Two Mules for Sister Sara [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #48]

Mid-last year, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #48. 

Spoilers ahead.  

Two Mules for Sister Sara

Directed by Don Siegel

Release Date:  August 13, 1970 (in Mexico–it actually opened in Dallas and Denver a few months earlier, a couple of weeks before I was born)
My age then:  Two months old!

What it is about:  Hogan is a former Civil War soldier in Mexico who has hired himself to Mexican revolutionaries to help them defeat a French garrison. He meets and rescues Sister Sara, a nun sympathetic to the Mexican cause, who has information useful to him. Together, they evade French soldiers and survive many perils, during which Hogan begins to fall in love with Sara. They eventually connecting with Hogan’s contact, Colonel Beltrán, and concoct a strategy to mount an attack against the garrison Only then does Hogan learn Sara’s secret: she is not a nun at all, but a prostitute who pretended to be a nun to gain Hogan’s sympathies.

Starring Shirley MacLaine as Sara and Clint Eastwood as Hogan. Also starring Manolo Fábregas as Colonel Beltrán and Alberto Morin as the French general, LeClaire.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I really didn’t know anything about it, aside from the stars, the genre and the director (and him only because of recently watching Escape from Alcatraz). A friend had told me it was funny.

Reality: I’m not much of a aficionado of Westerns, having only seen a handful of examples over the years. And I haven’t watched as much early Clint Eastwood films as one might imagine (though I have seen For a Few Dollars More), so Two Mules for Sister Sara was kind of uncharted territory for me. But the movie’s opening, with some really cool shots of Eastwood’s Hogan character riding his horse through the desert, while being observed by various wild animals, all set to an unexpectedly jaunty title track by the great Ennio Morricone, had me right out of the gate (especially an amazing image of a mountain lion).

The story kicks off when Hogan happens upon three cowboys who are obviously about to rape a naked woman (though still mostly covered up for the viewing audience). He saves her because even for someone with his icy-cool demeanor, this is a bridge too far. Hogan proves himself to be equally adept with a stick of dynamite as he is with a gun, and is not above shooting someone in the back if he deserves it. The woman, he is astounded to discover, is a nun, but one with a lot of unexpected qualities…she’s decidedly political, she’s not above sneaking a smoke when nobody’s looking, and she’s quick to guzzle some whisky when she’s stressed–but she doesn’t get drunk, she claims, because her faith in God will turn it into water.

The film then takes these characters through a string of gripping dramatic set pieces interspersed with quieter personal moments. Highlights include Sara having to get an arrow out of Hogan’s shoulder, and the two then having to overcome their weaknesses to blow up a train. Hogan and Sara are radically different people, and Don Siegel’s direction and Albert Maltz’s screenplay (based loosely on a story by Budd Boetticher) makes great use of the contrast between their personalities. Some other players come along now and again, but for the most part it’s down to the chemistry of Shirley MacLaine and Clint Eastwood–the two are amazing together and make every sequence really enjoyable to watch.

Plus there is a typically awesome score by Ennio Morricone, including some legitimately nightmarish sounding musical drones during some of the more tense sequences.

The only disappointing aspect of the film for me is how the twist about Sara’s true identity is handled–basically, she’s more interesting as a nun than she is as a prostitute. It’s obvious all along of course that there is something odd about her, but still there are too many “nun-like” moments to fully accept that there is nothing like that in her background (why else would she insist on giving her attackers a “Christian burial” or sprinkling water on their graves?) This might have been okay if the movie had just taken a bit more time to redefine Sara after the truth was revealed. That would have allowed us to reconnect with her and to engage with the character as someone other than just a woman that Hogan could now pursue sexually.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Mostly, I loved Two Mules for Sister Sara. It’s a bit unfortunate that the weakest part was in the last act, because it definitely impacted my overall impressions of the film, but still there enough in it that I really liked to let me recommend it.

Also, I think this is my favorite title of all the films that I’ve watched in this series, with the implication that Sara’s second mule is really Hogan himself.

See here for the Master List.

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