The American Civil War is raging in the Southern states, and in Louisiana this seminary for young ladies has been isolated from the worst of the fighting thanks to its location in the middle of a forest, and therefore out of the way of most soldiers. There are only seven women and girls living there, with Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) the head of the establishment, but they are about to be joined by a new addition when young Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) goes out picking mushrooms and finds more than she bargained for: an injured Union soldier, desperately asking for her help.
He being John McBurney, played by Clint Eastwood in his first flop since he had become a megastar. He went on record as being bitterly disappointed with the poor reception The Beguiled received, as he wanted it sold as a cross between a Western and a Gothic horror only for Universal to make it look as if it was another of the adventures he had made his name with, and when the audience didn't like what they saw they stayed away. Even those expecting something out of the ordinary were not pleased, as the film was often accused of outright misogyny, as many Eastwood films were, but this time the response was particularly vitriolic.
However, there was quality here of a sort which meant it was always going to garner a following, and as one of the star's cult movies it saw its standing raised as people began to be intrigued by this strange film and its attitude which did not so much hate women, but took a grim look at both genders and found them wanting. In its way this was a battle of the sexes yarn, as once McBurney is taken into the mansion house where the school is located he sets about poisoning what had previously been an outpost of gentility with a hefty dose of twisted sexual tension as he courts a number of the females as a method of surviving and gaining a more intimate form of satisfaction as his leg heals.
Martha is queen of the frustrated women, and begins to have flashbacks to her lost love, though McBurney's flashbacks - and they are just brief flashes - belie what he's feeding the ladies, that he is a Quaker who never fired a shot (we see him gunning down his opponents), that he loves nature (we see him setting light to Southern fields), that kind of thing. With Martha she hopes she can take advantage of her prisoner/patient - there are shades of The Beguiled in Stephen King's Misery - but she reckoned without her second in command Edwina (the tragic Elizabeth Hartman, her natural sensitivity warped to unfortunate ends in this character), and the hornier teen Carol (Jo Ann Harris) making their own plans.
McBurney is only too happy to go along with this as he is a form of Devil incarnate, corrupting the females by his very presence and the manipulation which comes with that, and for a while this appears to be one of those Hollywood Civil War movies which demonised the North in favour of a sentimentalisation of the South, but director Don Siegel, who counted this as his best film, is toying with you. That's because the women prove to be just as perverse as their captive, and if anything more cunningly cruel; the original writers of this had their names taken off the credits because they hated what was done to their ending, but it actually operates on just the right level of macabre given what we have seen leading up to it as the Devil has not been beaten, he lives on in the corroded souls of the seminary having sacrificed himself to damn them all. There is a curious religious tone to this which renders it even more morally distorted, and Eastwood leads very strong performances to a troublesome conclusion. Music by Lalo Schifrin.