The Beguiled Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

The Beguiled (2017): plot summary, meaning, explanation of the ending. Analysis of the drama The Beguiled from Sofia Coppola.

Country: USA

Genre: drama, melodrama, history

Year of production: 2017

Director: Sofia Coppola

Cast: Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, Oona Laurence, Elle Fanning

tagline: “Innocent until betrayed”

Awards and nominations: Palme d’Or for Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

The plot of the film The Beguiled, the second film adaptation of the work of the American writer Thomas Cullinan “Deceived”, largely repeats the events of the first. And although the director assures that she focused primarily on the book, the pictures are in many ways similar, up to identical frames. So the comparison is unavoidable.

Plot Analysis of The Beguiled

The action of The Beguiled takes place in 1864 in Virginia (USA) at the height of the civil war between the North and the South. Twelve-year-old girl Amy finds a wounded warrior – Corporal John McBurney. He turns out to be a soldier of the army of northerners. Amy reveals that there is a girls’ boarding house nearby, which houses four other students, a teacher, and a principal. It is unlikely that they will be happy about the appearance of a representative of the enemy army, but the choice is obvious – John is bleeding, there is no point in staying in the forest. Ann brings McBurney to the boarding house and he immediately falls unconscious.

Colin FarrellColin Farrell played the role of John McBurney. Frame from the film.

The girls drag the wounded into the building. The director of the boarding house, Miss Martha, first asks Amy to hang a blue handkerchief on the gate, which is a signal to the patrol of the southerners that there is a prisoner in this territory. However, after a little thought, the woman refuses this idea: because of the injuries received, the end of the guest in the camp of her enemies will be inevitable. Martha decides to treat and sew up the corporal’s wound, and then hand him over to the southerners who has recovered. Together with the teacher Edwina, she extracts fragments of buckshot from the wounded man’s leg.

In an embroidery class, student Jane suggests that the corporal may be a spy who will bring his army to the boarding school after dark. Edwina objects.

Southerners leading the prisoners pass by the boarding house. Out on the street, Martha talks to the soldiers, but says nothing about the wounded northerner. She asks the commander of the detachment for cartridges for her revolver, and he gives her a few pieces. The soldiers leave. The girls watching from the window seem to be glad that Martha did not betray the corporal.

In the morning, Amy secretly visits McBurney. Jane asks Edwina how long the soldier will stay in the music class, because she cannot study in the same room with the enemy. The director, who enters, notices that Edwina is wearing a brooch.

While treating John’s wound, Martha communicates with him. He expresses gratitude that the women helped him. Student Alicia, having opened the door to the room, interrupts the conversation and offers her help. Martha refuses and asks to tell everyone that entry is prohibited here. The director warns the corporal that he won’t be here for long.

Nicole KidmanThe role of Martha was played by Nicole Kidman. Frame from the film.

The soldier visits Mary and gives him a prayer book to confess before he dies. But McBurney is full of optimism and intends to live longer. Edwina runs into Mary at the door and notices that she took her earrings without permission.

Bandaging the corporal, Edwina learns that he fled the battlefield and considers this a reasonable decision. McBurney compliments the girl and asks about her life. In addition, he asks a question about her cherished desire. Edwina replies that she would like to get away from here.

In the evening, Alicia leaves classes and secretly visits the corporal, kisses him and wishes him good night.

The next day, Martha invites all the girls to come into McBurney’s room. There they sing a song for a soldier, but they are interrupted: southerners are knocking on the door of the boarding house. The girls continue to hide the corporal from them, realizing that, most likely, the soldiers will simply shoot him if they see him. Later, Martha drinks with McBurney, they talk.

A few days later, the corporal’s health improves – he can already walk, leaning on a cane. McBurney helps the girls with the gardening. Amy brings the corporal some water. He says that he considers the girl his best friend. At the same time, McBurney asks not to tell anyone about this. Amy is confronted by Alicia, who threatens her and tells her friend not to talk nasty things about her to the corporal.

