Clint Eastwood’s muscle-car-eulogizing Gran Torino will open here in a limited release on Dec. 12 (just six weeks after his latest, the sub-par Changeling) but by an embargo from Warner Bros.’s publicists, I’m forbidden to express my love for it until next week. And so by pure coincidence I returned home from a press screening of Gran Torino yesterday to a Sundance Channel broadcast of The Beguiled, arguably Eastwood’s most perverse film, and a movie to which Gran Torino pays direct homage.
Released in March 1971, The Beguiled was a box-office disappointment, especially when compared with two breakout hits released that fall–Play Misty for Me, Eastwood’s directorial debut, and a little action picture that came out that December called Dirty Harry. The Beguiled was Eastwood’s third collaboration with director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry was their fourth and Escape from Alcatraz their fifth), and both men considered this overlooked gothic Western their finest work together.
Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, which Eastwood discovered while he and Siegel were on the set of Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Beguiled is the story of a wounded Union soldier rescued by the Dixie lasses at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, who, rather than turn him in to Confederate forces, nurse him back to health. Headmistress and widow Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) has romantic designs on Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney–and so too do all of her students. McBurney himself is plotting his escape, but in the meantime he’s happy to pick up any action he can, and he isn’t shy about wooing several of the girls, including one who is underage.
Siegel goes all out in effecting a simmering creepiness that is sui generis. Using melodramatic candlelight, horror-film scoring, and psychological montages and voiceovers, the director unearths the buried sexual anxieties underwriting the Civil War costume drama. McBurney’s eventual comeuppance is terrifying to watch, but as with Gran Torino, we’re not going to spoil anything for you. Let’s just say that in The Beguiled, Eastwood, that most macho of cinema legends, finally meets his match in the fury of women scorned.–Benjamin Strong