Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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Director Don Siegel helms Clint Eastwood in Two Mules for Sister Sara, a western comedy based on a story by Budd Boetticher and a screenplay by Albert Maltz. This 1970 picture makes great use of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who handles the Mexican vista with assurance. There’s also a tremendous Ennio Morricone score, complete with mule noises and wind effects.

Siegel and Eastwood enjoyed a fruitful collaboration starting in 1968 with Coogan’s Bluff and running through the classic 1971 thriller Dirty Harry. Two Mules for Sister Sara is tonally different from their usual collaborations, but Siegel’s attraction to violence is on display here and so is Eastwood’s capability to occupy a stark and individualistic hero.

Eastwood stars as a drifter named Hogan who rescues Sara (Shirley MacLaine) from bandits. He learns that she’s a nun working with Mexican revolutionaries fighting the French. It turns out that Hogan is on his way to the revolutionaries as well in hopes of attacking the French garrison for the money. He agrees to take Sara to a Mexican camp because he can’t abandon a nun in the middle of nowhere.

Along the way, the relationship between Hogan and Sara evolves in interesting ways. She smokes, drinks and uses salty language. He gets shot by a Yaqui arrow and tries to blow up a bridge. There’s a rattlesnake, a Juarista camp of revolutionaries, an assault on a French garrison, and a big revelation toward the end.

Much is made of said revelation and some find is an unnecessary element to the story, but it’s more harmless than harmful. MacLaine’s character provides enough cover for who she is and the explanation is suitable enough to work. And the actress has enough presence as Sara to make any and all alterations along the way seem natural in the context of the story.

Eastwood plays a kind of extended version of the Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, only he has a name and sometimes swings more toward Harry Callahan. He is self-motivated to a fault, but he practices his own form of restraint when it comes to Sara’s habitual commodities. He tries not to play to his animal instincts and only loosens his tongue when alcohol comes into the picture.

Eastwood and MacLaine have some marvellous scenes together, especially the extended sequence in which an arrow has to be removed from Hogan’s shoulder. Alcohol is consumed and Hogan explains a rather complicated plan to use gunpowder to cauterize the wound. The sequence is impeccably timed by Siegel, who uses a gory special effect as the exclamation point.

Another great scene involves the shooting of dynamite as it rests below a trestle. Sara believes that Hogan is too drunk to shoot straight, so she insists that he practice his firing on a non-essential target first. He misses by a country mile and the plan looks set to fall apart until the nun helps him steady his firing arm.

Two Mules for Sister Sara is more about the journey than the destination, which essentially means that anything could be waiting for the duo in Mexico. There are a lot of coincidences and conveniences that lead to the finale, with no attempts at initiating a central villain. There is a central mission of sorts, but Siegel’s film handles it as an afterthought.

But the characters are strong enough to see it through. Hogan carries dynamite like Sara carries her cross and both are hiding from something. They share common interests on multiple levels and engage in conversations about spirituality and money, recognizing their indispensable connectivity in the process. All the while, Siegel keeps the bullets flying.

Punctuated by comic set pieces, Two Mules for Sister Sara is certainly a non-traditional western. It’s still an enjoyable diversion and it features quality core performances from Eastwood and MacLaine to go with Morricone’s charming score and Figueroa’s cinematography. While Siegel’s flick isn’t necessarily a genre classic, it definitely has enough juice to pass as a damn good time.

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