The movie posters promised the kind of Eastwood film that in 1971 the general public could expect from their previous experiences: the unstoppable, victorious advance of a revolver-twirling, cigarillo-chewing Western hero. But it was not to be.
Beneath the opening credits, sepia-brown photos from the US Civil War flash across the screen. They are not nostalgic photos, but stark depictions of war atrocities, and wounded and dead bodies.
Union Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood) has had his share of hard times. Seriously wounded after an intense battle, he comes upon a remote boarding school for girls in the middle of enemy territory.
Barely conscious, he is taken in and administered medical care by the school’s students and principal, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page).
His condition soon improves and Martha plans to hand him over to one of the frequent patrols at the first opportunity, which would seal the fate of the Northerner.
Initially, McBurney confronts this threat with considerable charm and wins the affection of the 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), gallantly captures the heart of the virginal teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and even coaxes the overbearing Martha Farnsworth over to his side.
The hardly demure 17-year-old Carol (Jo Ann Harris) independently makes unmistakable advances toward him.
McBurney’s presence stirs up emotions and needs, which he exploits with cold-blooded psychological cunning. Jealousy and disappointment are the logical consequences.
McBurney believes that he has the upper hand, but his arrogance is to prove deadly. Caught by Edwina in Carol’s room, he hurries out, falling down the stairs in the process.
He lies unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, with multiple broken bones. Martha Farnsworth punishes him mercilessly, amputating his shattered leg.
McBurney realises what has happened when he awakes the following day. All friendliness dissolves, and in his anger, he ruins the sympathies he had previously won by confronting the women with several unpleasant truths.
In spite of everything, Edwina still remains on his side – her sincere love ultimately calms and appeases him – but his conversion comes too late. The women have already served him poisonous mushrooms.
Dying, he staggers into a side room while in the dining room the main meal is peacefully finished.
The Beguiled was a commercial flop – the US public felt deceived by the adventurous themes of the marketing campaign and reacted with disdain – but opinions later changed, and today this incomparable psycho-horror-western enjoys true cult status.
Corporal John McBurney
Jo Ann Harris
Melody Thomas Scott