A wounded Union soldier upsets the balance at a private girls’ school in this slice of southern gothic from the same guys who brought you “Dirty Harry” and “Coogan’s Bluff.”
It begins with a young girl collecting mushrooms in the woods. Eleven year old Amy comes across a hulking soldier, McBurney. He is covered in soot and limping along on a blood soaked leg. She is naturally frightened but growing up during the Civil War has hardened her enough to stand her ground. She sees that this man is no threat and humanely offers help.
Back at her boarding school everyone is aghast at her companion. The school’s owner, Martha, and teacher, Edwina, tend to McBurney’s wound. The protocol is to hang a blue rag on their gate should an enemy soldier come around but Martha opts to let that pass. She decides that he would perish in a war prison unless he is in better shape. Let the healing begin.
McBurney has upset the balance. He is the only man they have had in their midst in a long time. The women begin paying more attention to their appearance. One precocious teen Carol, sets out to seduce him while another, Doris, bides her time until she can flag down a rebel patrol and see the man dealt with properly.
The real problem ,however, is McBurney. He is quick to capitalize on the emotional whirlwind he has whipped up. He realizes that he needs Martha to stay around so he quickly develops a bogus cover story to soften her hard stance. In it he paints himself as a pacifistic Quaker whose job was to carry bandages. In this tall tale he was wounded because he pulled a confederate soldier from a fire.
Unfortunately he pushes it too hard by seducing the withdrawn Edwina, who turns out to be the biggest threat when her love is abused. A tumble with Carol is child’s play but thinking he can juggle all of these balls is a shameful bit of arrogance that might just prove fatal.
This is a solid story and the shocking finale is too good to spoil for you. See this classic before the remake hits theaters in June. No way will it stand up to this graphic treatise on women scorned.
Most surprising is that this feminist terror tale comes from Don Siegel (a director of he-man action movies) and Clint Eastwood. They would make ‘Dirty Harry ” the same year but this is the film that they never got their due for producing. It is a terrific blend of drama, suspense and even gore. Critically this was a smash but it made zero dollars at the box office.
The actresses are amazing here and include Jo Ann Harris, as the hot to trot Carol and Darleen Carr as the Yankee hating Doris. The best roles are that of Martha and Edwina. Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman nail every strength and weakness in the these fully fleshed out characters and are totally believable when they start to lose it.
Eastwood is also good here as the sly and manipulative soldier. You know something bad is coming his way and by the time it arrives you will find yourself almost rooting for the poor dope. There is also a graphic body horror scene towards the end that is even grislier than the “hobbling ” scene in Stephen King’s ‘Misery.” This one delivers on all fronts!
Best Lines: “I better shave you. Miss Martha gives me my orders. Not the lord.”
“There was enough iron in your leg to shoe a horse.”
Tom Doty is a columnist for The Floyd County Times.