Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

Two Mules

Director – Don Siegel
Writers – Albert Maltz (screenplay), Budd Boetticher (story)
Summary – In which the mercenary Hogan (Clint Eastwood) happens upon and saves the nun Sara (Shirley MacLaine), they go on a few adventures together on the way to help Juarista revolutionaries against a French garrison, Hogan finds out Sara is a prostitute, and they ride off happily ever after.

 

Two Mules starts off in a standard western atmosphere by having our soon-to-be-named hero riding along at his own pace. He soon comes upon a half-naked damsel in distress, Sara, getting harassed by three men. Our hero, Hogan, makes short work of them and is ready to leave when Sara surprises him by being donning a nun’s outfit. She then proceeds to bury and bless her would be rapists.

From this point on, Two Mules for Sister Sara subverts tropes and expectations in delightful ways. Hogan is a capable survivalist both through his skills (killing a snake in seconds and cooking it for dinner) and through preparation (carrying a fair sized bag for gunpowder, 5 rifles, and a pistol). He is comfortable in nature, and he has a lone wolf air about him, telling Sara that the only reason he sticks around to help is because she is a nun. The expectation in most films would be that the lady, having been saved by the handsome stranger, would fall in love with the man.

Yet, quite the opposite happens. Hogan mentions a few times that he wishes Sara had not been a nun because he finds her attractive. Sara maintains her distance with Hogan, and generally admonishes him for his impure thoughts. Even after the reveal that she is a prostitute, Sara still maintains her dignity and Hogan is the one to chase after her. The nun outfit serves as a good barrier to prevent the two leads from consummating their love too early in the film, but it also marks Sara’s character. When she drops the outfit her persona changes minimally. Sara is still outspoken, and still believes and prays; she just drinks and smokes more openly.

The tone of the film also subverts expectations. Watching a Sergio Leone Western with Clint Eastwood, a viewer may be struck by the stillness in the characters and the scenes. There are often long close ups on people’s faces, or wide shots of people standing completely still. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has a famous Mexican standoff set in a graveyard, stillness among the permanently still.

This Clint Eastwood film, however, is always in motion. The opening shots are of Hogan riding a horse in the background with wild animals, reptiles, and a human skeleton in the foreground. Immediately following this introduction is Hogan confronting Sara’s harassers, a typical place where there would be stillness. Instead, the thugs are constantly in motion, running around trying to evade the mercenary’s gunfire. Sara and Hogan spend the majority of the film riding on animals going from where they met to the Juaristas, and from the Juaristas to the French garrison. Even when Hogan has to sit down with the officers of the French garrison, the general gets up explain piñatas, and there are shots of the people carrying the piñata interspersed in the conversation. The last shot of the film is Hogan and Sara riding into the distance.

The best scene happens around halfway through after Hogan gets shot in the arm by Native Americans (Yawkey, I believe). He needs to blow up a French supply train by placing and blowing up dynamite on a wooden bridge the train will have to pass. But with his arm recently shot and getting drunk to numb his pain, Hogan cannot shoot well enough to hit the dynamite. Instead he has Sara hold the rifle on her shoulder to keep his aim steady, as seen in the picture above. It’s a tense, almost funny, scene, with Hogan unusually relaxed from the drinking, and Sara nerve wracked with the pressure of holding his rifle steady. Shirley MacLaine is incredible in it, displaying the pressure from hiding her real profession along with the pressure of the dangerous mission, and keeping both separate and unique. While Eastwood has to act confident and drunk, Maclaine has the more difficult task of emphasizing the importance of the train destruction and the uselessness of Hogan. She really shines in these one-on-one scenes where she is allowed the freedom to act and react fluidly.

By contrast, the weakest scene of the film is the climactic battle at the garrison. The close up shots of the soldiers killing each other looks fake, especially compared to the violence in earlier parts of the film, and the crowd scenes show people pushing each other rather than fighting. Because it has to focus on so many places and characters we know nothing about, it also has less emotional impact compared to the scenes that feature just Sara and Hogan. Luckily, the battle is fairly short and the film ends with a focus back on our heroes.

Although all of the structural elements of the film are interesting, and the music by Ennio Morricone is fantastic, the biggest draw of the film is Shirley MacLaine. She makes Sara charming and interesting beyond just the premise of a prostitute playing a nun. Her character has to be smarter than Clint Eastwood’s character, while still relying on his abilities. She also has to be independent enough to have traveled alone, while not averse to companionship to keep Hogan around. Even if the character as written is a fairly simple attraction for Eastwood, MacLaine makes her seem more complicated with an interesting history. Two Mules is more than worth it just to watch MacLaine do some great acting.

 

****  Must See
***    Recommended – This is a definite “recommended”. Even if you are not interested in Westerns, Shirley MacLaine is wonderful and makes the film worth it. Despite some serious subject matter in executions and Mexican freedom from French rule, the film is mostly good fun, and has plenty of funny scenes between Eastwood and MacLaine’s characters.
**      If You’re Bored
*        Waste of Time

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