I’ve come to the opinion that you can’t have a spaghetti western without a score by Ennio Morricone. Just can’t do it. I remember watching Hang ‘Em High right after seeing the Dollars Trilogy, and y’know, its music stood out too much—pure Hollywood bombast. Morricone’s music has its own epic bombast, but a unique vibe all of its own: twangy guitars, warbled animal howls, mournful choral interludes. Without Morricone’s score, it’s just another western. Of course, it helps if you have a hardboiled anti-hero, minimalism in design and dialogue, gritty noir tropes, and a strong kinetic energy that was otherwise lacking in the flagging western genre in the ’60s. And you hit the pure spaghetti western definition when it involved American actors filming overseas for Italian cinemas.
That’s my benchmark for a spaghetti western, and I’m sticking to it… because that way I can include the first film below, which was filmed by an American in Mexico, rather than an Italian in Spain. But it’s close enough to a spaghetti western, alright? It has a Morricone score. (And a bunch of familiar faces from Sergio Leone’s flicks.)
Two Mules for Sister Sara – 1970
“Dear Mary, Mother of God, help this no-good atheist to shoot straight.”
A drifter named Hogan (Clint Eastwood) saves a woman from being gang-raped out in the desert; surprise of surprises, it turns out she’s a traveling nun named Sara (Shirley MacLaine) on the run from the law. She’s working for some Mexican revolutionaries trying to overthrow their French colonial overlords, which gets Hogan’s interest—he agreed to help the same revolutionaries assault a French fort, in return for a portion of the treasure in the garrison’s strongbox. They only have a few weeks to get to the cash, but Sister Sara lived in the church overlooking the fort, so she knows how the garrison operates. Of course, Hogan and Sara’s working relationship is strained, and there are plenty of complications that arise from French patrols and Sara’s devout pre-Vatican II Catholicism.
What I really liked about this one? Besides the stunning vistas, excellent action, and a return to Eastwood’s “Man With No Name”-style grim antihero, was its snippet of history. As you might recall, France under Napoleon III tried to invade Mexico and turn it into a French client-state under Maximilian I, something that’s oft forgotten because the United States had split in twain and was fighting a civil war at the time. (You’d have known this if you’d been listening to your teacher explain Cinco de Mayo all those years ago.) And as far as I can tell, this is one of the few films to even touch on the subject. Since the film was shot on location in Mexico, covering an important time in Mexican history made the film feel more unique.
That’s not to forget the film’s other high points. Such as the excellent acting, with Eastwood at the top of his lone-gun game, and MacLaine keeping up with him, if not outdoing him at times; the snazzy dialogue matches their ace performances. Their character relationships and character development is classic, making for some complex and interesting situations. Such as the film’s awesome set-pieces, such as blowing up a train—right after Hogan lost the use of his shooting arm, relying on Sister Sara to aid in the demolition job. The blazing finale is impressive—a brutal combat sequence depicting the assault on the garrison.
There are, of course, a few complaints. The movie has its slow-burn character-driven moments, and its rapid-fire action sequences, so balancing and transitioning between them doesn’t always work—some on both sides feel drawn out and a bit too long. While the film’s money shots are golden, the parts linking them aren’t as captivating. And the dialogue is either excellent or awkward, there’s no middle ground there. The ending wasn’t what I expected, but then again, proving this is a different character than the Man with No Name.
Morricone’s in fine form here, with an amazing main theme that’s evocative of his unique style: twangy guitars leading into a soaring, mournful choral dirge, broken with strings akin to the braying of mules. Another fine score from the master, and one of my favorite Morricone main themes.
A very pleasing film, Two Mules for Sister Sara is choice spaghetti western. Vintage Eastwood, backed and paced by Shirley MacLaine—the last time the actor would receive second-billing behind a woman before The Bridges of Madison County. Excellent action sequences, some great character development, and picturesque scenery round out a stellar flick. It’s not perfect, but it remains an impressive and enjoyable film. A definite must for spaghetti western aficionados and Clint Eastwood fans.