Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

two_mules_for_sister_sara_posterFollowing 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): ***/****

Advertisements

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Kelly's Heroes

Growing up, I always associated Memorial Day Weekend with the war movie marathons on TV that dotted TNT, AMC and Turner Classic Movies. I ate them up — still do — as I watched as many as I could. They’re still some of my favorite movies, everything from The Dirty Dozen to The Devil’s Brigade and one of my favorites, 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes.

It’s fall 1944 and Allied forces are fighting their way across France, the German army slowly being beaten back. At the forefront of the Allied advance, a recon platoon, including Sgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas), are worn down after months of fighting. One member of the platoon, Pvt. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), stumbles across an interesting tidbit of information while interrogating a German colonel. There is 14,000 bars of gold — worth $16 million — in a bank just waiting to be plucked. The catch? The bank is 30 miles behind German lines. Joe manages to convince both Big Joe and the platoon to navigate through the lines and get their hands on the gold. With a scrounger/supply sergeant, Crapgame (Don Rickles) and three Sherman tanks commanded by a hippie, Oddball (Donald Sutherland), along for the ride, Kelly and his motley crew of soldiers head out with a chance to net quite the payday.

What an appropriately timed World War II movie. By the late 1960s, the tone of war movies had changed from the big epics to the more cynical/comedic variety, movies like MASH and Catch 22 among others. Enter Kelly’s Heroes, directed by Brian G. Hutton (who also directed Where Eagles Dare), one of the most entertaining war movies I’ve ever seen. Cynical with a dark sense of humor but also some lighter moments — courtesy of Sutherland’s hippie tank commander — with some great action, memorable score, and one of those perfect tough guy casts. There’s a reason it remains a fan favorite 40-plus years later, and much of it because it blends all those things together so effortlessly. Even an odd-sounding theme, Burning Bridges, fits perfectly in an odd way. It is one of my favorite movies and always will be, a classic war flick that I can sit down and watch whenever it pops up on TV.

Can you ask for a better lead quartet than Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland? Yeah, there has been casts with bigger star power, bigger name recognition, but it’s more than that here. This is four tough guys having fun, on-screen chemistry that’s just hard to describe. They all get their chance in the spotlight. Eastwood is Eastwood, the impeccably cool and man of few words hero. Savalas is a subtle scene-stealer as Big Joe, the unofficial commander of the recon platoon (Hal Buckley playing the clueless real commander Capt. Maitland), just trying to get his men through the fighting unscathed and a somewhat unwilling participant in the gold heist. Rickles is an out of left field choice to join the cast, but it works, his Crapgame a smart-ass New Yorker always with an eye for a profit. And then there’s Sutherland as Oddball, the tank commander always talking about positive waves (No Negative Waves, man!), his Zen-like qualities, heading into battle with music blaring and shells filled with paint waiting to be unleashed on the Germans.

As a fan of guy’s guys movies, it’s simply hard to beat those four stars. They make it look downright easy. Much of that chemistry and success comes from the script written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, a script with too many great one-liners to even mention. We see familiar character archetypes, familiar war movie situations — stumbling into a minefield, prepping for battle — but there’s a different energy to the whole thing. It’s that tone that blends the drama, comedy and action so easily that makes it work. Carroll O’Connor too is excellent in a part that lets him ham it up as General Colt, the fiery division commander who’s frustrated with the stagnant front lines, getting a jolt of energy when Kelly’s screwball force unintentionally opens things up all along the front. There’s something to be said for a movie that is non-stop fun.

When the platoon looks back on a field where some of their fallen comrades lay dead in the dirt, there’s no words that need to be said. The looks on the surviving men’s faces says it all. Telling the men to keep moving, Big Joe turns and raises his binoculars to check one last time, that maybe, just maybe, his men are still alive. The dynamic is there from the lead quartet right down to the platoon, a group of recognizable character actors clearly having some fun. The platoon includes Little Joe (Stuart Margolin), Big Joe’s radioman, Cowboy (Jeff Morris) and Willard (Harry Dean Stanton), two drawling best buds, Gutowski (Dick Davalos), the sniper, Petuko (Perry Lopez), the smooth, goofy ladies man, Cpl. Job (Tom Troupe), Joe’s second-in-command close friend, Fisher (Dick Balduzzi), the platoon genius, and Babra not Barbara (Gene Collins). Also, you can’t forget Gavin MacLeod as Moriarty, Oddball’s mechanical genius and constant provider of negative waves.

Also look for Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, Len Lesser, as Bellamy, an engineer Oddball ropes into helping the cause and Karl-Otto Alberty as a German tank commander who goes up against Kelly’s forces and Oddball’s tank trio.

