The Beguiled Don Siegel (1971; USA) Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 24 July 2022; ticket: £7
‘The Beguiled’s American Civil War setting is extraneous to Siegel’s plot which is concentrated about the psycho-sexual play out of its Gothic theme: the sacrificial death of the male protagonist – Eastwood.
As when the bull enters the ring doomed to die on the sword of the matador, so is Eastwood’s fate sealed when he enters through the ornamental gates of the seminary for young ladies. When he leaves he will be wrapped in his shroud. The Beguiled is a play out of the ‘Frazer styled’ mythology of the King for a Day: the man chosen to reign for a limited time, whose fate is to suffer sacrificial death, as offering to the Gods who preside over fertility.
‘The Beguiled’ hangs on similar theme to the British movie ‘The Wickerman’. The Wickerman, like a baited lobster pot, is an exteriorised design in which both script and players indulge winks nudges and a contagious hilarity as they play out the mechanical externalities of the death trap situation. ‘The Beguiled’ is an exercise in contained opposition: quarry and prey. In mood and setting it owes much to Edgar Allan Poe as its expressive precursor in describing the unleashing of pent up internalised forces. With its setting amidst the barren empty wombs of a lady’s boarding school (given these are Southern ladies, destined to have their culture destroyed by the victory of the North, they are in a sense a decayed and decadent people), amidst the confused psychic intensities of incest, sexual repression and physical desire, the Man arrives.
The Man is injured and needs to be healed. But as part of his healing he quickly develops intent: to exploit his sexual allure to gain personal power and control the women. His will be done. Eastwood fails to understand that he is moving into a domain where ‘will’, female ‘will’, is the active agent governing of the school’s relationships. All the community from head mistress to acolyte are familiar with ‘…the mysteries of the will’, evidenced from the earliest point of the scenario inside the school where it is revealed that the Headmistress’ brother, to whom she was ‘very close’ has just ‘disappeared.’ Nothing is understood by the Man, who sets about his campaign of conquest by divide and rule.
When the Man’s intentions are uncovered (and but nothing can be kept secret in this school) unknowing he takes on the will of the headmistress. Her will be done. From that moment the sacrificial knife is picked up and clasped in her hand, the Man’s fate is sealed. Siegel’s scenario from this point follows the moral logic of the events that have been set in motion. There is no pull back, Eastwood is now ‘intended victim’. According to Wikipedia there was disagreement about the outcome of ‘The Beguiled’s script with the first draft version having the Man and the Teacher walking off together into the sunset happily ever after. Both Eastwood and Siegel together decided to dump the ‘happy ending’ and kept to the original story line (from the novel by Thomas Cullinan). Apparently they thought keeping to the original story would be: ‘a stronger anti-war statement.’ !
As said my feeling is that ‘The Beguiled’ has little to do with war, and everything to do with ‘the will’ and the heightened need in some situations of the ‘will’ to human sacrifice. If Siegel and Eastwood really believed their movie was about war then it is interesting to note how movies made at cross purposes can still register underlying significance in spite of themselves. This is probably a tribute to the strength of the original text. Siegel is also quoted as saying that the movie was based around: “…the basic desire of women to castrate men.” A statement that says more about Don Siegel than about ‘women’. But it is a tribute to Siegel and Eastwood that they stayed true to the logic of death, even if they didn’t quite get it.
Universal, the studio backers of ‘The Beguiled’ were appalled by Siegel’s decision to kill off Eastwood. Eastwood was one of Universal’s ‘A’ listers, Alpha male box office. Eastwood was a ‘Winner’ an ‘all American Winner’. That was his image and as far as Universal were concerned they were not prepared to risk damage to his image which they regarded as their property and was the source of the income from his films. Consequently they were happy to sacrifice ‘The Beguiled’ and write if off as a loss. They refused to promote it or to encourage distributors or exhibitors to screen the film. The film died at the box office and cleared the way for Eastwood’s next movie: ‘Dirty Harry’ in which he plays the consummate rogue cop.
‘The Beguiled’ is a some ways rather clumsily made. Perhaps the two main drivers of the movie, Eastwood and Siegel were a little uncertain about the material; in some ways a little nervy about what they were doing in condemning Eastwood, that paragon of masculinity, to sacrificial death. But of course therein lies the charm and the attraction of the movie. However occasionally gauche Eastwood’s acting may be, however awkward the script may on occasion be, the film works at the level of witnessing. The occasion of Eastwood’s sacrificial pilgrimage is sufficient to bewitch the viewer.