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November 03, 2020

Two Mules for Sister Sara

two mules.jpg

Don Siegel - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

It is probably common knowledge by cinephiles that Two Mules for Sister Sara originated as a screenplay by filmmaker Budd Boetticher. Written in the mid-1960s, Boetticher sold the screenplay in order to continue working on his passion project, the documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza. The screenplay was bought by producer Martin Rackin. According to Boetticher, he had made a disparaging remark about some jokes Rackin had written when both were working at Universal in the early 1950s. Although Boetticher wrote the screenplay with the intention of directing the film, he knew that Rackin would not hire him.

Boetticher had intended to make the film with Robert Mitchum and either Jeanne Moreau, Sylvia Pinal or Deborah Kerr in the title role. The film that was made, with a total re-writing of the screenplay by the formerly blacklisted Albert Maltz can be seen in retrospect as a kind of transitional film bridging the gap between the more traditional kind of film made by Boetticher with the changes to the western brought about by the advent of the Italian films and revisionist westerns, and the onscreen persona of Clint Eastwood. Even Burt Kennedy, who wrote most of the screenplays for the Randolph Scott westerns that Boetticher is most famous for, responded to the challenge first with his adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Welcome to Hard Times (1967). It is most likely that had Boetticher made the film he imagined, it would have been likely regarded as remote from the tastes of the audience at that time.

The influence of Sergio Leone is most obvious in Clint Eastwood's appearance - the unshaven face, the cheroot between his clenched teeth, and a rust colored vest that vaguely resembles the poncho. Add to that the score by Ennio Morricone that features a piccolo and jew's harp. Eastwood's character has a name, or at least a surname, of Hogan. A scene with the blowing up of a bridge with a moving train and an elaborate batter sequence further the connection, primarily with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The shots during the title sequence show Hogan in the distance riding with an accompanying pack horse at sunrise. This series of shots begin with an animal with the camera moving across the area within the shot to reveal something more about the environment before stopping to show Hogan's progress as he travels. The animals include a mountain lion, a snake and a rabbit. Although not as emphasized as the film progresses, as indicated by the title, part of the film is about the relationship of Hogan with the nun Sister Sara, and animals. The film takes place in Mexico during the time of the attempted French conquest, concurrent to the American Civil War. After Hogan saves Sara from a gang of would be rapists in the desert, he argues against burying the men, saying the would act as food for the vultures. The rattle of a snake is used as a decoy to mislead a group of French soldiers who are seeing Sara for her support of the Juaristas. Sara travels first on a mule, and later on a burro. The second mule in the title could well be Hogan, whom Sara addresses at one point as "Mr. Mule".

While Clint Eastwood plays a variation of the kind of character he established primarily with the Sergio Leone films, Shirley MacLaine, in the title role is the one who evolves during the course of the film. First seen almost naked when threatened by the trio of would-be rapists, her character reveals more of her self over time. First is the discovery that she and Hogan have a mutual agenda regarding aiding the Juaristas, followed by the increasing revelations that this is one very unorthodox nun. There is a narrative symmetry with having Sara again without any clothes near the end of the film when her true self is revealed.

The blu-ray comes with both the complete 113 minute "international" version and the 104 minute cut that played theatrically in the U.S. Alex Cox's commentary track is most interesting in discussing the Mexican locations for Sister Sara as well as briefly reviewing several other westerns filmed in Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Cox also covers the career of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Eastwood liked Figueroa's work enough to have him hired as cinematographer for another Eastwood film released just weeks later in June 1970, Kelly's Heroes. There is also an eight minute short, an interview, "At Home with Clint Eastwood".

Two Mules for Sister Sara was meant to be seen theatrically, but home viewers should see this film on as big a screen as possible. Siegel employs several long shot where characters are barely perceptible in the distance. There is the recurring visual motif emphasizing spatial dynamics, of people almost overwhelmed by their environment.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 3, 2020 06:46 AM