The Film: Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970)
The Principles: Don Siegel (Director). Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas, Alberto Morin, David Estuardo, Jose Chavez.
The Premise: An American mercenary (Eastwood) and a nun (MacLaine) get mixed up with the Juarista rebel movement during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867).
Is It Good: Good God, yes!
I first experienced Two Mules For Sister Sara after picking up Universal’s Clint Eastwood: Western Icon Collection, which also contains Joe Kidd and High Plains Drifter. I’d already experienced Drifter years before, but had never seen Sara or Kidd. Why? Mostly because they are almost never mentioned when Eastwood’s westerns are brought up in conversation.
Everyone praises his work with Leone and most of his own western directorial efforts; namely the aforementioned Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Unforgiven. They are absolutely right to do so, as all are fantastic works in genre. Hang ‘Em High and Pale Rider are also routinely spoken well of, particularly the former. Sara and Kidd, however, just seem to get lost in the shuffle and that’s a shame. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that both are overall more lighthearted than the rest. They also lie within a period of Clint’s career where he was trying to somewhat distance himself from his work with Leone, but hadn’t quite hit super-stardom yet. That came a year only later when Harry Callahan walked on screen blowing away bank robbers with a massive revolver while scarfing down a hot dog.
Eastwood is absolutely toying a bit with his Man With No Name persona here. While FAR less laconic, virtually all of the trademarks are in place. The ‘do, a serape-like vest, the cigarillos, talking through his teeth, “his squint-eyed grin and stubbled chin”…sorry, had a Joey Belladonna moment there. Hell, our introduction to the man comes in the form of him riding in silhouette with the sun behind him to a wonderful Ennio Morricone score. If you truly wanted to get fanboyish about it, one could even view this as a semi-sequel to the Dollars films. After all, we really don’t know what happened to the nameless one after the events of For A Few Dollars More. The end of that film saw our beloved gunslinger becoming even more “human” and merely a spectator to the final showdown, as opposed to an active participant. Many always point towards Unforgiven as the only future for such a character, but I disagree. Leone made the character slightly more compassionate and less selfish as the trilogy progressed chronologically. With that in mind, it’s hard to see him ending up like Will Munny. Regardless, Clint (this time named “Hogan”) is still a greedy sarcastic bastard at times in this.
On the MacLaine side of things, has she ever been this sexy and cute in anything else? And if so, please give me a list of films to watch! Her sassy Sister Sara is fearless and doesn’t really take shit from anyone, which is just how MacLaine herself was on set according to Eastwood & Siegel. They were actually intimidated by Shirley, describing her as ballsy and decidedly unfeminine. That might sound like a knock, but it really isn’t if you know anything about these gentlemen in real life. How often do you see a nun lay Clint Eastwood out with one punch? Or not even flinch when he tells her that while he had no problem gunning down her would-be rapists, she’ll have to dig their graves herself if she wants to give them a proper Christian burial? Not often, I’m guessing.
I’ve already mentioned Morricone’s fantastic score, but I’m going to bring it up again. Ennio does some great work here that, once again, is rarely highlighted among his rightfully legendary composing career. The main title is a beautiful piece that I happily admit to throwing on various film score mix CDs year in and out. On the directorial front, Siegel is also at the top of his game here. The style and tone is Leone-lite here, bearing a lot of similarities to Sergio’s films in terms of setting and story. While a similar visual flare is not present, the extra emphasis on character makes up for it. This is one of Siegel’s best films and second only to Dirty Harry in terms of his work with Clint.
Is It Worth A Look: Absolutely. While it has been and always will be overshadowed by the classic Man With No Name trilogy and his own (mostly) mean-spirited work In the genre, Two Mules For Sister Sara is an underrated gem that is well worth a look from any Eastwood or western fan. If my loving words above and the fact that it is currently available on Netflix Instant aren’t enough to get you to give it a look, then Shirley MacLaine herself will be along shortly to break your jaw. She might be in her late ‘70s, but doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear for your life.
Random Anecdotes: Budd Boetticher wrote the original screenplay in 1967 with the intent of directing himself. The original idea was for the project to star Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Boetticher was not a fan of the finished film. Elizabeth Taylor was also in line to portray Sister Sara at one point.
This was the last time that Eastwood ever received second billing on a film and he didn’t work with another A-list leading lady again until The Bridges of Madison County (1995).
This marked Clint’s second collaboration with director Don Siegel, following Coogan’s Bluff (1968). They would go on to do a total of five films together, the others being The Beguiled (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), and Escape From Alcatraz (1979).
Clint actually killed a rattlesnake on screen because the Mexican authorities did not want it released into the area after filming.
The main theme was reused in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) when Holmes rides a mule to Heilbronn, Germany.
Cinematic Soulmates: For A Few Dollars More (1965), Companeros (1970), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), Joe Kidd (1972), Pink Cadillac (1989).