– Summary –
Director : Don Siegel
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Febregas, Alberto Morin, Armando Silvestre, John Kelly, Enrique Lucero, David Estuardo, Ada Carrasco.
Length : 116 Minutes
Synopsis: A mysterious gunslinger and a nun team up to rob a French garrison in Mexico of it’s loot. Hilarity ensues as the two characters have differences of opinion over how things should be done.
Review : Sharply directed, well acted, humorous and violent, Sister Sarah gets her two mules worth and more.
Wonderfully filmed, brilliantly acted, comedy/drama/western starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, Two Mules For Sister Sara is one of the best “buddy comedies” I’ve seen in a very long time. Only just discovering this film on DVD recently, I was surprised at just how good a chemistry Eastwood and MacLaine have on screen, and I’m surprised they didn’t pair up more often. Two Mules tells of a drifter/mercenary (Eastwood) who saves a beautiful woman (MacLaine) from being raped by a gang of thugs, only to discover she’s actually a nun, on the run from French forces trying to occupy Mexico. Together, they journey to a distant town to help some Mexican revolutionaries steal the treasure from a garrison of French troops.
It’s hard to stick a specific genre onto this film, but it’s either comedy/adventure or an action/comedy. Most of the humour is derived from MacLains nun coming to terms with the bawdy, rude boor that Eastwood portrays, in this instance, one Mr Hogan. MacLaine, as Sara, both flirts and flaunts herself around Hogan, often portraying characteristics that are certainly most un-nun-like. This, as the film progresses, is given more credence when the film’s final act kicks in, and we discover there’s more to Sister Sara than just a nun’s habit and cross. Eastwood is also adept at a laconic comedy styling, much of his best work coming as he tries to cop a perve at MacLaine, and wonders about her cigar smoking, hard drinking ways throughout their journey.
Don Siegel, who would go on to direct Eastwood in the hard boiled cop film Dirty Harry a year later, has created a violent, explosive world in which to portray these events: the French are brutal, authoritarian scum, the Mexicans poor, downtrodden and fearful of anything new, and with Eastwood and MacLaine caught up in the middle, you get the sense that anything can happen. Mexico is not a friendly place in this film. The plan, to steal plundered funds from the French garrison, is the driving force to keep Hogan and Sara together on their journey, with Eastwood offering one of his more effusive portrayals of his patented hard-bitten Western gunslinger.
MacLaine, meanwhile, appears to be having a great old time stealing Eastwoods limelight as the prudish-but-flirty nun. According to internet information, Elizabeth Taylor was originally up for the part of Sara, but opted out of the picture, leaving the way clear for second choice MacLaine. Honestly, without trying to impugn Taylor’s acting ability, I think MacLaine was a superior choice, her ability to read comic timing and generate audience emotion (both laughter and serious drama) is second-to-none, and she brings a feminine steeliness to the role that I think Taylor would probably have lacked. As Sara, there’s a sort of sexy frugality to her: after all, it’s hard to be sexy when you’re covered head-to-toe in a black nuns habit, but MacLaine pulls it off quite well, with only her face visible to the audience the majority of the time.
Eastwood, however, remains as elusively laconic as ever, his snarly, grimacing hard-boiled gunslinger character pretty much a carbon copy of his previous Western outings: where he finds form though, is with his on-screen chemistry with his leading lady. MacLaine and Eastwood have been around long enough to recognise the fact that they work well off each other, and a delightfully sharp script (from Albert Maltz) allows us to really enjoy their banter as they stumble across the Mexican landscape together, he on horseback and she, as you’d imagine from the title, on the back of a donkey. Eastwood has a surprising amount of comic timing, his ability to generate a laugh or two from both the dialogue and the situation he finds himself in is refreshing and surprising to say the least.
The problem with Two Mules, however, is the film’s somewhat lop-sided tone, especially with the violence shown throughout: in particular, the brutal execution of a peasant (for crimes we are unaware of) by the French, and an attack on the garrison outpost that’s disturbingly different in style to the more comedic, light-hearted moments that preceded it. It’s this darker, edgier style that detracts from the rest of the film, and creates a deadening sense of hollow-won audience favour that’s quickly lost in a hail of bullets and Molotov cocktails. I understand the need to show the violence that the story would suggest, however Siegel handles it like a Dirty Harry dramatic action film, rather than a comedy-lite Western adventure film. It’s a sour ending for what is, essentially, a truly great film from both leading actors.
This low point, though doesn’t affect the overall impetus of the film itself, and I think it’s a testament to the ability of Siegel and Eastwood to develop a good script and turn it into a great little adventure film that stands up to modern scrutiny. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and would recommend it to anybody looking for an alternative Eastwood picture from his early days. Really entertaining.
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