When you think of the career of Don Siegel two items readily spring to mind: he helmed the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and his frequent collaborations with Clint Eastwood. His partnership over the years with the iconic actor who was a shining example of virility and masculinity resulted in some high-profile movies like Dirty Harry (1971), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
The director had a way with “men’s men.” Throughout his career in Hollywood, he managed to work with some legendary talent known for their macho images like Charles Bronson (Telefon, 1977), Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes (The Killers, 1964), and Robert Mitchum (The Big Steal, 1949).
Siegel also managed to team up with the original badass cowboy and Eastwood’s predecessor, John Wayne, in the criminally underrated western, The Shootist (1976). After years of being surrounded by all that machismo and testosterone, it is hard to fathom that the director actually made a female empowerment movie that on the surface is a tale of Southern Gothic horror. The Beguiled (1971) is one of those efforts buried in Eastwood’s acting resume amidst all of his “Spaghetti Westerns” with Sergio Leone and his own forays behind the camera.
However, in 2017, Siegel’s terrifying Civil War production made headlines when Sofia Coppola decided to put her spin on his classic by making an incredibly sterile version of The Beguiled. I recently revisited both stories and can state with confidence that I enjoyed the original more.
Repressed Desires and Sexual Awakenings
In Siegel’s take, Clint plays Union soldier, John McBurney who is injured, separated from his battalion and hiding in the woods near Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. When Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) who is one of the students at the establishment is foraging for mushrooms in the forest, she stumbles upon McBurney.
At first, he startles her but after he tells her that he means her no harm and introduces himself to her, the pre-teen becomes smitten with the handsome stranger. While he is charming Amy, a rebel contingent is approaching the duo on horseback. In order to avoid detection, McBurney or McB (as he prefers to be called) gently kisses the surprised Amy while the troops pass them by. This little interlude is a wonderful introduction to Eastwood’s character.
Yes, he is a cad who has no scruples or morals because even though Amy is on the verge of becoming a teenager, he doesn’t even think twice before locking lips with her. This hedonistic tendency is going to be his downfall eventually. Of course, Amy’s budding sexuality is stirred and her desire has definitely been awakened.
By today’s standards, this would be hailed as a creepy exchange and social media would get whipped into a frenzy at the thought of a much older actor seducing an underage actress on camera. However, we have to bear in mind that during the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon for young girls to become wedded to more mature gentlemen.
Amy summons Miss Martha (played by the brilliant Geraldine Page) and the other students. They decide to bring the hurt Yank back to the school. Since he is the only male on the premises and the females have been deprived of the company of the opposite sex, the girls immediately become curious. However, Martha will have none of it. She takes charge and moves McBurney into the music room where she will administer to his wounded leg. Thus, begins our story and we can tell that it is going to be chockfull of sexual repression and awakening that will result in a catastrophic end for more than one character.
Page’s Martha is a study in contrasts. Outwardly, she is the prim headmistress of her charges. Always saying and doing the appropriate “lady like” things, never allowing herself to be course or uncouth, she is trying her best to be a role model. In her dealings with Eastwood’s McBurney, she finds herself slowly losing control and giving into her baser desires.
Through flashback sequences, we see that Martha was involved in an incestuous relationship with her brother, Miles. She also harbors sexual feelings for the eldest of the girls who also happens to be their teacher, Miss Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). The pining for her is subtle but very evident after the pair embrace and Martha offers her protégé the chance to be her “partner” in the Seminary.
Edwina, on the other hand, is oblivious to her superior’s subtle overtures and is more interested in McBurney. She is clearly virginal, bookish and very naïve when it comes to dealing with men. After helping with the soldier’s recuperation, she finds herself falling deeply in love with him. While McB is interested in her, he is assessing his situation and realizes that he could have more than one woman’s affections. After all, being surrounded by nubile and attractive young females who are coming into their own sexually is definitely appealing to the Yankee officer.
