Revealing the “Painted Devil”: Why the movie “The Beguiled” is more than mere entertainment

The Lady of the Kingdoms brags, “No one sees me” (Isaiah 47:10)

Sofia Coppola’s 2017 film The Beguiled is exposing some pretty high-profile names in Hollywood, though I doubt they are the kinds of names you are familiar with.

Set in the backdrop of the American Civil War in 1863, Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Beguiled (originally titled A Painted Devil) comes to life for a second time on screen. The original movie direct by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood debuted in 1971 and portrayed Eastwood as an injured, near-death Union soldier found in the backwoods of a Virginia estate by a 12-year old girl named Amy, a student at an all-girl boarding school at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. The headmistress reluctantly agrees to take him in and attend to his wounds under the conditions that he stays locked in the music room. While the 1971 film version was never widely circulated, it stays true to the author’s tale of how the young immigrant-Irish soldier sets about beguiling the headmistress and teacher, Edwina, along with one of the infatuated teenage girls and remaining youngsters while they are, as the book editorializes, “stranded in this outpost of Southern gentility, eliciting their love and fear, pity and infatuation, and pitting them against one another in a bid for his freedom. But as the women are revealed for what they really are, a sense of ominous foreboding closes in on the soldier, and the question becomes: Just who is the beguiled?”

Stephen King called the novel story, “[A] mad gothic tale . . . The reader is mesmerized with horror by what goes on in that forgotten school for young ladies.”

When Stephen King weighs in on something, let that be a sign to you there’s definitely more going on than mere entertainment.  And, Mr. King is right, there’s something mesmerizing happening here that is truly horrific.

What Coppola does to make this already profound story even more scary is to tell the other half of the story, from the perspective of the women, rather than from the view of  corporal John “McBee” McBurney.

Amy is quick to let the young corporal know the headmistress will not be pleased by his presence and wisely comments that he may regret his decision to take safe-haven at their estate. Indeed, he’ll later declare he wish he were dead than living with what they did to him. But the corporal quickly dismisses her advice, preferring to avoid imprisonment and assured death if captured by encroaching southern troops. When Ms. Martha sees Amy approaching with the wounded man she chastises a younger child for not keeping a better watch of their approach, fearing encroachment of Union soldiers in the area who have been known to rape and plunder southern plantations. She tells Amy to tie a blue ribbon around the front gate so passing southern troops can see they have captured an enemy soldier and will come to their aid in removing him quickly. But the girls having gazed upon the fair site of the now passed out young corporal, begin to unravel under long-quieted temptations and appeal to Ms. Martha, under the banner of Christian Charity, to delay the soldier’s fate until he is strong enough to heal. The piety of the headmistress is tested and we see her fortitude is not as strong as her outward appearance would suggest. She agrees to the girls appeal and the full weight of what happens next will come back to haunt her. Compromise has entered and begins to work its subtle acts of destruction among the women.

Through her unique expression of beauty, Coppola takes you up close and personal into the heart of each woman (and John) and face to face with the ugly monsters inside them. Behind the mask of feminine innocence, masculine longing, and southern gentility we see the true enemy exposed. The high-profile murderous, narcissistic spirits of seduction and sexual idolatry begin to emerge.

“I’ve always been visually driven — that’s how I relate to the world,” Coppola says. “I think about how you fill the frame, and we wanted this to feel claustrophobic, so we picked a tighter aspect ratio. Everything is in service of the story, so that the audience is disarmed by this pretty, delicate world.”

Disarmed indeed. Oxford dictionary defines beguile as “to charm or enchant (someone), sometimes in a deceptive way.” Such deception begins to work its way hauntingly through Coppola’s way of visual directing and we begin to see the spirits at work through the eyes. If you plan to see the movie, watch the subtle way each character transforms throughout by paying close attention to their eyes, facial expressions, and body gestures. The spirits of men often manifest through the body.