With a 146-minute running time, we’ve got plenty of chances for guys being guys and plenty of action scenes. We get lots of action — escaping a minefield, a tank attack on a railway station, the platoon racing through a German crossroad under mortar attack — but the best is saved for last as the platoon descends on Clermont, the town where the bank and the gold are waiting. It’s an extended sequence that runs about 35 minutes that doesn’t rush into it. We get almost 10 minutes of the men and the tanks sneaking into town while the German garrison slowly wakes up, composer Lalo Schifrin‘s score driving the action. The entire movie was filmed in Czechoslovakia, the action finale filmed in the village of Vizinada. It’s an extended sequence that is hard to beat.

Just a great movie overall. Great cast, incredibly quotable, lots of action, memorable soundtrack (especially Tiger Tank), and even a nod to Eastwood’s spaghetti western background with a three-way showdown with said tank. One of my all-time favorites and hopefully you’ll enjoy it just as much as I do.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970): ****/****

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

EPSON MFP imageAbout 8 years ago, I started reviewing movies. A Blockbuster was still open near my house — oh, how I miss them — and I remember browsing through the aisles at one point thinking ‘Man, there are so many movies out there I haven’t seen.’ And so it began! I remember clearly coming home with today’s flick, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. I loved it then and loved it now. A somewhat forgotten classic.

Posing as a preacher in an isolated Montana town, a former thief (Clint Eastwood) finds himself on the run. He’s picked up by an amiable young drifter, Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who is a few minutes off of stealing a stylish Trans Am. The duo sticks together, both just drifting along looking for a chance to earn some cash, easy cash if possible. The thief, dubbed Thunderbolt by the papers, slowly lets out his story of how he got to be in this spot. “Aiding” the cause? Two of his former gang members are on his trail, all of them looking for clues to a supposedly lost take from a previous job. How to solve it all? That’s Lightfoot’s idea. What if they pulled off the same job in the exact same fashion? There have been crazier ideas…

Talk about a movie where a plot synopsis is unnecessary. This is the one. From director/writer Michael Cimino, ‘Thunderbolt’ is one of the most entertaining movies ever. It can’t be pegged into any one genre. At different points, you can call it a buddy flick, a road trip movie, a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a heist flick, an Americana story, a modern western, and several more I could probably list. What makes it so special is that it doesn’t need a linear story. It can bounce among those genres at will and with ease. In terms of pure entertainment, I’m hard-pressed to come with many better.

An established star in Eastwood and a rising star in Bridges are immaculately perfect together. Their chemistry is impeccable. You don’t need a episodic, even linear story when you’ve got two characters like this who keep things moving and generally keep things fairly grounded. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt gets to play the straight man but still gets plenty of laughs. Bridges’ Lightfoot is the motor-mouthed, quick-witted and likable drifter, always ready with an observation, a thought, an opinion and a quick smile. The duo brings Cimino’s script to life. We learn about their background and history in snippets that are never overdone or forced. Like the on-screen chemistry itself, it all feels natural.

One of the best buddy dynamics ever really. You can’t help but like both men. Thunderbolt starts to look after Lightfoot like a little brother while Lightfoot idolizes Thunderbolt and his criminal exploits, not to mention his service during the Korean War. There is an easy-going charm to it all. It’s not Butch and Sundance — my all-timer for comparison of the buddy variety — but it’s really, reallllllly close.

This is a quintessential 1970’s movie too. In the vein of Charley Varrick, The Lineup and countless others, there’s a look and a feel to the story. I was born in 1985 so I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the painting of what 1970’s America is in Montana ends up being an additional character. Small towns, communities that keep to themselves, a picture of a decade that serves as a perfect snapshot. Cimino filmed on-location in Montana, and the visual look is stunningly gorgeous. You could freeze-frame individual shots, print them up and frame them. Was this an accurate vision of small-town America at the time? I don’t know. Maybe it’s what it should have been.

Two other always welcome character actors round out the thieving crew, starting with George Kennedy as Red Leary, a possibly unhinged killer who Thunderbolt always manages to keep under control. Kennedy shows off his range, brimming on psychotic episodes here and there, especially with a hatred for Lightfoot. Geoffrey Lewis plays Goody, the naive, not-so-smart but well-meaning thief who always tags along. An interesting quartet with a history, a backstory revealed slowly but surely as the 115-minute story develops. If it’s confusing early, stick with it. The payoff is worth it. Kennedy is the mystery man here — when will he lose it? — but he delivers some of the movie’s funniest, most memorable lines. His buzz-off to a snarky kid is an all-timer. No spoilers. Watch the movie.

That quartet is in just about every scene in some variety. There are also small, supporting parts for Catherine Bach, Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague in The Andy Griffith Show), Dub Taylor, Roy Jenson, Bill McKinney and Gregory Walcott.

