Directed by Don Siegel from a screenplay by Albert Maltz, it might seem odd that Two Mules For Sister Sara has a place in a Budd Boetticher dossier, given that he was not involved in production, nor seen on set. But Two Mules For Sister Sara began as a story written by Boetticher, sometime during 1968, but due to Boetticher’s attachment to (the barely released) Arruza at the time he was unavailable to assist. When interviewed by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Boetticher dismisses the film in no uncertain terms, confirming that the film Siegel made was not the same one he wrote.1 Production went ahead and, at some stage, was changed from Boetticher’s original vision of it as a “love story”2 into the tale of strange bedfellows crossing the Mexican desert with a bevy of equine support and several bottles of whisky. It’s not known how this film would have turned out had Boetticher been involved in the script or production, as romance is not something I associate with his Westerns, but it’s a key film in the trajectory of the Western film nonetheless.

The film opens in deep dawn, a reddish glow across the sky cloaking a lone tree in shadow, as the figure of a man, and his two horses, approaches. Hooves clipping the ground are the first sounds we here amidst Ennio Morricone’s erratic, irreverent score, and as the film cuts to a visual and aural close up of an owl perched in the tree. Another cut takes us to a mid-shot of the mysterious man and his two mules, and synchronous to the film’s title credit appearing on screen, the score changes to a hymn-like vocal music, as reverence to Sister Sara. After this brief ten-second interlude, the main score returns, and this moment encompasses a concise portrait of the film’s overarching track: it’s the first hint that the film’s devoutness is only a veil, that it’s mocking the pious. In this opening sequence, showing a man’s path across the desert, images of a fish, a rabbit, a cougar, a snake, and a fragmented human skeleton, claim their own territory, all seen in the foreground before the camera pans to focus on the man and his mules. Lastly, a large and hairy spider menaces before it is stomped on by a horse’s hoof, and now Hogan (Clint Eastwood) takes the film frame, his iconic hat against an expansive blue sky.

Budd Boetticher

As these opening shots form this montage, the film suggests that a man on his horse is as native to the terrain as any fauna of the Mexican desert. In his book, Sterritt features part of Boetticher’s original scenario for Two Mules, here imagining the first view of Hogan’s “sweat-stained hat” that covers his eyes but doesn’t hide the “sparkle of all-consuming awareness in those eyes that makes you feel certain that not even a lizard more’n half a mile away could skitter across the sand without his knowing which way it was headed.”3 This is how many of Boetticher’s Westerns begin, with a lone man – often Randolph Scott – riding, a speck in the distance, his hat visible long before his wry expression. And while Eastwood’s lone mercenary is a master of the topographical layout of Mexico, he is not a master of the wild animal, and certainly not a master of the wild woman, in the legend of cinema’s wild west. The film will follow through with this revisionism, as Hogan and Sara (Shirley MacLaine) team up to assist Mexican revolutionaries against a French garrison.

The resulting Two Mules For Sister Sara is a curious picture, in ways revisionist as a Western and yet tied to a dichotomous conceit of gender that, from a modern perspective, may be difficult to accept. How do you reconcile love for something that you know the original creator hated? That is perhaps easier than reconciling love for something that also indulges in harmful gender stereotypes within which you base much of your other criticism. Yet the film works quite well, in in good humour, to unpack this conceit. When Hogan first sees Sara, she has been stripped naked and is being attacked by three gunmen; he shoots them and prepares to leave, but decides to travel with her when she appears dressed as a nun. It is only because she is a nun that he joins her, helping her run from a French cavalry, but continually expresses his annoyance. “Maybe a nun aught not be so good lookin’,” he says when they first travel together. For primitive Hogan, a woman is either a nun, or she is available to him.

