Eastwood report: The Beguiled

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I gotta say, The Beguiled took me by surprise. It’s an extreme rarity for Eastwood, a movie that takes his character and puts him in a situation where he’s utterly out of his depth, where his skill set doesn’t serve him, and, most importantly, he doesn’t figure a way out of his troubles.

John McBurney is a Union soldier in the Civil War. Like most Eastwood characters, he’s isolated and detached, only good at one thing — in this case, being a soldier. McBurney seems to be an excellent soldier, cold-hearted, cruel and vicious, a sociopath let off the leash to work his brutal magic on his opposite numbers. The Beguiled takes McBurney and puts him, wounded and incapacitated, in the midst of a girls’ school behind enemy lines.

McBurney thinks he’s fallen into clover — where better to recuperate from his wounds than a girls’ school? And so he plies his Clint Eastwood charm on the residents of the school. No one is off limits: he goes after the matron, the elder students and even a precocious twelve-year-old. And so we see that McBurney is that rare thing in American movies: a protagonist with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. We don’t learn that McBurney is a killer and a cad but loves his country, we don’t find out that he’s got a comely lass or a widowed mother back home, or a revenge suit against the Bushwhackers who burned his farm. The narrative simply takes him as he is: a murderous, duplicitous asshole.

That’s striking enough for an Eastwood movie, but then The Beguiled raises the stakes by making every major character conflicted and unpleasant. The matron has devoted her life to training girls to be "proper Southern ladies," but flashbacks reveal that she arrived at this life only after pursuing a passionate, incestuous affair with her brother. The twelve-year-old McBurney charms is nothing but sweetness and innocence, at least up until the point where she turns murderous, the horny slut who seduces McBurney instantly turns innocent victim when it suits her needs, and the "nice young lady" who seems like the sanest one of them has no trouble shoving McBurney down a flight of stairs, giving him multiple compound fractures, when he wrongs her. No one’s motives are pure in The Beguiled, which ultimately turns into a pitch-black battle of the sexes.

McBurney, seeing as how he arrives looking like Clint Eastwood, assumes that if one girl is good, a whole house full of girls is stupendous, and he responds with the cad’s approach to the situation: he figures out what each woman needs, then acts to pretend to serve that need. If the matron is looking for a man to lean on, he’ll be that man. If the lady-in-training needs a gentleman, he’ll be that gentleman. If the black slave needs a handsome savior, he’ll be that savior, if the oversexed teen needs a stud he’ll be that stud, and if the twelve-year-old needs a crush he’ll be that too. Of course, McBurney feels nothing for any of these women — he’s using them all to get what he wants, which is to get back to his unit safely and get on with his job of slaughtering the Confederacy.

So there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing McBurney get his comeuppance in the third act, except that the punishment the women dole out on him has its own intense streak of cruelty — there’s an amputation scene that is pretty freaking intense, and that’s not the worst of it.

But the narrative doesn’t stop there! McBurney, having been laid low in this simmering stew of jealousy and hypocrisy, has the ability to leave the house and rejoin his unit more or less intact, but then decides to stick around and plot his revenge on the women who have wronged him. He’s unable to live with the shame of having been hoodwinked by a house full of women, his pride won’t let him leave it, he feels like he must assert his dominance over these women. This turns out to be a big mistake.

Some of the filmmaking in this Eastwood-Siegel collaboration hasn’t aged well — there’s a dated, 70s-horror-movie quality to the suspense scenes and some completely unnecessary voice-overs that tell us characters’ secret thoughts as they regard McBurney — but its miles ahead of Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara, if not quite up to the fluid, polished standard of Dirty Harry (which came out a mere six months later).

Universal, they say, didn’t know what to make of The Beguiled. I sympathise, as it’s utterly uncategorizable — is it a drama, a thriller, a psychodrama, a horror movie, a war movie? In any case, the studio dumped the movie, which enraged Eastwood, who vowed never to work for the studio again (and didn’t, until Changeling in 2008). Eastwood never again stuck his neck out quite as far as he does here, and it’s interesting to think the shape his career might have taken if The Beguiled had been a hit.


16 Responses to “Eastwood report: The Beguiled”
  1. stormwyvern says:

    This certain;y sounds like a daring and ambitious film, but I’m wondering whether you think it’s ultimately a good film. I could certainly see some people feeling very put off by the idea that every character in the film seems unlikeable at best, irredeemable at worst, and it’s difficult if not impossible to hang your sympathies on any character. Does this still manage to add up to a satisfying film?

    I wonder how many actors have played character on both sides of the Civil War. Is Eastwood a rarity in this respect, or was that a relatively common occurrence when there were more Civil War movies to go around.

    • Todd says:

      I think The Beguiled is a very good movie, and a very satisfying one, but alas, an uncommercial one. It fulfills the requirements for drama better than any Eastwood movie I can think of, up to Unforgiven: a protagonist set against a number of forces arrayed against him, with no clear path to victory, or even a clear idea of what “victory” is. It elevates the “Clint Eastwood Movie” from melodrama to drama. Plenty of satisfying narratives, some of the most satisfying, are about characters with no redeeming features at all.

      Unfortunately, movie studios believe in characters the audience can “root for,” and The Beguiled refuses to provide that.

    • dougo says:

      I wonder how many actors have played character on both sides of the Civil War.

      I took up this challenge… The first person I investigated is Liam Neeson, who is playing Lincoln in the upcoming Spielberg biopic (2011). And it turns out he played a Confederate officer in Seraphim Falls (2006). Done!

  2. teamwak says:

    I remember seeing this one as a kid. Interesting film.

  3. oh my gosh yay! this is my favorite clint eastwood movie and NO ONE ever mentions it! thank you for writing this!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    If The Beguiled had been a hit, in what way do you suppose it could have changed Eastwoods career ?
    Perhaps more stress on acting ? Could you see him as chief Brody in Jaws or Han Solo ?

    • Todd says:

      I could see him branching out into the kind of filmmaker he is now, where he routinely busts genres and defies expectations, like, you know, making a boxing movie that turns out to be a euthanasia movie. And then that movie turns out to be a big hit and win the Oscar.

      • stormwyvern says:

        So no difference? Or do you mean he might have become that filmmaker sooner if this movie had been a hit?

        • Todd says:

          I mean he would have become that filmmaker about 30 years sooner.

          Another early Eastwood movie I haven’t seen, Breezy, is about a middle-aged man and his affair with a teenage hippie. Eastwood isn’t in it and, from the subject matter, it sounds utterly un-Eastwood-like. It, too, wasn’t successful, but it makes me see that Eastwood was always interested in pushing the boundaries of what was expected of him. But then Dirty Harry was a smash, and he became less interested in taking chances and more interested in examining his key persona.

  5. on an unusual side note, what did you think of the scene with the turtle? hahaha. SO MEAN!!! there there is your innoccent soul, the murdered turtle

  6. ndgmtlcd says:

    I think that you can look at it either as the punk version of Mozart’s Don Juan or a “film noir” version of the Flashman novels.

    Either way, I love it.