The momentum picks up in the second half as the heist Part 2 comes into play. Still some lighter touches but it goes down a darker path. I’m all for a downer ending, but this has always been a tough one. The heist is pretty cool though, packing some serious punch and some intricate timing. This is a movie that has it all in one capacity or another. One of my favorites, and hopefully one of yours too.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): ****/****

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

where_eagles_dare_posterReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a fan favorite and was a key war movie in terms of its influence. It opened up all sorts of doors for one of my favorite sub-genres, the men-on-a-mission movie. Based off a novel by author Alistair MacLean, it was a gem. MacLean tweaked the idea when he was approached by a producer several years later for a similar but BIGGER and BETTER version. The result? From 1968, Where Eagles Dare.

It’s winter 1943-44 and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) has been summoned for an impossible mission. An agent with years of experience and countless missions under his belt, Smith and a small team of commandos, including an American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), will parachute into the snow-capped mountains of Bavaria on a rescue mission. An American general with detailed knowledge of the second front — D-Day — has been captured by German forces and sent to the Schloss Adler, a remote, well-guarded fortress on a mountaintop where he will be interrogated by German intelligence. The clock is ticking with the general’s knowledge potentially altering the course of the war. Smith, Not is all as it seems though as Smith and the team parachute into Germany. What exactly is going on?

The backstory here is fascinating. Burton’s stepson wanted him to do a good, old-fashioned, action-packed flick that audiences would love. Burton approached a producer, the producer approached MacLean who 6 weeks later came to him with the script (and later the novel) for Where Eagles Dare. It became a huge hit and is now considered a classic while still remaining a fan favorite. How can you not love a perfectly random story like that when a movie really hits it big?

Watching ‘Eagles’ and ‘Guns,’ you can’t help but notice the similarities. That’s a good thing though! The impossible mission, the crew of expertly trained specialists, the exotic location, the twists and turns, the betrayals, and as ‘Eagles’ seems to take it as a challenge, the obscene amount of ACTION. I have issues with the story — more later — but as pure entertainment, ‘Eagles’ is a gem, much like Guns of Navarone is/was. This 1968 war flick requires more viewer interaction (better pay attention, you’ll get lost qqquick once the twists start flying), but it’s worth it to keep up throughout the 154-minute run-time.

It’s just cool to watch Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play off each other. That’s all. It just is. Classically trained Burton and tough guy Eastwood have this underplayed charm to their relationship. Burton’s Smith knows what’s going on while Eastwood’s Schaffer is just trying to get through the mission alive. MacLean’s script provides so many great little moments between the duo with both actors not missing a chance to deliver a snappy one-liner. Also, the call sign ‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy,’ there’s nothing fancy about it, but Burton’s delivery makes it seem like a Shakespearean sonnet. Sounds almost musical when you hear Burton speak. Moral of the story, both actors are having a ball with the old-fashioned, spy shoot ’em up.

Not much star power here otherwise. Mary Ure is a welcome addition to the cast as Mary, a fellow agent working with Smith. No damsel in distress either. She’s a Badass with a capital B, a part of the team quite capable of using a machine gun to save herself. In small but parts, Michael Hordern and Patrick Wymark play high-ranking officers back at HQ waiting for updates. Donald Houston is the most visible of the rest of the team, but they’re there for the purpose of a twist or cannon fodder. Ingrid Pitt plays a barmaid with some secrets while familiar faces Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt play German officers.

What I’ve always found fascinating with ‘Eagles’ is the pacing. The first hour is set-up, all foreboding and mysterious. Clues are dropped here and there — pay attention, it’s worth it — as we’re introduced to the team and the mission. We see Smith and Schaffer put plans into work that won’t pay off — maybe at all — until days later. It seems unnecessary or wasted, but the payoffs are worth it. Now, the middle, the gigantic twist and turn that come at you a mile a minute. It’s a great scene running about 15 minutes where Burton just takes over, oozing charm and mystery in an almost monologue-like scene. Then, there’s the hour-long finale, a bullet-riddled chase and running gunfight where Eastwood dispatches half the German army without a single wound. Ridiculous? Yes, 100 percent, but it’s so damn fun.

A couple other things. Composer Ron Goodwin’s score is a gem, driving the action forward at all times with big, booming music. Listen to an extended part of the soundtrack HERE. Austrian filming locations don’t disappoint either, giving a true sense of authenticity to the impossible mission scenario in the snow-capped mountains. As for the story itself, the twist is awesome and the payoff is very memorable. But let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING, works out for Smith almost down to the second. As was the case before though, it’s ridiculous and if you think about it too much, you might just give yourself a headache. The point is….it’s damn entertaining and a hell of a lot of fun.

Just go for the twisting, turning ride with this WWII men-on-a-mission classic. Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton would team up again a little over a year later with another WWII gem, 1970’s Where Eagles Dare. Also a must-see!

Where Eagles Dare (1968): *** 1/2 /****