Two Mules for Sister Sara is Don Siegel's western-themed riff on John Huston's The African Queen, pairing a gruff man with a pious woman and sending them on an adventure together. When the movie focuses on the prickly chemistry of its two leads, it's a lot of fun – but surprisingly, Siegel seems mostly disinterested in the film's big action scenes. If the explosive sections of the movie were as much fun as the quiet ones, the film might have been a blast. As it is, we're left with a reasonably entertaining (if unremarkable) rom-com adventure.
The tale begins when a cowboy named Hogan (Clint Eastwood, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) rescues a woman named Sara (Shirley MacLaine, Terms of Endearment) from being raped by bandits. Sara reveals that she is a nun, and expresses her gratefulness to Hogan for saving both her life and her virginity. Sister Sara also informs Hogan that she's been working with a group of Mexican revolutionaries attempting to combat French forces. Hogan has little interest in politics, but agrees to help Sara reach the Mexican camp she's traveling to after realizing that he may be able to exploit the situation for financial gain.
Despite the fact that Eastwood and MacLaine reportedly didn't get along terribly well during the shoot, they share an entertaining rapport that makes their dialogue scenes the film's strongest element. He's a horny rascal, she's a chaste nun, and each makes a valiant effort to influence the other's behavior. As is often the case in films like this, sinfulness quickly gets the upper hand, as Sister Sara grows increasingly comfortable with drinking whiskey and uttering swear words. Above all else, Two Mules for Sister Sara is about the pleasure of watching Eastwood raise an eyebrow in surprise as a nun chugs a bottle of hard liquor.
The movie eventually winds up in a fairly silly place, but I dig the fact that the characters are permitted to remain recognizably human for a good stretch of the running time. Siegel doesn't force corny slapstick into the mix very often or create contrived conflict, instead allowing the squabbles to develop in an organic fashion. Only during the film's final third (after the arrival of an entirely predictable plot twist) do things start getting really broad. The movie's closing scene is a mildly amusing gag, but the journey there is awfully long and strained.
Siegel is generally a top-notch action director, but he seems to be on autopilot during most of the film's big setpieces (the one exception: a terrific, suspenseful, funny scene involving an effort to derail a train). The violent third-act battle is just plain clumsy, and the movie does a poor job of explaining the details of the conflict between the Mexicans and the French. Every time the film's plot revs up, the movie slows down. Thankfully, there's always a generous portion of amusing character stuff just around the corner.
Eastwood gets second billing in the film, and that seems appropriate: MacLaine is the one driving most of the movie, while Eastwood is just the guy tagging along for the ride. Both stars are in fine form. MacLaine strikes an interesting balance between the understated timidity of her early roles and the brassy swagger of her later ones. Hogan is certainly one of the more talkative characters Eastwood has played, and it's fun to see the way his frequent complaining undercuts his stoic “Man with No Name” persona. Composer Ennio Morricone seems to be enjoying the change of pace, too, replacing the heroic anthems of his Sergio Leone scores with a hilarious (but effective) theme which memorably employs synthesized donkey sounds. It's a fun flick, but it uses up most of its good scenes in the first 75 minutes.
Two Mules for Sister Sara
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 1970