Does 'The Beguiled' Actually Suck?

As Sofia Coppola's remake of 'The Beguiled' hits theaters, we look back at the original starring Clint Eastwood.

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Jun 26 2017, 4:49pm

Universal Pictures

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

In 1971, regular director-actor team Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood unveiled what become their most enduringly popular work—then, they released their biggest flop. The public rejected the duo's troublesome chamber western The Beguiled, starring Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier who foolishly tries to make playthings of the Confederate-aligned, Mississippi boarding school belles that nurse him back to health, while critics more or less shrugged.

Nine months after The Beguiled bombed, Siegel and Eastwood's Republican wet dream Dirty Harry opened to acclaim and high box office returns, cementing itself, in spite of its divisive hippie-stomping politics, as an American classic. Siegel and Eastwood would continue in their typical masculine, red-meat conservative vein—Siegel directing more pictures about gun-wielding mavericks, Eastwood taking on more loner Westerns, four Dirty Harry sequels and those two movies he made with an orangutan—as their difficult third child The Beguiled would drift into relative obscurity.

The Beguiled is back in conversation now, not because the film has since been embraced as a near-classic of boundary-stretching 70s cinema, but because voguish filmmaker Sofia Coppola remade it in 2017 with a starry Hollywood cast. It's still obvious why the 1971 version of The Beguiled, with its majority female cast and tale of slow emasculation, failed commercially in its day. This was a film out of time, made when Eastwood's fans wanted to see him as a hand cannon-brandishing anti-hero with a perma-scowl. It was also when men still comfortably and expectedly ruled the screen—but what was perhaps uncomfortably radical for the time is perfect for right now.

Like another early-70s Eastwood oater, the similarly underrated High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled initially presents itself as one thing only to reveal something more offbeat and unsettling. Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), brought to matron Martha Farnsworth's all-girl boarding school to recover from a leg wound, initially thinks he's in some kind of bawdy wartime romp, spending recuperation time seducing teacher and pupil alike: from mature spinster Miss Martha (Geraldine Page) to 12-year-old student Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin). When his hosts become savvy to McBurney's true nature, however, the corporal discovers he's not in some warped male fantasy made flesh, but a heady blend of Western and horror that twists into a full-on nightmare come the end.

The school stands as an isolated paradise on the edge of the war, but in the final act, violence emerges: out comes a hacksaw and a tampered-with batch of the woodland mushrooms Mr. McB so adores, as the film enters a realm of tangible body horror and debatable gender politics. To some viewers, The Beguiled will have so unambiguously presented the corporal as a total bastard by its final third to condone Miss Martha and her girls' actions; to others, the film will depict collectives of women as hysterical and dangerous.

It's unclear: Did Siegel and Eastwood make a revenge movie for feminists, or for men afraid of feminists? It's up to individual interpretation, though what unfolds in the last half hour—what happens to McB—is handled by Siegel with a delighted sadism, as the director has done the unthinkable by turning Clint Eastwood in his prime into a pathetic and repulsive villain.

Before he settled into middle and old age as a craggy, crotchety old tobacco-chewer, Eastwood looked like a sunburned matinee idol. In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood's 1971 directorial debut, Eastwood's wicked handsomeness and laid-back charisma allow him to convincingly play a carefree womanizer. In The Beguiled, these same qualities are used by Siegel to sell Eastwood as a manipulator whose charmed exterior hides a rotten soul. The actor relishes an opportunity he'd never again have, the guilty eyes and reptilian grin hinting early on at the depravity within. (McBurney claims to have been a God-fearing medic in the war, but almost subliminal flashbacks reveal he was in fact an eager soldier.) Then, when lovable Mr. McB's mask finally slips, Eastwood turns into a wild-eyed baddie, as his former lust interests take the dominant position—a role reversal that few viewers at the time might have predicted or, perhaps, even wanted.

The Beguiled (2017) poster. Courtesy of Focus Features

In 1971, cinemagoers voted with their feet. They wanted James Bond, Shaft, and Harry Callahan as their rogue deliverers of justice, not the women of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. In particular, the typical audience for an Eastwood film at the time didn't want to see their macho icon vilified and ultimately punished for his toxic masculinity.

The year 1971 was not ready for The Beguiled, but in the more enlightened 2017, with Trump in the White House and gynophobic alt-righters choking the internet, audiences seem ready for a film that sees womankind cathartically lashing out against the patriarchy. The film to offer that catharsis will be Sofia Coppola's 2017 update, but the foundation for this remake's very existence was laid by a strange, flawed, indelible financial failure that still manages to sting and challenge today.

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