(*Warning SPOILER ALERT) John begins to bond with the young women in a subtly narcissistic way, which invites the most discerning among us to question if he’s not something worse, like a sociopath.  The women seem to slowly manifest demons of their own. The first most noticeable in the young teenager, Carol, who’s haughty eyes during lessons even prior to John’s arrival seem to suggest her dissatisfaction of life and susceptibility toward temptation. Her eyes tell the image of a quietly laying seductrix ready to pounce. John seems to genuinely fancy the teacher, Edwina, but her closed nature seems to indicate his level of sincerity may have more to do with his narcissism, which is intrigued by a good chase. Edwina’s naivety makes her an easy prey. When she later catches John in bed with the young Carol, a struggle ensues leaving John with a broken leg at the bottom of the stairs and leaving Ms. Martha with a crisis once more.  Judging that there is no other way to spare his life, she makes the decision to amputate the broken leg. When John awakes, he is furious, accusing Ms. Martha of being jealous that he turned down her own advances, and the girls of having intentionally mutilating him out of revenge. Suddenly, the subtly deceiving corporal becomes more of an enraged monster as he manifests his anger threatening violence and death as he wields a loaded gun at the young women. Feeling imprisoned and afraid for their lives, they justify plotting murder against him. In Coppola’s version, Edwina appears to bravely offer herself to the monster as a sacrificial offering and seems to subdue his rage by allowing him to have her like a beast.  She believes this is the best solution but it’s clear her sacrificial offering is not completely selfless as we later see the two at dinner, holding hands and smiling. A much more calm and gentle corporal announces he will be leaving in a few days, and in the novel, we are told he is taking Edwina with him to marry him. But the arrangements have already been made, unbeknownst to Edwina, and the corporal has ate his fill of deadly poisonous mushrooms picked at the hand of the young Amy. He dies at the table gasping for air. The girls are seen sewing up his body bag and leaving him outside the gate, where the somber Amy now ties a blue ribbon.

By the end of the movie, it’s clear there are certainly some additional characters on the screen. And just who are these high-profile starlets at work?

In her book The Spiritual Warrior’s Guide to Defeating Jezebel: How to Overcome the Spirit of Control, Idolatry and Immorality, Jennifer LeClaire works to expose them and discusses the common misconceptions about a commonly known spirit referenced throughout the Bible known as the spirit of Jezebel. She clarifies, “Although Jezebel wields weapons of control and manipulation, Jezebel is not the spirit of control. Jezebel is essentially the spirit of seduction. Jezebel works to seduce us into immorality and idolatry.”

In Revelation 2:20, Jesus himself addresses the church in warning against this spirit, “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Ms. LeClaire admonishes the church saying, “So while the church is intent on shunning assertive people and sewing an imaginary scarlet letter on the blouses of women with overbearing personalities, we are allowing the real principality to have its way in the pulpit and the pews. We are tolerating that woman Jezebel. We are violating Scripture. Where there is no repentance, immorality eventually sears the conscience…Compromised believers seek supernatural experiences and sometimes encounter demonic manifestations and visitations. They claim this is the Holy Ghost, but it is not the Holy Ghost. It is an “angel of light” that ushers them into greater deception.”

She goes on to distinguish between the spirit of seduction, Jezebel, and the spirit of Babylon which together work to execute the agenda of the murderous spirit of the world.

“To be sure, all believers are in a war that will determine their allegiance: Christ or the world. Will we obey the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life? Or will we obey the Word of God and the Spirit of God?”

What’s chilling about The Beguiled is how distinctly one can see these spirits at work, not just in women but in men. Set before the backdrop of a civil war, what we see manifest on screen is not just a tale of woe, an entanglement of the sexes. We see the utter destruction of the soul at work. Left unnoticed, these spirits work in even the most innocent and pure among us, and even the most devout. It is clear from the beginning of the movie, these spirits had not been given much room to operate. The point of freedom came at the point of compromise. Rather than following the law, Ms. Martha allowed her conscience to be compromised by the subtle but deceptive justification of these spirits at work through others. Under the guise of Christian Charity, she allowed that angel of light to execute its murderous agenda in her household.  And, these spirits are no respecters of age either, working in even the youngest to justify murder. They won’t stop with just jealousy and caddishness, they mean to end in death, both kinds of death, physical and spiritual. They mean to murder us all, and they’re using us to destroy each other. Now that dear friend, is a real horror show.

Interestingly enough, Oxford dictionary suggests another definition for beguile to “help (time) pass pleasantly.” Instead of having to answer the question editorialized at the beginning Just who is the beguiled? I pray dear friend, if we might be allowed to ask a new question, How shall we beguile our time here? I pray dear God, that it might be pleasantly and not under deception.

“Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” Matthew 13:16


*You can DOWNLOAD A FREE CHAPTER and order Jennifer LeClaire’s book The Spiritual Warrior’s Guide to Defeating Jezebel: How to Overcome the Spirit of Control, Idolatry and Immorality on her website


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1 thought on “Revealing the “Painted Devil”: Why the movie “The Beguiled” is more than mere entertainment

  1. ctrent29

    What are you talking about? The 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan is told exclusively from the school’s inhabitants and not by McBurney’s. Even the 1971 movie featured the POVs of the female characters.


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