Monday Morricone Madness!!! | DaysAreNumbers
Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel, 1970)
Anyone fancy playing a quick game of Going for Gold (semi-legendary UK quiz show in which contestants had to guess the identity of someone or something from a brief spoken description) as a “fun” way to introduce this week’s Morricone scored motion picture?
Thought not, but we will anyway. I’ll be Henry Kelly…
“What am I? I am a western…”
What’s that you said? High Noon? Sorry, that’s wrong.
“What am I? I am a western, starring Clint Eastwood…”
Unforgiven? Wrong again, I’m afraid.
“What am I? I am a western, starring Clint Eastwood, with music by Ennio Morricone…”
A Fistful of Dollars? No. For a Few Dollars More? No. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? Thrice no!
I am, in fact, Two Mules for Sister Sara; easily the least renowned Clint Eastwood western that features music by Ennio Morricone of them all! I may not even be close to being half as good a film as anything in the Dollars trilogy, but at least my soundtrack can sit comfortably with the very best music featured in those earlier films.
If ever an actor and composer were interminably linked in the minds of the general public, either consciously or otherwise, then that actor is Clint Eastwood and that composer is Ennio Morricone. Indeed, if ever film and music generally were so interminably linked in the minds of the general public, it would have to be Morricone’s unique, memorable and truly phenomenal contribution to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with only the scores for Psycho and Jaws coming close in the fame stakes. Depending on how you choose to look at it then, it is either somewhat surprising that Eastwood and Morricone’s paths did not cross more frequently thereafter, or not surprising at all. Surprising because, arguably, Morricone’s music was equally as responsible for making Eastwood the icon he undeniably is as Sergio Leone’s writing and direction, and not surprising at all as the notoriously headstrong Clint would not want to become too closely associated with anything that might hinder his escape from the spaghetti western badlands to mainstream Hollywood acceptance.
I’m not 100% sure exactly how Ennio Morricone came to work on Two Mules for Sister Sara, but the director here is not his frequent partner Sergio Leone, rather it is Don Siegel. Following The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Eastwood would never work with Leone again (although he would continue to acknowledge his influence, dedicating 1992’s Unforgiven to the Italian, as well as to Siegel). Striving to establish himself as a big name, the one-time Man With No Name would collaborate with Hollywood veteran Siegel (then most famous for 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) on a run of five remarkably successful films in 11 years. Coogan’s Bluff was their first joint effort, in 1968, and Two Mules for Sister Sara was their second. And although gunslinging icon Eastwood would continue to direct and act in westerns throughout his career, this would be the only one he would make with Siegel.
Two Mules for Sister Sara sees Eastwood playing Hogan (a man with a name, although perhaps he would have been better off without one), a typically grizzled drifter, drifting through post-imperial Mexico, who saves a damsel in distress from the lecherous claws of three dirty gringos. Amazed to witness that after he has rescued her she turns out to be a nun, the Sister Sara of the title, the carefree and stubbornly atheist Hogan resolves to get rid of her ASAP. However, the Sister soon reveals there is more to her than meets the eye, and she is a wanted woman due to her involvement in helping the Mexicans fight the occupying French army. Hogan agrees to help her after he is promised a chunk of gallic loot, and the two embark on a journey to a far away French garrison town, bickering predictably along the way.
And that’s basically your lot, barring a big, surprisingly bloody, battle at the end, and a twist that you’ll probably see coming in the first 20 minutes. Although the revolutionary element almost links it to the Zapata western movement popular in the continent at the time (see Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite), the production is too American, Siegel himself too conservative, and the story too careful for the film to be any kind of leftist clarion call (with the Mexicans conveniently fighting the French, as opposed to the Americans; historically their deadliest enemy by far). It also lacks the surreal, lawless brutality and wild invention of Leone and the best of the spaghetti westerns. Rather it’s a routine, if still fun, traditional star vehicle, that with a few tweaks could have been any time from roughly 1930 onwards with, say, John Wayne and anyone from Marguerite Churchill to Angie Dickinson playing the leads.