Yet overall, Two Mules For Sister Sara is not an anachronistic picture. The film must be acknowledged, at least, for the fun it has with the history of the Western dichotomy of the woman: the virgin versus the whore. Only posing as a nun who is assisting a group of Mexican revolutionaries in fighting a French garrison, MacLaine’s reveal as a prostitute does not occur until one hour and twenty-eight minutes into the 104minute film, and it is presented as a comic reversal, one to get the audience cheering. She tears off her wimple and, ecstatic to have maneuvered her return home through the desert, declares their location as “the best whorehouse in town!” There are prior hints that she is no nun – her wry smile when Hogan says, “All the women I’ve ever met were natural born liars,” her whiskey drinking, and the character music, which shifts from the hymn to the upbeat score iconic to the cowboy. (And the hymn takes over the score the first time that Sara, still dressed as a nun, secretly smokes a cigar, and by juxtaposing these two elements this is a gentle vilification of the church.) This use of score music is powerfully connected to the film’s revisionist perspective, too, as it was “based on the same six-note scale used in the Dollars trilogy,” but Morricone was careful “not to re-use all of the musical devices that distinguish his scores for Leone from his other scores.”4 Thus it is a score distinct enough on its own, but no doubt key because it reimagines a theme that’s predominantly masculine and aligns it with the film’s female character, giving her the power of independence in the desert.

As though it wasn’t clear enough given the film’s premise, Two Mules is distinctly critical of adherence to a limiting religious faith, and the final explosive sequence frames a shot of Hogan smoking a cigar, satisfactorily, in the foreground as a sculpture of a cross at a memorial is destroyed. Shari Roberts classifies this as a road film with allusions to the Western genre, and writes, “Rather than setting these films in the iconic Western frontier, road films are characterized by an absence of civilization, law, and domesticity, marked instead by primitivism of post-apocalyptic space.”5 This climactic disturbance, as they have finally reached a village where they are wreaking havoc with a seriously large supply of dynamite sticks, certainly takes aim at the church. But more broadly, it signifies a breakdown of the cohesion of Hogan’s expectations – and thus undercuts the expectations of masculinity all up.

MacLaine’s energy as she reveals her true identity to Hogan is electric, irresistible. While Hogan wants to dwell on her newly revealed identity, she is determined and responsible enough to continue the fight. Therefore, the question of woman as ultimately deceitful, especially towards men, is given a complex twist here; she was deceitful, but only because Hogan forced her to be, and this is made very explicit in the narrative. She is, also, remarkably clever and is never chastised for being so. Sara also gets the last word, so to speak, in the scene where they finally consummate as a couple – Hogan refuses to remove his iconic hat, but as they kiss and the camera pans upwards to lead into a cinematic ellipsis, Sara removes it anyway. The following, and final, shot sees Sara travelling across the desert with Hogan, on her burro and dressed in glamorous red costume, her self fully realised and on full display. While the film anchors itself to the axis of the virgin-whore, it also vilifies it as a double standard.

Budd Boetticher

In Two Mules, Sara is not a redeemed woman, not a reformed, rescued prostitute like Dallas in Stagecoach (John Wayne, 1939). Neither is she a proper, respected woman, who must not complain after being raped by savage men lest she appear improper or ungracious to the hero, rescuing her, like Billie (Julie London) in Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958). She does not apologise for her path, nor does she allow Hogan’s criticism of her to impact on her pride in her abilities of survival. As Haskell writes, this was made during a time when, “Films about intelligent, nonmalignant, non-gun-toting people were still being made, and women were no longer obliged to be either very likable or unlikable with nothing in between.”6 Sara is not helpless, and most of the action occurs because of her assistance or her cunning in some way. MacLaine’s performance is key, too, for her ability to convey a sense of knowingness about the way of things; her face at times suggests that she expects to be underappreciated.

