Based quite closely on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (originally titled A Painted Devil), The Beguiled would turn out to be one of the most unusual films in Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page’s careers. Drawing heavily on the rich Southern Gothic motifs of classical Hollywood, it takes place in 1863 in rural Mississippi, but for all intents and purposes feels as if it is set between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Reconstruction era, detailing a landscape that has been all but conquered by Union troops. Not quite conquered, however, since this isn’t quite a historical landscape, but more of a notional space in which the South have lost but the North haven’t quite won (or, alternatively, in which the South have won but the North haven’t quite lost), which often makes it feel as if it set in the present as well, or at least those parts of the present that still haven’t quite accepted the demise of the Confederate States of America. Against that vacuum of paternalistic authority, we’re presented with a seminary for young women, run by one Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) that has somehow, miraculously, escaped destruction from either side. Nevertheless, the peace of Martha and her girls, who range from twelve to twenty, is destined to be short lived, with their discovery and rehabilitation of a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) quickly driving a wedge between them and forcing them to reconsider even their most heartfelt allegiances.
For the most part, that plays out as a cloistered, chambered psychodrama, in which Eastwood’s voice is front and centre, since McBurney spends virtually the entire film recovering on Martha’s downstairs couch, where all his utterances feel of a piece with the morbid song that he intones over the opening Civil War montage. To that end, Siegel adopts quite an expressionist style, pairing swirling, vortical camera movements with queasy, woozy perspectives that sink us further and further into the sickly Southern atmosphere. At one level, this style works perfectly to capture McBurney’s sickness and disorientation, but it feels even more aligned with the sensual hunger of the women in the house, who are all stricken by one form of lust after another as soon as he arrives on the scene. With the exception of Hallie (Mae Mercer), the only remaining slave, nobody in the seminary is exempt from his smouldering presence, regardless of age or sensibility, from Martha right down to little Amy, who may be only twelve, but is still “old enough for kisses” (and indeed is the first person that McBurney kisses, moments after she first discovers him).
Only Hallie remains sceptical, even or especially as McBurney tries to seduce her with Union rhetoric, sometimes reminding her that “we’re both prisoners” and sometimes threatening her to “pray for the North to win.” Yet this just makes it clearer than ever to Hallie that Union soldiers aren’t necessarily fighting first and foremost on behalf of slaves, and it’s quite interesting (and refreshing) to see a film in which Northerners aren’t automatically presented as abolitionists. That’s not exactly to say that McBurney is presented as racist either, but that he is just not especially invested in slavery either way (which is of course a form of racism in itself), only invoking Hallie’s blackness if and when it can serve his purpose. In fact, one of the main ways in which he endears himself to the household is to tell stories about himself that conform to cinematic stereotypes of Union nobility, even as Siegel’s flashbacks make it clear that he is simply taking advantage of the ethical mystique that has already, at this early stage, started to constellate around the Northern troops. In one of his most extravagant fictions, he claims to be a Quaker who carried bandages, not weapons, into battle, and who was only shot after carrying a Confederate soldier to safety. At these moments, the film makes you realise how often popular depictions of the Civil War refrain from presenting Northerners as soldiers at all, and instead present their service as a kind of holy suffering of the South.
It’s not surprising, then, that McBurney not only becomes an object of erotic veneration but a source of moral authority (however misplaced) and, from there, the man of the household – the husband, father and son that all the women have been waiting for, but especially Martha, whose only previous lover was also her older brother. As McBurney settles into this role, Siegel opts for an increasingly mobile camera, and long, complicated pans across multiple, competing plains of space, as if to evoke all the gazes converging on his prostrate body. As his chamber is confined further by candlelight and gaslight, the women subject him to one panting, sensually starved monologue after another, inviting him to hold pride of place in a world that is already part fantasy, and to fulfil all the manifold functions of Southern masculinity in one person. In the process, McBurney not only seems to become several men in one, but to be suspended between his own person and the women’s ideal of what a Southern man should be. For all his personal venality, that gives his function in the house a transcendental quality that induces Siegel to model many of the key scenes after canonical depictions of Christ, as if to fuse the Renaissance with the Reconstruction era, in a painterly address that works quite beautifully alongside the watercolour atmospherics of New Hollywood.
