Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? Had never heard of it. I expected a “Clint Eastwood western,” whatever that means.
What did I get? Two Mules for Sister Sara supplanted The Cheyenne Social Club as the nation’s #1 movie, which is really odd because the two movies are superficially similar — both movies are westerns that include a whorehouse as a significant plot element — but to very different effect.
Two Mules for Sister Sara is the better of the two movies, although it took me a while to realize it. In principle, I “like” Jimmy Stewart more than I “like” Clint Eastwood, and I would probably be quicker to like an old-fashioned 1950s-style color studio western than a dark, gritty one from the 1970s, all else being equal. Those are my honest biases — not necessarily very fashionable ones. But Two Mules for Sister Sara is better, and a lot of the difference can be expressed in the statement that in 1970, Jimmy Stewart represented the “old” and Clint Eastwood represented the “new.” In a very real sense, Cheyenne is a pre-“spaghetti western” movie, and Two Mules is a post-“spaghetti western” movie. It’s interesting how much of a difference that kind of thing makes.
Two Mules for Sister Sara has several significant advantages. First, whereas The Cheyenne Social Club was mostly shot on stage sets, and feels like it, Two Mules was shot on location in Mexico, and feels like it. Siegel made sure to situate the characters visually in the craggy Mexican landscape, which makes the movie feel far more authentic. Second, whereas Cheyenne maintains a light, comedic tone but uneasily abandons that for some of the tense sequences late in the movie, Two Mules more successfully blends light and serious at the same time — that is, it focuses on the two protagonists’ quest of aiding the Juarista rebels against their French occupiers but has no difficulty mixing in the flirtations between Eastwood and MacLaine as a kind of spice that pervades the whole. It is more able to walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak. Two Mules is generally grittier and more realistic and instinctively takes the position of the underdog irridentist movement, none of which can be said of Cheyenne.
And even there, it’s not like Two Mules is some deathly serious movie, it just has a better command of the stakes and how to make the viewer feel involved. It’s still a Hollywood entertainment, but the contributions of Siegel and Eastwood ensured a rougher, more independent vision. Cheyenne is a pleasant movie, and probably more to my taste on paper, but the many small advantages of Two Mules combine to make it a significantly superior movie.
What here smacks of 1970? The rougher style and the anticolonial politics.
IMDB score: 6.9
My score: 7
Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Albert Maltz
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Clint Eastwood, Manolo Fábregas, Alberto Morin
IMDB synopsis: Set in Mexico, a nun called Sara is rescued from three cowboys by Hogan, who is on his way to do some reconnaissance, for a future mission to capture a French fort. The French are chasing Sara, but not for the reasons she tells Hogan, so he decides to help her in return for information about the fort defences. Inevitably the two become good friends but Sara has a secret.