance of what’s happening. Page’s Martha does have one slip up, but she recovers quickly enough to prove just how ruthless a protector she is to those in her care. At one point she states that her conscience will be clear and we believe it. She may act too hastily in some decisions, but McB never supplies her the time or space to do otherwise. He may not be as horrible as he acts at times, but who should ever be willing to take that chance?