Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Birds and Mr McB… The Beguiled (1971)

Clint Eastwood, one of a handful of humans who are known – by most over a certain age - solely from their Christian name. This film is from a time when that brand was narrower than it has come to be today for a man with significant gifts as a director as well as a performer. Back in 1971 Mr Eastwood was only just stepping out of the spaghetti sauce and this represented a departure from his normal, unequivocal, repertoire. It was, he said, "an opportunity to play true emotions and not totally operatic and not lighting cannons with cigars".

From memory – I haven’t seen this for a long time – I had Clint’s character, Corporal John McBurney, as primarily a good guy: a Yankee soldier rescued from fatal injury and capture by a school of southern gentlewomen. But things are not so clear and The Beguiled weaves a delicate path between our expectations as the convalescing captive wages a war of charm and connivance against his ostensibly nursing captors…

Southern gothic
The school in question is draped in gothic Mississippi foliage – vines hanging heavy from exhausted trees beaten down by relentless moist sunlight and with the rich soggy earth pulling hard at their roots. So it is with the people and not just those fighting the war… there’s fear and longing holding these people down and Mr McBurney promises a release for some just as his own freedom is curtailed.

The film opens with stills of the Civil War, most posed maybe some real and then cuts to a young girl Amy (the excellent Pamelyn Ferdin) searching for mushrooms in a dense wood. She finds the wounded McBurney who distracts her with a – shocking – kiss on the mouth so she will hide him from Confederate soldiers.

Mr McB and Amy
Amy helps “Mr McB” to her school where he is greeted suspiciously by the head teacher, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) and most of the pupils with the exception of Carol (Jo Ann Harris) who, it has to be said, is old beyond her years. This is war and the girls are daughters of Confederate men, Carol (Darleen Carr), is particularly opposed to this Yankee even if he is half-dead.

But Miss Farnsworth shows him mercy: he can’t be given over as a prisoner in such a weak condition, he would surely die. They plan to get him well and then hand him over… and McBurney isn’t going to dissuade them.

Geraldine Page and Clint
Locked in a room with hastily-boarded windows, John begins his recovery and gradually gets to know the characters at the school. Amy is still very young and keeps a pet crow and tortoise for company whilst there’s a pretty teacher Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman) who has clearly taken refuge herself from the wanton cruelty of Man. John takes a shine but you’re far from convinced of his true feelings at this point: he’s a man on a survival mission deep in enemy territory even if they are wearing petticoats.

A close-shave with Mae Mercer
Perhaps the only actual mature woman at the school is the servant, Hallie (singer-turned-actress Mae Mercer) who isn’t going to be fooled by his soft-soap for a second. Miss Farnsworth is on the cusp of middle age and has, it turns out, plenty of transgressive experience of her own as the film slowly reveals. Underneath her disciplined, leader persona beats the heart of a woman who has loved and lost with her heartbreak magnified by the fact her lover was her brother.

Darleen Carr (second left) is outspoken
Her motivations for wanting to nurse McBurney are conflicted from the start but she is far from alone. Broken angel, Edwina, very much Miss Farnsworth’s protégé, feels the stirrings of passion she had so long denied but is Yankee John merely leading her and everyone else along.
As his recovery progresses, he starts to dominate the school and the thoughts of the three women and one girl who have feelings for him.

Elizabeth Hartman
The fateful moment comes when he has to decide which room to visit after dark: Miss Farnsworth, door unlocked, is busily dreaming of him and – another transgression, Edwina, sharing her bed whilst it looks as though he is heading towards the younger teacher until, he is ambushed on the stairs by the most-forward, Carol – anxious to blackmail her way to an amorous adventure.

He makes the wrong choice, the only one he can make, and events begin to spin out of control as all kinds of passion explodes within formerly gentile countenance.

Jo Ann Harris
Dusty verdict: This is a haunting film of dense, mystical atmospheres that exist on the very edges of the civil slaughter. The characters are real and all a mix of sympathetic and devious when the moment takes.

Don Siegel directs with the assurance you'd expect and there’s sumptuous cinematography from Bruce Surtees and a lush score from Lalo Schifrin – as dense as the woods suffocating the school.

The performances are outstanding especially Geraldine Page as the conflicted headmistress hiding from her own desires.

Clint Eastwood
Eastwood is perhaps the most revelatory; playing perhaps with our perception that he will be the hero in the end. He lies about his involvement in the war, claiming to be a conscientious objector tending inly to the wounded on the battlefield while flashbacks show his deadly acts of war. But it was war and there were no good and bad guys, just those who got lost…

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