Which takes us neatly on to the issue of casting… Clint Eastwood plays exactly the same character in this film that he plays in all of his films; Clint Eastwood. This is brilliant if you love Clint Eastwood (which I do), and not so great if you don’t (loads of people I know don’t). More problematic is Shirley MacLaine as Sister Sara. A bona fide star, oozing charisma and possessing ample comic timing, MacLaine is nevertheless too gosh darn cute ‘n’ kooky to put in a credible turn in a western, and on a few occassions this piece of awkward miscasting threatens to blow the already paper-thin premise wide open. Tough and sultry Elizabeth Taylor was originally attached to the film until a dispute over her fee erupted, and she would have proved a much better foil for Eastwood. Likewise spunky Jane Fonda, then a fast-rising star, and elegant Jeanne Moreau, who had already made a handful of Hollywood films by 1970.
Ultimately, Two Mules for Sister Sara is yer typical Don Siegel film; expertly made and entertaining enough to be worth watching once, but not really anything extraordinary (with the exception of the aforementioned Body Snatchers and Charley Varrick). The following year the Eastwood/Siegel partnership would make both the creepy and bizarre The Beguiled, and their definitive collaboration, the legendary reactionary cop romp, Dirty Harry. It would be a further 23 years before Eastwood would again appear in a film with an Ennio Morricone soundrack, when director Wolfgang Petersen and his star selected Il Maestro to write the score for the political action thriller, In the Line of Fire.
Incidentally, Two Mules for Sister Sara may be the least known western starring Clint Eastwood with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, but it is far from being the most obscure film starring Clint Eastwood with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. That prize easily goes to Le Streghe, one of those anthologies of short films by renowned Euro auteurs that were briefly fashionable in the early 60s (1963’s Ro.Go.Pa.G being the most famous example), in which the still Italy-based Eastwood is directed by none other than Bicycle Thieves legend Vittorio De Sica!
But yeah, the best thing about Two Mules for Sister Sara is its soundtrack… I must have told you about the time I rode a mule through the Nevada desert, Aneet. Bet you can’t guess which piece of Morricone music was playing in my head as I rode along?
Was it ‘The Good The Bad and The Ugly’? Or was it this underrated gem from the Maestro? What was that? It was ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’? Oh well… Never mind….
‘Two Mules For Sister Sara’ normally divides Morricone fans – you either think it’s annoying or you’ll think it’s intriguing and light-hearted. I (and certainly Alan) fall into the latter category. The soundtrack is overlooked for a variety of reasons. Mainly it suffers unfair comparisons with the Maestro’s sublime 1978 score to ‘Days of Heaven’. Fans normally lump the two together because a) they are both two distinctive Leone-less westerns – but with Morricone included and b) they both shared a double headed audio CD re-release in 1995. I know that sounds absurd but such was the cult of the Maestro’s score to Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, some fans dismissed Two Mules as fodder as some (I said some!) ‘2-4-1′ Morricone releases normally are. The other reason (which Alan touched upon) is the film isn’t that great. If the film is so-so, the soundtrack rarely gets remembered but sometimes it does (I mean, Alan and I remember this) but I digress.
Musically, Morricone doesn’t put a foot wrong. It has your usual Spaghetti Western guitar twangs, vast and lush orchestration all done with your typical Morricone flourish. Maclaine’s scenes sparkle and are memorable with the musical underscore the Maestro provides but it’s the action scenes that really stay in your mind (the final lengthy battle scene a case in point.) and that’s not even mentioning the incredible title music.
What I admire most about the title theme is that it represents the story in the most subtle and remarkable way. Hang on! Let me explain. You can split the track into two parts – the first part is mysterious, beautiful, and sparse and it also represents the isolation and vastness of the desert and the second part is galloping, dangerous, mischievous even and expresses moments of genuine surprise and excitement. If you know the film, you can apply my not-so crackpot theory with devastating effect (LOL!). The two parts represent ‘Sister Sara’ if you get my drift.
Anyway, here is the aforementioned title theme. As with the film the soundtrack is not that essential to be a prominent feature in your Morricone collection but the dazzling title theme is