Director: Don Siegel
By Roderick Heath
Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.
Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.
He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.
Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.
Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.
When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.
It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.
Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.
Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.
Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.
The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.
There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.
Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.
When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.
Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.