Martha checks McBurney’s leg and concludes that it will heal by the end of the week, which means it’s time for the corporal to leave the boarding house. But the corporal has nowhere to go – he doesn’t mind staying here for a while longer. The girls decide to please the guest to stay against Martha’s wishes.

Kirsten DunstThe role of Edwina Dabney was played by Kirsten Dunst. Frame from the film.

John confesses his love to Edwina, offers to leave together. The couple kisses. They are interrupted by Alicia, inviting them to dinner. Before the meal, the girls put on their best outfits to please the guest. At the table they flirt in front of the corporal, each trying to stand out from the others.

Alicia flirts with McBurney, but he heads over to Edwina and compliments her. He asks permission to come to her at night. Martha interrupts them and offers the corporal a drink. Now compliments go to the director. John asks her to let her stay at the boarding house. During the conversation, it becomes clear that Martha is also infatuated with the corporal.

At night, hearing a noise, Edwina goes up to Alicia’s room and sees McBurney kissing Alicia while in her bed. The corporal tries to explain, but Edwina pushes him down the stairs in desperation. As a result, McBurney gets an open leg fracture. Alicia tells everyone that the corporal broke into her room and began to molest.

Looking at the wound, Martha decides to amputate, otherwise gangrene may develop. Some time after the operation, McBurney wakes up and, seeing a stump of a leg, concludes that the director cut it off specifically out of revenge. After all, that night the corporal did not go to her.

Alicia enters McBurney’s room. He, filled with anger, demands from the girl that she bring the key to the door. Passing by Jane’s locked room, McBurney calls to him and asks to put in a good word for him, so that he will be allowed to stay no matter what.

Elle FanningColin Farrell as John McBurney, Elle Fanning as Alicia. Frame from the film.

The inhabitants of the boarding house talk about the corporal – their opinions differ. Someone calls to drive him away, someone says that he did nothing wrong. The conversation is interrupted by McBurney himself. He yells at everyone, accusing them of being crippled on purpose out of jealousy. Amy asks the corporal not to make noise, because he scares her turtle. But McBurney, in a rage, grabs the pet and throws it to the ground, killing it.

Martha asks Amy to tie a blue handkerchief to her gate. But the corporal notices this and takes it off. McBurney in anger continues to express everything he thinks about the girls. He says that being crippled is worse than death, that he trusted in imaginary kindness, and he was maimed for it. The corporal threatens with reprisals if someone plans something else bad against him. McBurney leaves, Edwina follows him and locks herself with the corporal in the room. There, a couple makes love. The rest think how to get rid of the dangerous guest. Mary suggests using mushrooms, which the corporal loves. Martha approves of this idea, deciding to poison McBurney during a supposedly apologetic dinner.

At dinner, the corporal thanks everyone for the meal. Martha reads a prayer. The girls offer McBurney to taste mushrooms – he agrees. He tries to share with Edwina, but Amy reminds Edwina of her dislike of mushrooms. The corporal asks for forgiveness for his behavior and after a while falls dead.

In the end, having tied a blue handkerchief on the gate, the girls carry McBurney’s body wrapped in a sheet out of the gate. The last frame: the residents of the boarding house are standing on the porch – we see them through the bars.

Comparison with 1971 version

Sofia Coppola originally pitched The Beguiled as a feminine take on conflict, as outlined in Thomas Cullinan’s book and the original 1971 film. The latter in the another version was called “Deceived”, although the English names are identical (“The Beguiled” – “Deceived” or “Deceived”).

At the same time, the director emphasized that she did not want the film to look like a feminist message. And indeed, there is an ambiguity in the behavior of the characters – it cannot be said that someone here is pure evil or good. However, the description of the characters still differs significantly from the first picture, where everything was also not so simple, and it diverges in the direction of giving more preference to girls. In the 1971 version, there was a kind of closed sect in the boarding house, led by a strict Martha at the head. The latter also had her own skeletons in the closet – which is only the mention of incest with her dead (or even killed by her) brother. They showed in that picture the position of the southerners regarding slavery – there was a black woman working in the boarding house, whom everyone, of course, considered below themselves.

