The neuroses of women have functioned as fertile ground for storytelling. Such representations, especially in cinema, are often disregarded as misogynist but fail to consider that negative presentations of aspects of women – an unpleasant personality, for instance – are not examples of misogyny but a 360-degree acknowledgment of the human condition. Feminism is not about reducing women to idealistic representations but about revealing women as powerful equals despite (or even in spite of) their flaws. Whether it’s Vanessa Redgrave as a humpback nun pleasuring herself to the fantasy of Oliver Reed’s priest in The Devils or Geraldine Page fretting “If this war goes on much longer, I’ll forget I was a woman” (and then castrating Clint Eastwood’s leg) in The Beguiled, these women are forthright and formidable – highly inventive, creative – despite appearing unpalatable (to some) as people. We must be careful not to expect perfection in the characters of our stories as that leads to unrealistic outcomes in life and, let’s face it, pretty boring movies too.
Furthermore, many depictions of women – the two aforementioned, both from 1971, as examples – are symptomatic of the times in which they are set. The Devils takes place in 17th century France, a time when supernatural possession, witchcraft, and the susceptibility of women to evil spirits, were forgone conclusions. The Beguiled occurs at a very different point in history – the American Civil War – but it could be argued the social standing of women was not much improved across time or continent, including being relegated to the only careers deemed fitting for women beyond the Church: teachers or nurses. The women of The Beguiled – cloistered in an all girls’ academy in the Confederate South – were just as perilously positioned as the sexually repressed nuns of Loudon, with the threat of rape hanging constantly over their heads. As student Abigail (Melody Thomas) expresses when contemplating the prospect of a Yankee win, “They’ll rape every one of us.”
But it’s not just the Yankees that the women of The Beguiled have to fear; it’s also their own compatriots. In the role of Miss Martha, Geraldine Page is subjected to a tense and tenuous standoff with a ragtag group of Confederate soldiers. They appear at the door of her boarding school, appealing to the ‘hospitality’ of her and her students. Miss Martha assumes perfect control of the situation with measured force and diplomacy, allowing the soldiers to retreat with their masculine integrity intact while also ensuring her girls do not fall victim to the carnal desires of these men. Even Clint Eastwood’s interloping Yankee character of John McBurney is moved to congratulate her for her handling of the situation.
While The Beguiled was poorly received upon its release – likely because it was lost in the messy debate around second-wave feminism, Roe versus Wade and many other incendiary topics of that generation – it’s a film that does not fit into strict binary constructs and, consequently, was likely confusing for many. Provocative but also extremely profound in its messaging, The Beguiled positions itself within the constraints of good versus bad – or, if we use the more appropriate rhetoric of war, ally versus enemy – but then frolics in a murkiness that blends one into the other. While the women of The Beguiled harbour an enemy soldier within their ranks, he is no more an enemy than any man. As even McBurney admits, “Men are the same everywhere, no matter what colour.”
The point of this article is not to compare the Don Siegel original of The Beguiled from 1971 (based on the book, A Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cullinan) to its 2017 remake but it’s worth noting that most of the drama and themes discussed here are sadly absent in Sofia Coppola’s reimagining. Amid wanton whimsy – weeping willows, mists and the thrum of chirping insects – the remake is a heady visual treat. However, the gauze that wraps Coppola’s camera lens also bandages the story elements, which means everything that is so impressive about Siegel’s storytelling is muted and dulled here. Even the blurring of the binary divide is lost, resulting in Colin Farrell’s McBurney being little more than a victim of a group of sexually repressed women. A feminist retelling? Despite the 1971 version being made by men, it feels far more feminist in its daring.
Siegel’s The Beguiled is a battle of wits and will – man against woman – and an equally matched one at that. At no point do we sense that these women are anything less than McBurney’s equals. The playing field is further levelled by his war wounds, which removes the only advantage he has – a physical one. He must therefore rely on his smarts to get the better of them and escape his perceived imprisonment, which, for him, means using his powers of seduction, appealing to their feminine desire for love and romance, something they have been denied because of the war.