As the gap between McBurney’s personality and paternal gravitas widens, it’s hard not to feel that The Beguiled – and the novel before it – is deeply sceptical of the North’s paternal attitude towards the South, along with its seductive promises to restore the lost paternal authority of the South. Having been bereft of that authority for some time, the women in the seminary are all presented in what can only be described as a state of polymorphous perversity, especially because the last man to live in the house was too much of a brother to Martha to ever properly be a father or lover to anybody else, herself included. While the women are clearly oppressed by their bodily appetites, none of them seem to be quite anchored to their bodies in any definitive way either, which is perhaps what makes it so difficult to articulate those appetites, and by, articulating them, contain them. In a sense, these aren’t even exactly women who desire men, but women who have never learned to desire in the socially sanctioned manner, which is perhaps why Siegel tends to shoot them in odd, contorted, even grotesque positions, and from angles that never quite congeal with even the most expressionist moments in the film. Their voices, in particular, dissociate and float freely across all the thresholds that normally constitute film language – between shots, scenes, characters, different tones and atmospheres – until it feels as if the very coordinates of the film are continually imploding and collapsing in upon themselves under their fixated gaze.
By contrast, there’s a blunt facticity to McBurney’s body, which spends virtually the entire film propped up, prostrate, for the women to peruse, even as his own hallucinatory, doped-up perusal makes it even harder for the audience to differentiate them into stable bodies or discernible desires. Indeed, at times it almost feels as if the entire film is taking place from McBurney’s perspective, and that what we’re seeing is the Union fantasy of the Confederacy – a writhing mass of polymorphous femininity longing for Northerners to come in and provide it with some semblance of paternal coherence and cohesion. Yet this fantasy of how the Civil War might end – if that’s what it is – proves fatal to McBurney as well, since it makes it harder and harder for him to extricate his individual conquests as efficiently as he originally plans, both in terms of his own sensuous gratification and in terms of his broader escape strategy (although the two quickly come to mean the same thing). In that respect, it is almost impossible to discern whether The Beguiled is more sympathetic to the Union or the Confederacy, and whether Eastwood is playing against type or identifying with type more radically than in any of his previous films. Caught between an unthinkable Southern paternalism and an oblivious Northern paternalism, Siegel gradually and subtle undoes all the residual sympathy of the archetypal Union soldier without ever really committing to the Confederacy either.
It’s not surprising, then, that Martha finally finds herself compelled to take radical action against McBurney, abstracting and containing his paternal function in the most brutal way possible, while also freeing the seminary from the contingencies of his personality in the process. With virtually no medical necessity – a key difference from Sofia Coppola’s remake – Martha decides to amputate McBurney’s leg. This has to be one of the most visceral scenes in New Hollywood, largely because McBurney himself is doped up on on a cocktail of alcohol and laudanum, meaning the operation is able to occur in near-silence, devoid of screams or even groans, with virtually ever sawing motion and collision of blade and bone rendered traumatically audible and tangible. Yet the ceremony of burying the amputated leg, and completing this symbolic castration, is even more horrifying, coinciding with McBurney waking to not only realise that his leg has gone, but that his paternal function has been abstracted and absorbed into this amputated leg, with the result that attending to it and burying it allows Martha to reframe his authority in a way that she can contain and control.
In that sense, burying the stump also allows Martha to bury her own brother and lover again, except that this time she is also able to bury the memory of their incestuous relationship along with him. Accordingly, at this point in the film, the haunted flashbacks decrease, and the school ceases to feel like a family without a father. Instead, it feels like a family whose beloved father happens to have passed away, but whose spirit continues to live on and nurture them, utterly unlike the undead presence of Martha’s brother. Above and beyond his missing leg, then, McBurney awakens to find himself traumatically redundant, since the seminary has largely moved on from him and returned to their regular routines, in one of the most ghastly dramatisations of Oedipal repression that I have ever seen committed to the big screen. At this point, his death already feels like a foregone conclusion, as he becomes quite abject and irrelevant for the final scenes, with Siegel opting for long close-ups of his face writhing and tossing in agony as he tries to reorient and reconstitute himself with respect to his body and his new lack of standing in the household.
In other words, McBurney finally finds himself in the same position as the women at the beginning of the film, set adrift in a state of polymorphous dispersal in which he has lost the internal paternal voice needed for his body to remain coherent and capable of control. Not surprisingly, he tries to renew his status as man of the house in both a more monstrous and a more conventional way than ever before, alternating a drunken rampage in which he demands to “have his fill” of the seminary with a serious and sincere proposal of marriage to the most conservative and strait-laced girl among them. In both cases, however, he’s impotent, and as he finally succumbs to a poisoned meal it’s hard not to feel, too, that the Union is being presented here as fruit of the poisoned tree as well, claiming to liberate the South in the name of the very paternal structures responsible for the institutionalisation of slavery in the first place. Of course, that’s an easy criticism to make with historical distance, but to its credit The Beguiled is never glib about it, nor does it feel like a reactionary defence of the South either. Instead, Siegel suggests, it is the North, rather than the South, that has most repressed the legacy of the Civil War, just as it is the North that has been most anxious to insist upon its discontinuity from the South in the wake of the Civil War, remaking the South in its own image even as it insists on ceremonially amputating it, for the sake of the strange and unsettling normality that settles over the final scenes of this incredible film.