One of the students, Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is quite free with her wiles. Edwina and Martha smell a rival for McBurney’s affections and although they try to rein her in, she overpowers them. Carol is acutely aware of her sensuality and she isn’t above letting McB know that she wants him and is prepared to fulfill his every sexual fantasy. She also has a touch of the voyeur in her because she spies on him and Edwina several times when they are in the midst of their pseudo courtship.
Martha is on the outside and she knows it. In an effort to control the object of her affections, she keeps McBurney a prisoner in the music room under the guise that he needs to recuperate from his leg injury. This is the only way that she can force him to pay attention to her. He is too busy trying to seduce the virginal Edwina and bed the promiscuous Carol that Martha is not on his radar.
In a magnanimous gesture, Martha invites the on the mend soldier to dinner. Like a kid in a candy store, McBurney is delighted at all of the females preening for his attentions. After a pleasant dining experience, he retires with Martha to the parlor where the two share a bottle of wine and passionate kissing. While it is clear that McBurney isn’t really sexually attracted to her, he won’t turn down an opportunity to bed a willing subject. She invites him to her bedroom for a tryst later on that night after her students have gone to bed.
This is a quandary for McB. We see him literally stuck in the hallway trying to decide whether to visit Edwina’s room or Martha’s. Of course, Carol has been quite blatant in her come-ons so its no surprise that he runs into her and decides to sample her wares first. While he is en route to Carol’s attic bedroom, Martha is having a sexual fantasy where she is in the midst of a ménage à trois with McB and Edwina. Of course, she wakes up from this dream dripping wet (in more ways than one) and panting.
Meanwhile, McBurney and Carol are naked and getting down to business. Since Carol has no concept of what being discreet means, she is quite loud which prompts Edwina to become curious. After hearing several noises, she decides to find out what is going on. When she opens Carol’s bedroom door, she sees the love of her life having passionate sex with her student.
The Castration of Clint Eastwood
Screaming, Edwina runs into the hall. Startled, McBurney realizes what has happened and he tries to quickly quiet and placate the hysterical woman. In a fit of jealous rage, she knocks him down the staircase. All of this noise has awakened every girl in the house including Martha. She immediately goes to McBurney who has sustained a compound fracture, reinjuring his leg. Putting two and two together, she realizes that not only has he betrayed Edwina, he chose one of her charges over her.
Under the guise of “proper care”, Martha makes the decision to “save” McBurney’s life by amputating his leg. She justifies this rash decision by citing that gangrene would set in if they did nothing and he would die a slow and painful death. However, she isn’t fooling anyone. They know exactly what she is doing, exacting revenge. McBurney’s leg is a stand-in for his penis. By hobbling him, she is taking away his self-esteem, his ability to live an independent life and his sex drive. Clearly, she is emasculating him.
When the soldier wakes up from his “operation” he finds that his limb is missing only to be met with Martha’s matter of fact explanation about saving his life. He goes into a violent rage and is left alone to try and deal with his fate. Although Edwina tries apologizing to him, he tosses her aside. After a few days, subdued and haggard, he is nursed back to health by the one who truly loves him, Edwina. The two make plans to marry and McBurney decides to leave the school. Before they can live happily ever after, an incident occurs that is going to change their lives forever.
Frustrated at not being able to maneuver as well as he used to, McB takes out his rage on Amy’s beloved pet turtle, Randolph, by killing him. The heartbroken child tells Martha. This is the last straw. Behind Edwina’s back, Martha and the girls plot to rid themselves of the troublesome Yank forever. They poison him. Clearly, he brought this punishment on himself. He took advantage of several of the women in the school, therefore he had to pay with his life.
The Beguiled could be considered a precursor to all of the horror revenge films of the 70’s. Two of the most well-known titles in that subgenre, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), were definitely more violent than Siegel’s vision but nonetheless, they both dealt with retribution exacted upon men who sexually violated women. Then again, all of these productions have taken a page from Euripides’ ultimate revenge play, Medea. In the end, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” is a warning to lustful males to think twice before exercising their libidos. The consequences could be dire.