So, Is ‘The Beguiled (1971)’ Still Any Good?

It seems like Hollywood has run out of stories to tell with the sheer volume of remakes and reboots they are churning out. In saying that, however you may feel about them, some movies can often benefit from a bit of a make-over, if not an opportunity to reintroduce us to a world of forgotten, classic cinema. Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature length movie is a very creepy re-imagining of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled (1971) starring long time collaborator Clint Eastwood in, reportedly, one of his more hated roles, if not his most dynamic.  Before Coppola’s version hits our cinema screens in a couple of days, I took a look at Don Siegel’s original, sexy, psychological thriller.

So, is it still any good?

Set against the backdrop of a war-torn America, a Union soldier, John “McBee” McBurney (Eastwood), finds himself severely injured, behind Confederate lines and at the mercy of an iron-fisted headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), and her rag-tag school for girls. I know what you might be thinking, what an opportunity for a young man to be in, and yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

A true patriot to the cause of the Confederate Army, Martha fully intends to hand McBee over to them once her ethical duty has been fulfilled and she has nursed him back to health. Knowing that he will be tried and shot for war crimes, McBee is in a race against time to save his own bacon. With no weapon and a busted leg, McBee’s only option is to use the one thing he has left; charm and his chiseled, good-looks.

His task seems to be a lot easier than he probably first anticipated as the man-starved conglomerate begin to throw themselves at his feet. From the prudish second in command, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) to the promiscuous student, Carol (Jo Ann Harris), McBee has his pick of the litter. Even 12-year-old sweetheart, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), has a soft spot for him.  However, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and as McBee meddles with fate, he finds himself in the firing line once again.We’ve come a long way since the 1970’s in regard to the quality of production and acting styles, but taking that into consideration, the story carries itself. Siegel makes the most of Thomas Cullinan’s Gothic material and gives his actors the opportunity to create some great performances.  Eastwood shakes off his tough-guy stereotype to play a man who is desperate, vulnerable and has zero accountability.

In the 70’s, you can probably see why an audience would frown on his portrayal of McBee, especially when their gun-toting, action hero becomes the submissive to Page’s Martha, who laps it up as the stern woman in command. But despite the boiling pot of sexual tensions which leads as the focal point of the movie, the true story lies within the power struggle between the sexes. We soon discover that McBee is not a wolf among sheep but, in fact, a cock among the hens. And that’s enough animal analogies for one day.

Seigel uses innocence and wraps it in a fantastically morbid sensibility. A foreboding and allusive message of manipulating sexual repression formulates into miscalculated and unexpected horror. One of the great things about this movie is the extremely clever character shifts and, for a while, you don’t really know who to root for or who is to blame. The Beguiled is still such a great watch from start to finish with some fantastic performances from its cast. Regrettably, it was not one of Seigel and Eastwood’s more popular movies upon its initial release but it certainly stands the test of time.

Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED is out in all good cinemas July 13.