When The Beguiled was first released in 1971, it was met with confusion and disappointment by viewers. Audiences came to the film expecting to see the hard-boiled action director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood were known for. What they found instead was a bizarre Civil War-era meditation on the complexity of desire.
If anything, it’s remarkable that it took more than 40 years for the film to be remade. The premise is brimming with potential. Set during the Civil War, John McBurney [Eastwood], a Yankee soldier who’s been injured in battle, staggers onto the grounds of a Southern girls’ school. The school, despite Confederate alliances, takes McBurney in. The excuse for this is that they want to help him heal before they turn him in so he might have a chance of surviving as a POW. The real reason, though, is that each and every member of the school is too intrigued by the presence of a Yankee man to let him slip away so quickly.
McBurney proves to be just as immoral and opportunistic as we might expect. We know nothing about his past except that he lies about it [we see flashbacks undermining the heroic narrative he tells about his injury, or of him burning Confederate fields while he speaks in voice over of their beauty]. We know little of what he actually wants other than to not become a POW, to stay alive, and to sleep with as many women at the school as possible in the meantime. It is unclear if he desires the women themselves or simply claims to so he can stay in their good graces and manipulate an escape for himself. What is clear is that he lies to them, in almost every single word he says, and that for one reason or another the women choose to believe him.
Of the cast of players at the school, three quickly take center stage. There is Miss Martha [Geraldine Page], the owner of the schoolhouse, whose brother [and also lover] has likely died at war; Edwina [Elizabeth Hartman], the virgin schoolmarm; and Carol [Jo Ann Harris], the lecherous vixen. McBurney caters his lies to the secret desires of both Miss Martha and Edwina, which he quickly sniffs out. He tells Miss Martha he wants to stay on and help at the plantation, filling the role left by her brother. He tells Edwina she is the love of his life and he wants to run away to the North with her. Only with Carol is their any honesty. She is immediately clear about what she wants, sex and nothing else, and he is clear that to indulge in this desire would forsake his opportunities with the others. But it is a temptation he can't resist for long.
The second act culminates with these three storylines colliding. Caught between whose room to visit in the middle of the night, Miss Martha’s or Edwina’s, Carol sneaks him away to her own. He is of course caught in the act, by the virgin Edwina, and we get to see Edwina’s viciousness come out. McBurney is injured anew in the process, and the final act sees him bitter and drunk, his pretended niceties now thrown aside, his horrible character fully revealed. The women must decide what to do with him.
If McBurney is something of a flat character, the power of the film comes from its rejection of him and its focus on the women instead. The film looks at them without pity or, often, sympathy, but it does not simply reduce them to stereotypes. Miss Martha in particular, who seems laughable when putting on a front of self-important arrogance, earns our respect when she is strong and brave enough to protect the girls from a late-night visit of lascivious Confederate soldiers. Edwina, often more ignorant than innocent, shows depth when even after McBurney's spurns her she goes back to him. Hartman's performance implies that, rather than being foolish enough to think McBurney will change, Edwina is now smart enough to acknowledge what she wants.
The film never celebrates these women, though. The characters exist in a quagmire of morality, which they navigate using their needs and fears rather than any moral compass. They are preyed on by McBurney, yes, but they are also Southern women participating in the atrocity of slavery. The portrayal of Hallie, the slave owned by Miss Martha and her brother, seems shockingly well-rounded for the film’s era or even our own. The script doesn’t whitewash her character or define her simply by her race. And Mae Mercer’s performance is artless and free of stereotype. She may be a side character and a relatively minor one, but her portrayal and presence highlights the murkiness of the moral world the characters inhabit.
If viewers were unsure of what to make of the film when it first came out, it’s no wonder. It refuses to be taken simply. Its characters hide their true feelings from themselves only to reveal them to us. The film occasionally mocks them for this, but it respects them enough to present them unadulterated, to show their good traits with their bad. The world the characters live in is not simple, why should the characters be? It is a credit to the film that after so many years such a question can still be so challenging.