The Beguiled: Clint Eastwood's Original Posed Beside Coppola's Novel Approach

The Beguiled (1971) delivers eerie psychological trials and gothic mystery falling somewhere between Stephen King’s Misery and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in a Civil War era southern plantation manor converted to a seminary for young girls, a chess game of erotic desire and power dynamics unfold between the ladies of the household and a wounded Union soldier convalescing in the seemingly vulnerable safe house in the heart of Confederate territory.  The drives of each character are mired in complexity ranging from immediate desire to deep-seated neuroses of the libido. An ethereal magic woven by the coterie of young ladies, their headmistress, and their household slave proves a worthy adversary to the artfulness of the handsome soldier – and provides rich fodder for Sophia Coppola’s current adaptation.

From the onset it is unclear whether Corporal John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is being rescued or imprisoned by the seminary denizens.  His hands badly burned and his leg shattered by a gunshot wound, he must use his wit and sexual charisma to disarm is wary hosts. One by one, he preys upon the weaknesses of each woman, aware that each the day when the cavalry rides through, he may be delivered into enemy hands. Though driven by guile, McBurney harbors unwholesome desires of his own. The tension he invokes ignites internal strife amid the seminary as the balance of power shifts dramatically between the Corporal and his captors.

The film is the third of five collaborations between Eastwood and director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz). Headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth is played superbly by stage veteran and eight-time Oscar nominee Geraldine Page. She unflinchingly confronts the violent and erotic motivations of the character. Elizabeth Hartman (who would later perform the voiceover for Mrs. Brisby in The Secret of NIMH) is tremulous in the role of her protégé Edwina; and Jo Ann Harris nubile as the seductive Carol. A particularly strong performance is delivered by actress and blues singer Mae Mercer as Hallie, the plantation slave.

Political themes are breached as collective reflections of the individual mind. In the true antiheroic spirit of 1970’s cinema, no one’s intentions are pure. A penetrating psychoanalysis explores the qualities of the thriving feminist movement, and the home-grown prejudices that fuel the foundations of war.  It is curious to observe how the political climate of the early 1970’s, in terms of the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements and the Vietnam War, created the atmosphere for the original novel as well as its film adaptation in 1971. More curious still will be the delineations of their progress in Coppola’s 2017 adaptation, this time through the lens of a female director and under political pressures of a different kind.

Words by M.Pellerano