Monday, February 02, 2009

Two Mules for Sister Sara

Two Mules for Sister Sara posterTwo Mules for Sister Sara (1970) is a lighthearted Western following the journey of a stern mercenary named Hogan (Clint Eastwood) and a sly woman named Sara (Shirley MacLaine) to aid the Juaristas, revolutionaries struggling against the monarchy imposed by France upon Mexico. As the opening credits roll, the camera pans over the Texas/Chihuahua landscape in which we see all sorts of deadly creatures, but none as bad as the three drunken reprobates about to rape a nun. Luckily, Hogan shows up and shoots them dead, but before he can take leave of this Sister Sara, she finds herself in trouble again: a detachment of the French Cavalry riding towards them sends her into a panic. She is wanted for raising money for the Juaristas.

Together they evade the French, and despite the clash between his gruff attitude and her zealous religiosity, they find that they are fighting for the same side. The difference is that while Sister Sara sympathizes with the Juaristas based on her contempt for French colonialism, Hogan has merely been hired by the Juaristas to stage an attack upon a French garrison; jaded by the American Civil War, he cares nothing for their cause, only that he be paid with half of the seized French treasury. Conveniently, the garrison is stationed next to Sara’s former church, so she provides the details that allow Hogan to come up with a strategy for his attack. They choose the day of an upcoming French national holiday to strike, hoping thereby to catch the enemy off-guard. Meanwhile, despite the sexual tension between the hyper-masculine Hogan and the sweet-faced Sara, because she is a nun, he keeps his desires at bay.

As the pair rides across Chihuahua to the garrison, they witness how the French strike fear in the Mexican people. When Sister Sara infiltrates one of their encampments, for example, she sees the ruthless execution of a young Juarista before his grief-stricken family. Their journey is packed with adventure, such as the day that begins with Hogan getting shot by a Yaqui arrow (the Yaqui are a Native American tribe that originally lived in northern Mexico) and ends with him detonating a bridge carrying a train with French supplies and ammunition. Sister Sara plays an equally important role in these events: she wards off the Yaqui with her shining silver cross, cauterizes Hogan’s wound with gunpowder, and climbs the bridge trestle to secure the dynamite. Her rough-and-ready attitude hardly befits a nun, and the viewer is given ample clues that hers is a false identity. Hogan, however, is so determined to honor her holy vows that even her penchant for hard liquor and occasional cuss words fail to arouse his suspicion.

Hogan and Sara eventually meet colonel Beltran, leader of a small band of Juaristas who may be under-equipped but are tough, courageous, and die-hard Mexican patriots. Beltran likes the plan hatched by Hogan and Sara and they mobilize their forces to attack on the French national holiday. Unfortunately, the French are on their guard due to the bridge explosion, and the trio must figure out how to regain the element of surprise. Eventually they settle on a multi-pronged attack: Hogan will enter the garrison with Sara under the guise of turning her in, children will deposit an explosives-laden piñata outside the garrison door to blast an entry, and still more Juaristas will enter through an underground passageway between the garrison and a brothel, which to Hogan’s astonishment was where Sara was previously employed. The plan works brilliantly and amid a smoky blaze and chorus of gunshots, the Juaristas celebrate their victory. Hogan, now relieved of restraints on his sexual appetite, celebrates by bursting into the room of a slyly smiling Sara and hopping into her bathtub, cowboy boots and all.

Mexico is marked with lawlessness from the first scene of Two Mules for Sister Sara, in which three Americans are about to commit the unthinkable act of raping a nun. The national authorities are hardly better than these common thugs; the French military ascribe to the cold-blooded and arbitrary practice of executing its prisoners. Interestingly, the French intervention in Mexico portrayed in the film occurred when the United States was forced to turn its back on Mexico and suspend its Monroe Doctrine, too caught up in its own Civil War (1861-1865) for foreign intervention. In this context, lawlessness is perhaps not to be read as characteristic of Mexico, but a symptom of disturbed hemispheric affairs.

In this environment, individuals are needed to take the law into their own hands, the type of individuals that the Western genre thrives on. However, the heroes of Two Mules for Sister Sara are hardly moral exemplars. Hogan is a soldier of fortune whom colonel Beltran picked up at a Texas bar; his efforts in the Juarista attack are only motivated by his monetary reward. Sara is a prostitute masquerading as a nun so that Hogan feels obliged to help her; although she speaks passionately about the Juaristas when the film starts, it closes with her riding away in a lavish gown that betrays her material priorities. Even though the Juarista cause is portrayed as an extremely noble one, our jaded and self-interested heroes do not transform over the course of the film to adopt it as their own. Mexico merely provides the means for these off-beat individuals to come closer to achieving their ill-defined goals in life.

Labels: , ,