There is a masculine ideal inherent in the Western genre, and indeed across many genres and films, at least historically, but the fun of Two Mules is that it engages in a key shift. At the beginning, Hogan may seem like the man in charge, but Sara quickly begins to drive their relationship, and to drive their travel across the desert. With Sara as indeed an equal match to Hogan’s taming of his environment, some of MacLaine’s own persona seeps into the film. Indeed, she has top billing, and Siegel’s reports that he and Eastwood found her hard to work with because she had “too much balls” – Molly Haskell writes that she was constantly “wanting to push the envelope further than most of her directors were willing to go”7 – Erens surmises that “this strength is inscribed in the film text.”8 Eastwood has claimed that her casting “stretched the imagination a bit,” and he would have preferred Sophia Loren,9 but as Erens illustrates it really does fit in to her career path. While she is a prostitute, thus is a victim of society’s construction within the relentless curses of patriarchy and capitalism, MacLaine’s Sara is never a victim. Erens writes that “the pressure to mask and to assume artificial identities reflected the situation of women, a kind of schizophrenic split which resulted from the way women were treated in American society.”10 Hogan doesn’t fully appreciate her assistance throughout their journey, but Sara never gives in. She continues to take leadership and is eventually recognised for her part in the Mexican resistance.

Budd Boetticher

The part of Sara was originally to go to Elizabeth Taylor, with Taylor initially presenting the idea to Eastwood. But when she pulled out, due to then-husband Richard Burton’s work on another production taking them to Spain, MacLaine was cast and – while Taylor had her own image as an independent woman and had notably played a call girl in Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960) – MacLaine’s own image as a star certainly added to the picture. According to Sterritt, “When she proved unable to master the art of mule riding, Clint and Siegel had to rescue her by dreaming up a minor plot twist that would switch her to a burro for subsequent scenes, the title of the picture be damned.”11 (This is a curious comment, particularly given that so many westerns – and let’s be frank, films in general – follow tracks that don’t particularly align with that offered by their pithy titles.) It’s safe to say that this picture ended up bearing little resemblance to how it was initially planned.

Boetticher refers to Two Mules For Sister Sara, Siegel’s resulting product created from his vision of a love story, as an “abortion.”12 As far as damning a product that was taken from your creative control goes, that’s pretty absolute. But for its flaws, the film cannot be slighted completely. It may not be a love story, as there is no romantic expression between Sara and Hogan, but it does find a satisfying ending in Hogan’s reassessment of his personal priorities. Its balance of slowness and frisson, along with MacLaine’s energy (Eastwood is fine here but provides little that he does not in other roles), and Morricone’s score, makes this a special film that should have more recognition. Just not, perhaps, as a Budd Boetticher film.

 

Endnotes

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Budd Boetticher: The Last Interview,” Film Criticism 26:23 (Spring 2003): p. 71.
  2. ibid.
  3. David Sterritt, The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p. 82.
  4. Charles Leinberger, “The Dollars Trilogy: ‘There are two kinds of western heroes, my friend!’” in Music in the Western: Notes From the Frontier, Kathryn Kalinak, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2012) p. 143.
  5. Shari Roberts, “Western Meets Eastwood: Genre and gender on the road” in The Road Movie Book, Ina Rae Hark and Steven Cohan, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 52.
  6. Molly Haskell, “Shirley MacLaine: Still Here,” Film Comment, 31:3 (May-June 1995): p. 25.
  7. Haskell, “Shirley MacLaine: Still Here,” p. 22.
  8. Patricia Erens, “Critical dialogue: In defense of stars,” Jump Cut: Review of Contemporary Media 21 (Nov 1979), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC21folder/ErensReplyMacLaine.html
  9. Stuart Kaminsky, “Eastwood on Eastwood” in Clint Eastwood Interviews: Revised and Updated, Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz, eds. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013), p. 11.
  10. Patricia Erens, “Critical dialogue: In defense of stars,” Jump Cut: Review of Contemporary Media 21 (Nov 1979), http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC21folder/ErensReplyMacLaine.html
  11. Sterritt, The Cinema of Clint Eastwood, p. 82.
  12. Dixon, “Budd Boetticher: The Last Interview,” p. 71.

About The Author

Eloise Ross is Program Manager and President of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. She has a PhD in cinema studies from La Trobe University specialising on sound and embodiment, and writes and teaches about film.