Two Mules For Sister Sara
dir. Don Siegel
scr. Albert Maltz
Commissioned by Mark Cratsenburg
The term “movie star” has become fairly loaded in any conversation among hardcore film fans because it means different things to different people. Some people pin it to economics, calling Tom Cruise and Will Smith the last of the conventional movie stars. Even that doesn’t seem to be true anymore, though, based on the way something like The Mummy or Collateral Beauty can go belly-up even with the movie star front and center. I think opening a movie and representing a certain amount of average box-office around the world is certainly a metric for measuring stardom, but it’s not the one that really matters.
A movie star is someone you want to watch, no matter what. It’s that simple. You watch them because they are compelling, because the camera can’t get enough of them, and because they make things more interesting simply by showing up. Movie stardom is impossible to quantify, because not everyone reacts to the same stars the same way. When I was young, there was a definite canon that my parents believed in, and I was raised watching their movie stars. When I started making my own choices about movies, there were movie stars I felt more possessive of. Harrison Ford, for example, belonged to my generation. He was Han Solo. He was Indiana Jones. He belonged to us.
But for my father, Clint Eastwood was the movie star he could claim as his. His generation owned Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee and Lee Marvin and absogoddamnlutely Clint Eastwood. Clint’s stardom wasn’t automatic, either. Some actors walk onscreen and they immediately pop and they’re the center of attention and you get it. Eastwood started working in the mid-‘50s, playing background military characters in monster movies. The first time he actually got a credit was for a Francis The Talking Mule movie. He moved back and forth from movies to TV for the rest of the decade, finally landing his breakthrough role as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide in 1959.
Here’s what I love about writing about film… following threads and thinking about context and when things happened and how they played out. Eastwood’s career fascinates me because in many ways, he’s the guy who marks the moment where the Western went through one of its most fascinating eras. That genre is one of the most durable in Hollywood’s history. There are, at last count, exactly 18 billion Westerns. That’s a lot. I’m pretty sure my dad showed me most of them over the course of my childhood, and over time, you realize that the genre is an illusion. You can tell any kind of story in the American West because it is a mythic time and place. We pretend that recent history is set in stone in a way the distant past is not, but that just isn’t true. Our relationship with the American West is important because the West defines us as America. We settled here from other places, sure, but then we expanded, and that expansion was written in blood, thousands of stories of individual morality played out on a canvass that we wrote over an indigenous people. We had to make it a myth because if we didn’t, the cultural memory would be too much to take.
Westerns were simple when they began, with basic good guys and bad guys drawn in terms that are, to say the least, uncomfortable now. Indians are savages, vicious and mysterious. Cowboys are heroes, unless they’re dressed in black. Gradually, over time, some of the storytelling evolved, but the archetypes didn’t evolve. When Rawhide started airing, it was pretty conventional stuff about a cattle drive. As they pushed along the trail, they encountered different people and situations, and they’d often have to help someone solve a problem before they could move on. Little wonder it ran for seven years; it’s a pretty easy premise. Rowdy Yates was kind of a hothead when the show began, but gradually he became a better-balanced character even as the show grew more daring in terms of subject matter. The Western would go in and out of favor, with the death knell having been rung on the genre at various times, but Rawhide happened during one of the most interesting evolutions of the genre, and it definitely reflected that in the way it evolved as a show. For filmmakers watching it, Eastwood’s work must have been exciting to watch as it evolved, and Rowdy ended the series as the actual trail boss. He grew up, basically, giving the show a stronger arc than it originally seemed like it would have.
There was a much harder line in those days between TV and movie stars, though, and Clint Eastwood’s sterling work on Rawhide wasn’t exactly winning him starring roles in big Hollywood movies. His last bigscreen role before the show was the forgettable Lafayette Escadrille, a Tab Hunter movie about WWI flying aces. He had to leave America to get a starring role in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, and thank god for that. Sergio Leone’s innate sense of iconography led him to recognize that Eastwood was basically a walking talking piece of beef jerky, pure sundried cowboy essence. They refined that image together in For A Few Dollars More, and I love how Leone just embraced the idea that this didn’t have to be the same character for them to just keep playing variations on a type. The Man With No Name is great precisely because it doesn’t matter. Leone’s painting in lightning. And the year after the show goes off the air, Leone and Eastwood cap off their trilogy with one of the greatest Westerns ever made, The Good The Bad & The Ugly.
When Eastwood did return to Hollywood, they were desperate to welcome him back, but it’s not like they were particularly interested in innovation. Hang ‘Em High, directed by Ted Post, is solid and grimy and works well on its own terms, but it gains enormous power from the groundwork laid by Leone. Eastwood’s absolutely playing The Man With No Name here, presumably for a larger paycheck than he’d ever made before. And then all of that, the entire cumulative weight of what he’d done up to that point, made Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff way more interesting than it would have been otherwise. He’s a cowboy cop going to the big city, and because it was Eastwood, fresh off that iconic run, there was no doubt about his cowboy credibility.