However, their disclosure from the negative side was largely facilitated by McBurney, who had an affair with almost everyone in a row. For example, at the very beginning of the picture, he kisses twelve-year-old Amy. However, in the film, this is justified by an attempt not to get caught by enemies by distracting the girl’s attention. Most of the other provocative actions of the corporal are also presented as attempts to survive.

In general, we can say that the 1971 film, unlike the 2017 version, is more of a male movie with an admixture of the Western genre. There are even more explicit scenes with a demonstration of the female body. In The Beguiled, on the contrary, eroticism is concentrated on the male body (for example, in the washing scene). With regard to women, attention is paid to their outfits, hairstyles. The environment is also more refined and not entirely realistic for the time being described.

evening with the corporalFrame from the film.

If in “Deceived” the courtship of McBurney (played by Clint Eastwood) is quite straightforward, then in The Beguiled the hero of Colin Farrell is more courteous. On the other hand, the first in the final does not turn into a beast. He really sincerely apologizes for his behavior (even after killing the turtle, he repents, saying that he did not want this) and makes a firm decision to leave with his chosen Edwina. The second, under the influence of anger, seems to show his true animal inside. He hysteria, drinks, threatens, shoots. Even the sex scene with Edwina is more like a rape scene.

“Deceived” reveals the characters more, while The Beguiled seeks to immerse in its atmosphere. But because of this, in the new version, we cannot be as objective. And since we mainly looked at the situation from the point of view of girls, we give an appropriate interpretation of events: the inhabitants of the boarding house in many ways turned out to be victims of their hospitality.

The meaning of the film

Despite what has been said, perhaps it is not worth joining either side of The Beguiled conflict. You don’t need a detailed analysis to understand that both McBurney himself and those who sheltered him are to blame for what happened. The corporal at some point decided that he was in a personal paradise, where he was allowed everything that he could play with the feelings of others as he pleased. For this he paid. The girls, having spared the enemy out of Christian motives, also could not resist the temptation.

seducing girlsFrame from the film.

It is a pity that the meaning that is in the novel and the first film, which consists in influencing the ongoing war, turned out to be somewhat blurred in The Beguiled. It is thanks to the war that conflicts escalate, and the boarding house turns into a kind of mini-state with its own laws.

Sofia Coppola, on the other hand, deliberately tried to take the relationship of the characters out of the brackets of historical confrontation and concentrate on the line “man and woman”. Therefore, the tragedy that happened does not seem so inevitable and is easily attributed to the stupidity and frivolity of the heroes.

So, the essence of the film The Beguiled is not in the feminist and not anti-feminist (there is such an opinion too) message and the corresponding hidden meaning. The moral here is quite simple: you should not play with the feelings of others, even out of the desire to survive. The intention to satisfy one’s base desires by using those who yearn for true love is extremely dangerous.

Ending explanation

Again, when compared with the 1971 version, Sofia Coppola seems to be trying to present the meaning of the ending of the film The Beguiled in a different way. In general terms, everything is the same, but the details are a little different. Getting rid of McBurney here does not look so tragic and more like a necessary measure.

Even the meaning behind the last frame is different. In the 2017 film, it is literally turned 180 degrees: unlike the first version, we are watching the “funeral procession” not from the side of the house (there it looks like some kind of liberation of the protagonist – leaving the mortal world), but from the yard and from behind gate. Thus, Sofia Coppola gives her explanation of the ending of the work: it was not a man who was a prisoner of the female world, it was women throughout history who lived as if in a cage (the gate bars are its symbol) in the big world of men. However, this should be considered, rather, as an artistic device and a slightly different angle of view on the problem disclosed in the original than some kind of manifesto.

girls are shielded from the worldFrame from the film.

Similar films

  • “Gone with the Wind” (USA, 1939): a classic of American cinema, a military drama – an adaptation of the famous work.
  • Cold Mountain (US, UK, Italy, 2003): The US Civil War separates two lovers.
  • “The Wicker Man” (USA, Canada, Mexico, 2006) a former policeman in search of a missing girl goes to an island where there is a women’s community with its own laws and hierarchy.

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