As I have noted before, the late sixties and early seventies are my favorite era of American filmmaking. A majority of the films offered during this time period play with narrative conventions to create radical films to challenge the oppressive demands of Hollywood and to use cinema as a voice of opposition to the political ideals of their time. Don Siegel's film The Beguiled certainly offers such an example. A trippy film with pseudo-narration, multiple voice-overs and sporadic cinematography, The Beguiled exudes all the rebellion indicative of New Hollywood filmmaking, not to mention it contains Clint Eastwood in one of his finer early non-western films. The film is a period piece in the most liberal of terms and often incorporates imagery of the early seventies as an ironic juxtaposition to the Civil War being depicted on screen.
The film begins with a series of sepia photos of Lincoln, Grant and other Civil War icons as a way to imply the time period, which leads into a fade to color scene of a young girl named Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) picking mushrooms in the woods. While gathering the last few mushrooms a Union soldier falls to Amy's feet obviously wounded from battle. This soldier in short urgent breaths explains himself to be John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) and pleads for help from the young girl. This would not be a problem were it not for John being stuck dead in the middle of Confederate territory. Oblivious to the consequences of harboring a Union soldier Amy brings John back to her all-girls boarding school much to the dismay of the schools headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page). Martha is concerned primarily for the act of treason, as well as the inherent problem of bringing a young male into a school of young women. What ensues upon John's stay is a jealousy fueled bout of sexual tension that involves young Amy, Martha, the boarding schools slave and one of the schools other teachers Edwina (Elizabeth Hartmen). While tense, John is able to stay under the protection of the women, until he makes the mistake of sleeping with one of the young girls named Carol (Jo Ann Harris), who dons a classic seventies haircut, despite the films setting of roughly 1860. Upon discovery of his act, Edwina shoves John down the stairs, yet again his leg. Martha, also enraged, amputates John's leg claiming it a necessary act for his survival. When John awakes and discovers his leg removed, he steals Martha's gun and takes control of the school while waiting for Union soldiers to arrive. The young Amy, distraught by John's infidelity, as well as his outburst against her pet turtle, agrees to pick poisonous mushrooms to feed him for dinner. This act leads to John's death and subsequent burial by the women, ending the film on an ominous tone, despite its rather notable moment of liberation for the females involved.
The Beguiled reeks of patriarchal criticism. Everything within the film has an element of female liberation. The method of poisoning of John occurs through a natural fungus implying a bond with Gaia or more simply Mother Nature. Similarly, the entire school of women is a form of liberation, given that prior to John's arrival they had successfully fended off other male infiltration, and it is implied that they will continue to do so after John's death. Furthermore, the women, led by Martha, take it upon themselves to figuratively castrate John by removing his leg. John even goes so far as to claim a concern that they will cut of his other leg, pausing a moment before saying leg implying that he fears the loss of another appendage as well. Even when John attempts to repossess power with a phallic gun, he loses out to his false sense of immunity at the hands of a clever pre-teen girl. The film also posits a unified womanhood regardless of race or age. The slave that lives with the girls is allowed free reign to voice her opinion and is careful to make the girls aware that no such thing exists as slave work in their unified commune. The film even dabbles into images of lesbianism between the schools head teachers, the ultimate form of male exclusion. The Beguiled is as much a Civil War period piece as it is a lesson in feminine independent sustainability.
The Beguiled is not for everyone. I am partial to it for its similarities to other trippy New Hollywood films and recommend it to those who share my passion. I know it plays often on television and is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly. Do not pass up the opportunity to view a truly bizarre Civil War film.