Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Beguiled: My take on the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood


Having enjoyed The Beguiled starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell, I wanted to re-watch the 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. 

What a difference a director and 45 years makes. What I remembered as swoon-worthy was a more graphic, more explicit drawing out of the film's sexuality. 

The 1971 version of The Beguiled begins with the credits over actual sepia tinted photographs from the Civil War with the sounds of battle in the background. It was the first war to be documented on film and the images, men torn apart, lying dead in the films are affecting. 

Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) discovers the Yank soldier

Those sepia-tinted stills morph into a sepia tinted forest through which a little girl walks, picking mushrooms. Very slowly the brown turns to color, the woods, dripping with spanish moss and shrouded in early morning mist as lovely as the opening shot in Coppola's version. But plot similarities aside—Coppola rewrote the screenplay using both the book and her predecessor's script—this earlier movie has a very different sensibility.

While both films show young Amy finding the soldier and forming a fast friendship, this version has Eastwood's McBurney kissing the 13 year old Amy full on the mouth. That bizarre opening is just the beginning, and probably most revealing about the time period it was shot. The seventies. When everything was more. Censorship had loosened up and films gradually became more intense, more violent, more sexual; this early entry in the decade is a prime example of what was to come. 

Nuance is not in director Don Siegel's playbook on this film. While McBurney's behavior in the opening scene immediately tips the hat about what kind of man Eastwood's character is, Siegel hammers us over the head with it. While we hear McBurney tell the women about what happened in battle, painting his own behavior in a favorable light, we're simultaneously shown the reality with flashbacks. He says loves the farmlands of the south? We see him torching it. Not sure how the women feel about him? 

'If this war doesn't end soon, I'll forget what it feels like to be a woman.' Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth

Add in cheesy voiceovers so we don't have to guess what the characters might be thinking, we hear their thoughts. Those thoughts mostly turn to sex, especially the sexually aggressive Carol who presses herself on McBurney, then cries rape when they're caught in the act—every man's mostly unfounded fear. In Coppola's version, I saw Elle Fanning's character (renamed Alicia) in a much more sympathetic light—a young woman just realizing her own sexual power, teasing without understanding all the consequences of her behavior. 


There's not an innocent bone in Carol's (Jo Ann Harris) sexually aggressive body

Throw in an incestuous backstory for the school's head mistress, the sexually-deprived Miss Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) along with a three-way fantasy, a Dutch angle here and there, and a music score used for punctuation and I can't help but wonder what exactly the 18 year old me saw in the heavy-handed telling of the story. 


McB lays it on thick to the virginal Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman)

I blush to say I must have watched it from a very a one-dimensional perch, relating to the 'virgin bitch' Miss Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman/Kirsten Dunst in Coppola's version) who was unwilling to give her body to McB without love to accompany the act. As a naive, sentimental and romantic 18 year old, I bought his act, hook line and sinker. Even now, watching either version of The Beguiled I'm left wondering if perhaps McBurney's feelings for Miss Edwina may have had some tiny kernel of authenticity at their core? Or is that wishful thinking and Edwina was just another woman the opportunistic McBurney used? Probably the latter but I'm still not sure. 

The movie was apparently a stinker with critics and at the box office. I wonder if I saw an edited version on television?

If you've seen The Beguiled starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell you might want to check out its forerunner on HBO On Demand, Amazon and the usual streaming services.


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