This article contains spoilers for the 1971 and 2017 versions of THE BEGUILED.

There is a disgusting tendency in America to romanticize the Civil War era South. White people have an astounding capacity to overlook the entire concept of slavery in order not to sully the dresses, architecture, and “Southern manners.” This beautiful lie is at the heart of THE BEGUILED.

Based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name, THE BEGUILED has been adapted twice. Once under the directorial helm of Don Siegel in 1971 and most recently in 2017 directed by Sofia Coppola. Both films follow Union soldier John McBurney (Clint Eastwood in ‘71; Colin Farrell in ‘17) who, wounded and on the run, takes refuge in a nearly abandoned all girl’s boarding school.

While under the hospitable eye of these women, McBurney does his best to charm, beguile if you will, each woman in the house. The narrative does not establish any of the characters as a clear hero or villain. There is a deeper struggle in the film between the lies men tell women and the charming lies of the antebellum South.

The Soldier At War

The Beguiled

First, let’s examine our two John McBarryss. Unsurprisingly, Eastwood’s version of the character carries the actor’s trademark tough exterior. He is gruff and aggressive with his sexual flirtations. The man is a walking boner. All Freudian id with stiff and unbridled innuendo. His ulterior motives are clear throughout the film. Siegel pushes our mistrust even further via juxtaposing flashbacks.

When Eastwood tells the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page in ‘71; Nicole Kidman in ‘17) the story of his heroic survival, we see him hiding in the trees picking off Confederates until a stray bullet hit him. When he decries the way his fellow Union soldiers have ravaged the land, we see him gleefully taking a torch to the crops. We are never meant to trust him.

Siegel subverts the historical view of the Union army. The Civil War is a more digestible narrative as a war between Southern racists and honorable Union freedom fighters. In reality, there were terrible and cruel men on both sides of the wars. Their manhood made them feel justified in inflicting terror onto their fellow man. As we see later in the film, fighting for one side of the war is not enough to make someone morally just in their actions.

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Coppola, on the other hand, softens McBurney. Farrell carries his usual boyish charm paired with his lovely Irish brogue. He is frequently framed with dew drops of water dripping from his body. One cannot help but reach for the nearest fan to fend off the vapors when he is on screen. His seductive technique feels more convincing than Eastwood’s masculine bravado. 

He is smooth liquid water in contrast to Eastwood’s rock hard persona. Both, however, share the same weakness: they just cannot keep it in their pants. The same fate befalls McBurney in both films. He seduces the headmistress Martha, the young teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in ‘71; Kirsten Dunst in ‘17), and the way too young for them Carol (Joan Harris in the 71 version; called Alicia and played by Elle Fanning in ‘17).

Edwina, Carol/Alicia, and Martha each flirt with McBurney, but McBurney chooses to sneak into the bedroom of Carol/Alicia late one night. When Edwina discovers this tryst, she ends up hurling McBurney down the staircase of the massive boarding house. Her violent outburst acts as the first crack at the oppressive Antebellum civility. McBurney believed himself to be the snake in the garden, but he is defanged all the same.

Southern Hospitality

The Beguiled

Both versions of THE BEGUILED are populated with picturesque Southern belles, each of them dressed in ornate, flowing gowns and behaving with traditional Southern manners. But their beautiful boarding school is just a facade for the disrepair lurking beneath, a symbol of the Antebellum South: rotting debris under a veneer of sophistication and civility.

The girls are a product of this contradiction. The polite exterior of the Southern refinement hides the terrible truth about the slavery that built the beautiful homes and sewed the fancy dresses. In turn, these characters exemplify why white people overlook slavery in favor of Southern aesthetics. It’s this appearance of class and sophistication that makes white people enamored with the Southern antebellum culture. Unfortunately, Coppola consciously chose to omit slavery from her version of THE BEGUILED, inadvertently reinforcing the ignorance of white Southern romanticism. It’s a shame that she did as Hallie (Mae Mercer) is one of the most compelling characters in the original film. 

When Hallie dresses McBurney’s wounds, he tries to forge an alliance with her. He, very literally, attempts to act as a white knight by claiming that his side is fighting for her freedom.

“A white man’s the same everywhere in the world” she responds.

It is a hard truth that history proved time and time again: many white Union soldiers did not give a damn about the freedom of slaves. They fought for the same reason many men have fought for generations — because someone told them to or someone dared them to.

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The headmistress, Martha, is perhaps the most tragic figure of them all. She seems like a forgotten figure in an Edgar Allen Poe story. Martha clings desperately to her school and the civility it provides in an uncivil time. Her air of politeness begins to slip the longer McBurney stays at the school. She cannot accept the presence of the interloper who has come to upend the delicate Southern balance of her home.

Her need for insularity is reflected in her incestuous relationship she had with her brother before his death (another detail exorcised from Coppola’s film). Like royalty of old, she wants to keep her Southern bloodline pure. Ms. Martha needs to maintain the homogeneity of her Southern paradise even as it crumbles around her.

It is likely not a coincidence that she is the one to suggest amputation of McBurney’s leg following his fall down the stairs. The amputation is a metaphorical castration. She can strip the northerner of his masculine power as payback for his transgressions against her Southern utopia.

The Beguiled

With his leg gone, McBurney feels he needs to reassert his manhood. He drops his charming pretense altogether and impotently rages at the women around him. McBurney lashes out at them, claiming Martha only cut off his leg because he didn’t choose her bedroom that evening. Unsurprisingly, he blames the women around him for the consequence of his duplicitous behaviors. How quickly a gentleman will turn ugly when his masculinity has been torn down by women.

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McBurney believes he has won back some of his manhood when he seduces Edwina who agrees to run away with him. In both films, Edwina is presented as an outsider among the women (the reasoning for this is made more clear in the novel where Edwina is white-passing biracial woman).

McBurney takes advantage of Edwina’s desire to escape the house to make his way out. Martha, again unwilling to upset the delicate balance of her home, cooks poisonous mushrooms into his food, leading to his ultimate demise. For all of his bluster and his masculine posturing, he is still outsmarted by the sinister beast of Southern hospitality.

A Look at the Past

Both films end with the girls sewing up McBurney’s corpse into a cloth as a makeshift coffin, but Coppola’s has a slightly different beat. In her version, Martha curtly criticizes their stitching technique the girls are using. Even in the face of murder, proper etiquette must still be maintained. As Coppola’s film ends, the women of the boarding school sit still on the steps of the school.

The camera watches them from behind the gates. It zooms in, but they are still so far away, far from the present, a forgotten memory. They managed to rid themselves of the outsider, but nothing can stop their way of life from, rightly, going extinct.

Both versions of THE BEGUILED are fascinating films because, at the end, who are we supposed to root for here? The pathological chauvinist liar or the cadre of backward thinking slave owners? Ultimately, there are no winners in this narrative and there are no losers. It’s not about one side being right or wrong; it’s about white people needing to look at how the lies they tell harm everyone around them. 

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