The opening credit sequence of The Beguiled is truly extraordinary, not just dramatically but also in its elegant foretelling of the film’s themes. We are presented with what can be assumed is an actual series of sepia stills from the American Civil War, opening with one that even features Abraham Lincoln. Over this montage of images, Lalo Schifrin’s musical accompaniment gains momentum, a snare drum playing a distinctive military march. The music builds, the images become exponentially more graphic and the sonic landscape explodes with the sounds of warfare. A lone man’s voice then sings a sad and sorry ballad.
This is also the way the narrative plays out in the Beguiled, although as a battle of the sexes rather than North versus South, one far more complex than what McBurney has experienced out in the field. It is a civil war played out in a female-dominated domestic environment, one that he seeks to command. Just as America was tensely divided at the outbreak of its war, the boarding school teeters on a tightwire of anxiety and tension with the sounds of man-made battle threateningly close. They’ve managed to create their own equilibrium until this infiltrator messes with the status quo. Not only is he an enemy soldier but he also exploits their kindness, and shamelessly takes advantage of the sacrifice they make in sheltering him by manipulating and trying to turn them against one another. Interestingly, the credits of the film further accentuate this divide presenting the female actors on a separate title card to the male ones.
Another incident occurs at the top of the film that goes a long way in propelling the narrative and heightening the climax. In the first scene, a young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) picks mushrooms in the woods outside the school ground – like a Little Red Riding Hood character – which is where she comes across the wounded Yankee soldier (wolf, maybe?) who grooms her with his friendliness suggesting she call him by the nickname, ‘McB’. When a group of Confederate soldiers approach, McB asks Amy how old she is, to which she replies “12, almost 13.” “Old enough for kisses,” he remarks, and then distracts her from the soldiers in one of the more controversial moments of the film: with a kiss on the lips. In giving Amy her first ever kiss, he makes his first move in the systematic manipulation of his female carers.
Essentially a child on the precipice of adulthood, Amy then slips into the background of the main narrative as McBurney turns his attention to ‘working’ the other women – the tightly coiled headmistress, Miss Martha (a suitably unhinged Geraldine Page), who’s been involved in an incestuous relationship with her now absent brother; the emotionally delicate teacher, Miss Edwina (pitch-perfectly embodied by Elizabeth Hartman); and the manipulative, sexually brazen older student, Carol (dangerously realised by Jo Ann Harris). He works them with an elaborate series of lies and subterfuge. As his ego gets the better of him, he buys into his arrogance believing he has successfully puppeteered these women from the confines of his sickbed but neglects to realise their feminine wiliness. Against these various seductions taking place behind closed doors, Amy remains McBurney’s constant friend, the one who ultimately holds the trump card when it comes to his fate.
But McBurney underestimates all the women of The Beguiled, even the younger, less sexually inclined who are consistent in their eagerness to betray him to the Confederates (except for Amy). Given its setting in the American South of the Civil War, the film does not shy away from issues of slavery but sensitively avoids centering on them, for no other reason than this not being a film about slavery (not black slavery anyway). Some of the more illuminating exchanges of the film occur between Eastwood and the school’s ‘help’, Hallie (played with a deft hand by blues singer Mae Mercer), who is far wiser than her white associates; the only adult woman not to be swayed by McBurney’s charms. In his attempts to court Hallie’s friendship, McBurney notes that he and Hallie are “both prisoners” but Hallie is quick to correct him: “I can run.”
The Beguiled is a powerful entry in the battle of the sexes, one that demonstrates that man will never win the war. However, far from being reduced to a single-minded, flag-waving gender statement, it is a story well-told and a beautifully crafted narrative puzzle that knows how to harness drama and hold its viewers by the short & curlies, right through to its closing moments.