As much as Leone, I think Siegel is responsible for the longevity of Eastwood as a movie star, because Siegel was the one who picked it up and ran with it. He saw that the real fun wasn’t just doing the same thing, but twisting it and bending it and breaking it. If Coogan’s Bluff is the beginning of his anti-Leone trilogy, and The Beguiled is the end of it, then right in the middle comes the most delightful of the films, Two Mules For Sister Sara, and as a study in pure movie star chemistry, this one’s double-barreled, and better for it.
See, Siegel knew there was value in finding another way to turn Eastwood’s mysterious stranger icon inside out, but to do it, he had to run a riff on The African Queen, pitting him against a strong female lead who was his opposite in the most entertaining possible way. If you were making the film in 1970, then one of the absolute tops of any list you make for actresses who can play that role would have to be Shirley MacLaine, who was wrapping up one of the great hot streaks I’ve ever seen. From the moment she made her breakthrough in Artists and Models, she managed to build an iconic character that made her unique. She was sexy, but she was also hard as nails. She was feminine but she not only could hang with the boys, she could probably out-drink, out-joke, and out-fight most of them. She was hilarious, but she could be brutally honest at the drop of a hat. She was a broad, in the best sense of the word, and when she starred in Two Mules for Sister Sara, she was top-billed, not Eastwood.
She almost didn’t play the part, though. Elizabeth Taylor was the one who took the material to Eastwood, hoping to play the part. It was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, one of the best writers to work in the genre, full-stop, and one of the reasons it’s so fun is because it’s built around such a great female lead. Taylor would have been fine, I guess, but I have trouble imagining her collaborating with the Mexican revolution. There is something so much more grounded about MacLaine, and it really pays off here. She plays the role of a nun who is accosted by bandits on the road and almost raped, only to be saved by Hogan (Eastwood), a cowboy who just happens to ride up at the right moment. When he appears, he looks like he just rode off the set of one of Leone’s movies. It’s costuming so close that I’m surprised no one got upset about it. But that’s what makes it work. When that character runs into Sister Sara, he’s the one who is changed by the encounter. The Old West finally meets an Irresistible Force, and from the moment she thanks him for saving her, she is constantly working him to forward her own very secret agenda. He has no idea how in-over-his-head he is, but it’s amazing writing for both characters.
One of the reasons we are drawn to movie stars is because of their sheer animal charisma, and MacLaine is fascinating in that regard. Perhaps because she refined her onscreen persona at a time when sexual mores were already shifting, but she managed to play a more honest spectrum of sexuality than most actresses from generations before her, and she got to do it without having to constantly be punished for it onscreen. She seemed like she was just as in control of her persona as any of her male co-stars, and this was the end of the era when women were the leading box-office draws. She won Oscars. She headlined major hits. She seemed like she was cut from the cloth of the movie stars who could do everything, whether it was singing or dancing or digging deep, and a role like Sister Sara really asks an actor to play a lot of different things all at once. Sara has her secrets, and the film takes great pleasure in peeling them back, little by little, just like MacLaine takes obvious pleasure from playing them as they all get revealed.
The film’s title is a wry reference to the nature of the relationship between Hogan and Sara. She has one mule, and she often compares Hogan to it. He is indeed stubborn, but more than that, he is terrified that if he tells Sara he wants her or needs her, it is going to strip something from him, something essential. He is a walking metaphor, and she is the change that is coming whether he likes it or not. She not only represents a more civilized age that is coming like a wave, about to crash over the West where Hogan has learned how to thrive, but she also represents a more progressive age. She sees the French occupation of Mexico as an outrage, and she is doing everything she can to help end it. And, yes, I know that the film is set in Mexico, but the history of our relationship with Mexico is tied firmly into our mythmaking about the American West, and this film shows how closely those things are intermingled. By the time the film’s closing images play, she’s managed to completely and utterly subjugate him, and he does not mind a bit. He is up front with her throughout the film about how attracted he is to her, and he makes the point repeatedly. She knows he wants her, and she’s not above being the bait on the hook. When the big reveal in the film comes late, that Sara is a prostitute who only pretended to be a nun, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Her layer of polish starts to wipe away pretty quickly, and she’s very obviously not as pious as she pretends to be.
For me, though, the film’s greatest image comes at the very end, as we see the two of them, finally united as a couple, with her decked out in the height of fashion, him still dressed like the Man With No Name, now very obviously The Man With A Wife, riding off into what one can only assume will be a fairly randy sunset. Budd Boetticher may not have liked much of what Siegel made of his film, but it is a master class in what happens when you take two real movie stars and you line them up to see their charisma collide.