Following his breakout success in Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti western trilogy – the ‘Dollars’ trilogy – Clint Eastwood returned to the states a marketable star. He wanted to distance himself some from the western genre, but still made a couple entries over the coming years. The best? A spaghetti-ish western with director Don Siegel, 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.
It’s the years following the Civil War, and an American mercenary, Hogan (Eastwood), is working with the Juaristas as Mexican forces fight the French government. On the trail, he rescues a woman who is about to be raped by 3 drifters, killing her 3 attackers. Hogan is in for a surprise. The woman is a nun, Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), similarly riding south who is also working with the Juaristas. Knowing Sister Sara is seriously at risk traveling on her own, Hogan says she can travel with him as they ride through French patrols, bandits and Indian attacks.
Nothing too crazy here, just a good western story that leans heavily on its star, MacLaine and Eastwood, to do the heavy lifting. It’s an episodic story – clocking in under 2 hours – without any huge momentum. The focus is on the star duo who are working off a Budd Boetticher story (Boetticher apparently hated the MacLaine casting and the final product as a whole). It was originally intended for Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) but was reworked and re-cast over the years for this duo instead. Apparently filming was troubled to say the least with some big personalities, but it doesn’t show in the end.
If they didn’t get along off-screen, MacLaine and Eastwood must have been saving their chemistry for filming. Eastwood’s Hogan is a spin on his familiar anti-hero gunfighter. He’s chomping cigars, gunning down bandits and just for good measure, he’s an explosives specialist (favoring dynamite). Thrust into a protector role, Eastwood is a quite scene-stealer to MacLaine’s religious antics. Her Sister Sara often repeats “God will provide…” all the while ignoring the constant dangers that could arise on the trail. They form a heck of a duo in the process.
No other huge supporting parts here to round out the cast. Manolo Fabregas is the most visible as Beltran, the leader of the Mexican revolutionary forces who are working with Hogan to take out a heavily-guarded French garrison. Western fans will recognize a couple faces here and there, but the focus is on MacLaine and Eastwood and their revolutionary adventures.
A lot to like here, especially filming on-location in Mexico. You feel like you’re there in 1860s Mexico on the dusty trails, the adobe-lined streets, the rock-capped mountains, and the ancient ruins. Throw in a memorable score from spaghetti western score extraordinaire Ennio Morricone – listen HERE – and you’ve got some excellent building blocks. It all fits together nicely. I defy you not to whistle the main Sister Sara theme for days after watching this western. Not much in the way of action here, but there are some pretty cool set pieces sprinkled throughout the film. Hogan taking out Sara’s attackers, a subtle but well-done chase with Sara, Hogan and French cavalry, and a later sabotage mission on a train trestle are all nicely handled. The final attack on the French garrison is nicely done and features some surprisingly gory action. And that twist in the last 25 minutes…it’s a gem but no spoilers here.
It was an interesting time in Mexican history as French invaders took over the country and the government. It’s provided some ripe pickings for westerns, including Vera Cruz, Major Dundee, The Undefeated and some others I’m no doubt forgetting. As for ‘Sister Sara,’ it’s well worth a watch.
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970): ***/****