Saturday, 10 August 2013

Movie Review: Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970)


A western with good ideas but rather laborious execution, Two Mules For Sister Sara finds a vein of good energy in the partnership between Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. But with a slow and deliberate pace, the movie does at times struggle to maintain momentum.

In the Mexican wilderness, mercenary gunfighter and Civil War survivor Hogan (Clint Eastwood) rescues Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), a nun, from an attempted rape by three ruffians. Hogan is on his way to help Mexican revolutionaries attack a French fort in exchange for a large payment in gold. Sara claims that she is on the run from the French, wanted for aiding the Mexican rebels. Sara also informs Hogan than her church overlooks the fort, making it a perfect vantage point from which to plan and launch a surprise attack.

They join forces in their common cause, and together they avoid a French column, overcome an Indian attack, blow up a French supplies train, and make contact with rebel leader Colonel Beltrán (Manuel Fábregas). But launching a successful attack on the well-defended garrison will require a large amount of hard-to-find explosives, and Sara has another surprise to spring on Hogan.

A westernization of The African Queen (1951), Two Mules For Sister Sara is built on the well-tested premise of two contrasting characters brought together under difficult conditions to fight a common enemy. The Albert Maltz screenplay, based on a Budd Boetticher story, finds plenty of tension and humour in the interplay between Hogan's gruff soldier of fortune and Sara's pious morality, the two needing each other more than necessarily wanting to be with each other, at least not as long as Sara is a nun.

The two leads deliver attractive performances, Eastwood more expressive than usual as Hogan, without sacrificing his self-serving quick-draw persona. And Maltz allows Hogan to be true to his masculine ruggedness by having him openly lust after Sara, frequently lamenting that she is a nun. MacLaine is an excellent foil, creating in Sara a resourceful, clever and headstrong nun on a mission, strategically clutching her cross, revealing what she needs to and hiding a lot more.

Ennio Morricone contributes a classic score of eastern-tinged desert music featuring a ridiculously catchy mule hook, with nuns chanting in hushed tones as a bonus, while Don Siegel makes beautiful use of the Mexican locations to create impressive vistas, often playing with silhouettes to great effect.

Two Mules For Sister Sara does suffer from the absence of any other major characters apart from Hogan and Sara. This is essentially a two-person movie, and it moves slowly to occupy the almost two hours of running length. The few showcase moments of action are drawn out and milked for all they are worth, including an arrow-in-Hogan's-shoulder scene that takes forever to resolve itself, aided by plenty of alcohol, followed by a blow-the-bridge set-piece that seems to last just as long, with the alcohol now wearing off.

But when the climax finally arrives, Siegel and Eastwood team up to deliver a solid 25 minutes of coordinated mayhem, Beltrán's rebel army throwing everything at the French, who throw everything back, machine guns and dynamite dominating the battlefield while Hogan stealthily moves around the fort, doing the small things that make a big difference in the outcome of the battle.

Two Mules For Sister Sara may sometimes move at the languid pace of a stubborn mule, but when it's time to properly gallop, the film accelerates like a thoroughbred.






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