Eastwood report: Two Mules For Sister Sara

free stats

Whenever I watch an Elvis movie I wonder for a moment why the Elvis experiment has not been repeated. A series of movies, built around a pop-culture personality, where the performer is more or less playing the same character over and over again regardless of the situation (or even the period) and gets into wacky adventures. And the viewers’ enjoyment of the movies is based in part on their familiarity with the series, like on television, where we delight in watching Homer Simpson enter into a situation because we’ve seen him react so hilariously in similar situations. We laugh before he even acts.

Watching Two Mules For Sister Sara, it occurred to me that Clint Eastwood, a contemporary of Presley, not only took the "Elvis Movie" concept to heart but applied to it an intelligence and sensitivity that has created a corpus pretty much unparalleled in American cinema (except maybe for Chaplin, and Eastwood’s East-Coast nemesis Woody Allen) — for 45 years now, Eastwood has revisited this "Clint Eastwood" character he created, put him into this or that situation (revolutionary-era Mexico, post-Civil-War Montana, modern-day Detroit) and let the plot do its job, confident that the audience will want to check in with "Clint Eastwood" and see how he’s feeling these days. The difference between Elvis and Eastwood is that Elvis was a hapless pawn in the grip of cynical chicanery, and Eastwood is a born cinematic artist, which means that the "Elvis" character never developed, but Eastwood’s has: he’s grown, and grown older, he’s embraced and resisted change, he’s matured and mellowed, he’s become haunted and regretful. One can watch Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars to Gran Torino and come away with a kind of cinematic biography of a character.

(If Eastwood never made the connection between himself and Elvis, Elvis certainly did — what else could explain Elvis’s dire Eastwood homage Charro!? Or for that matter, why would Eastwood align himself with Elvis-western Flaming Star director Don Siegel for so much of his filmagraphy?) (Incidentally, I looked up the word "charro" and found that it’s a Mexican word for "cowboy." Yes, Elvis Presley, master of subtle allusion, made a western titled Cowboy!)

Anyway, so Two Mules For Sister Sara feels like "a very special episode of Clint Eastwood." "In this episode of Clint Eastwood, Clint teams up with a nun in order to free Mexico from the French, and hilarity ensues."

At least I think that was the plan: I’m not sure what kind of a movie Two Mules is. The combination of Eastwood-plus-nun sounds like it should yield solid comedy, but a lot of it is played straight, or even grave. "Sister Sara" is introduced as getting gang-raped by some Mexican bandits, never a promising beginning for a comedy (although the rules regarding rape in movies seem to be different in the late 60s-early 70s — it’s weird to me the number of "rape jokes" or just casual references to rape there are in movies of the time period). Once Eastwood (er, "Hogan," that is) is saddled with Sara, the mood lightens into high-kicking adventure, then blossoms into something like a road comedy, then morphs in Act III into a "men on a mission" thriller before climaxing in an explosively violent battle sequence.

Eastwood is generally great at combining comedy and violence, so it’s a little strange to see the weird tonal shifts of Two Mules: one moment Clint is playing drunk and cutting up with nun co-star Shirley Maclaine, and the next thing you know there’s a Mexican hacking at a French soldier’s face with a machete. It’s almost as though Eastwood thought "Well, I made the audience sit through this oddball romance, the least I can do is deliver hundreds of slaughtered Frenchmen in the final reel." Once the French are turned into mincemeat, gunned down, immolated and hacked to pieces, the movie suddenly turns into, I swear, a Blake Edwards comedy for the denoument.

As for "Hogan," the guise "Clint Eastwood" is assuming for this narrative (maybe that’s why the character is thought of as The Man With No Name, even though he has a name in all his movies — all of the names are mere aliases for "Clint Eastwood"), what does he want?

Hogan, like Sara, has allied himself with Mexican insurgents against the French who are occupying the region. Sara does what she does for ideological reasons, but Hogan is a pure mercenary — he aims to help the Mexicans destroy the French garrison, then loot the strongbox and head to San Francisco and open a casino. That is to say, unlike Joe Kidd, Hogan is happy being "Clint Eastwood" and sees no reason to change — not for Jesus, not for Mexico and not for the love of a beautiful woman. One watches Two Mules expecting Hogan to become radicalized, to finally stake his all for a cause, but he remains resolutely greedy, self-interested and apolitical. There’s a "surprise" in Act III where Sister Sara turns out to be not at nun but rather a prostitute in disguise, and Clint plays it for outrage, even though it seems pretty clear that Sara as nun-into-whore is nothing but wish-fulfillment for Hogan — once he knows she’s a prostitute, he knows that she can be bought. After storming the garrison, slaughtering the French and looting the strongbox, Hogan then storms Sara’s bedchamber (sadly, Sara sits out the big "storming the garrison" sequence) with his chest full of gold and takes her, apparently willingly, in her bath — with his clothes still on. The Mexicans have their freedom, Hogan has his loot, and now he’s got the woman he’s been itching for all through the movie. In a final twist, we see Hogan, presumably on his way to San Francisco, but now towing Sara along behind him, with her dressed in Parisian finery and with Hogan’s horses bowing under the weight of all of Sara’s fancy new purchases (which she has apparently bought with Hogan’s hard-won money). Hogan looks pissed off at this development and we’re apparently meant to laugh at him in this moment of ugly domestic comedy — ha! That Hogan fellow thought he finally had it all, but now look at him, saddled with a spendthrift whore! Where’s your vaunted independence now, Hogan? It’s an odd, bitter ending to a mostly-hopeful story about human possibilities, and a strangely spiteful moment from one of our most generous of movie stars.


8 Responses to “Eastwood report: Two Mules For Sister Sara”
  1. popebuck1 says:

    Shirley MacLaine’s part was reportedly originally supposed to be played by Elizabeth Taylor. Now there’s a movie I’d like to see!

  2. Because of episodic television?

  3. 55seddel says:

    I would love to see your take on the Red River John Wayne char, as this film is not a John Ford/Wayne, but a Howard Hawks one.

    It seems to do something similar in some thematic shifts, but not as drastically.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    That ending doesn’t seem bitter to me. It’s just fatality, with a heap of dark humor attached to it.

  5. chadu says:

    I am SO waiting for your analysis of PAINT YOUR WAGON.

    You have no idea.

  6. stormwyvern says:

    “There’s a “surprise” in Act III where Sister Sara turns out to be not at nun but rather a prostitute in disguise”

    So the opening scene is funny, because she was really a prostitute the whole time! Ha ha ha ha…this isn’t working at all.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Todd, you’ve been circling and circling around Unforgiven, and yet scared to sink your teeth into it…Or should we take it’s going to be placed at the end of a chronological Clint-esque?