Friday, March 14, 2008

Clint Eastwood, mule

Don Siegel’s offbeat 1970 Western Two Mules for Sister Sara has what must be one of the unlikeliest pairings in movie history. The film begins with Clint Eastwood (playing a laconic mercenary drifter, a role he had patented in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns) rescuing a woman (Shirley Maclaine) from three lowlifes and discovering, to his great astonishment, that she is a nun. (Eastwood’s expression here, captured in a hilarious zoom-in that will be repeated in another scene near the end of the film, is priceless; it’s the most elastic I’ve known his face to be in the first half of his career.) Moreover, Sister Sara is such a compassionate nun that she insists on giving the dead villains a decent Christian burial: they are “creatures of God” after all. But the Eastwood character, Hogan, doesn’t want to hang around and dig graves under the hot sun, so he points at the vultures circling above and speaks the most uncharacteristic lines to come out of a Clint Eastwood drifter’s mouth:
Sister, cast your eye heavenwards. Are those not God’s creatures? Would you deprive them of all this convenient nourishment?
Whereupon Sara decides to dig the graves herself, muttering that this man is as stubborn as her mule and thus setting up the film’s tongue-in-cheek title. As the two characters banter their way through the desert and become involved with a group of Mexican revolutionaries, it becomes obvious that Hogan has indeed been relegated to the position of Sister Sara’s mule (she makes quite an ass of him too, as we see at the film’s end). It’s fun to watch one of Hollywood’s iconic macho men playing second fiddle to a woman, especially in a film that comes from such a male-dominated genre. (I enjoy genre-inversions of this sort, especially in Westerns. I think it started happening from the 1950s onwards, with films like Johnny Guitar and the Anthony Mann movies, but my favourite example of a Western where the woman frequently gets the better of the leading man is much older – the 1939 Marlene Dietrich-James Stewart starrer Destry Rides Again.)

Two Mules for Sister Sara is an uneven film but it has many enjoyable moments, mostly involving the interplay between Eastwood and Maclaine, and the quirky little touches, such as the use of ecclesiastical music in a scene where “Sister” Sara sneaks away to smoke a cigar. Watching it on TV earlier this week, it occurred to me that Clint Eastwood’s early career is more varied than is usually thought. The conventional view is that he was a completely passive, one-dimensional actor who never stepped beyond a certain type of role (slipping quickly from the Man with No Name persona to Dirty Harry), and that his work became varied only much later, after he found his feet as a director. In fact, Pauline Kael didn’t even credit him with being a one-dimensional performer. “He isn’t an actor, so one can hardly call him a bad actor,” she observed in a 1974 essay about new trends in screen violence, “Eastwood’s wooden impassivity makes it possible for the brutality in his pictures to be ordinary, a matter of routine. He may try to save a buddy from getting killed, but when the buddy is hit no time is wasted on grief; Eastwood couldn’t express grief any more than he could express tenderness.” (I wonder if Kael would have changed her mind if she had seen Million Dollar Baby, where in my view Eastwood the actor was even more impressive than Eastwood the director.)

I compared Eastwood
unfavourably with the Great Mifune in Yojimbo after seeing him in the Leone westerns, but I’ve grown to like a lot of his early work, and I think the idea that he didn’t have a sense of humour or that he was trapped in a macho image is overstated. Though he was never a versatile actor, his choice of films even as early as the late 1960s revealed a willingness to experiment or to send up an established screen persona (it’s another matter that these usually weren’t commercial successes). Incidentally another notable film in this league is The Beguiled, a bizarre, unclassifiable story about an injured soldier stirring up romantic – and increasingly pathological – feelings amongst the occupants of an all-girl boarding school. (Warning: the climax of this film is so deflating that Eastwood fans might feel the need to reenergise themselves by watching the climactic shoot-out of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the “Make my day” scene from Dirty Harry in quick succession. Keep those DVDs at hand if you watch this one.)


  1. The Great Mifune and Clint Eastwood had two completely different approaches to action. Mifune was over aggressive and Eastwood was too miserly with his expression, but both worked with their own charm. It would have been great to cast them together with their personal styles in a dialogless movie.

    PS: I am of course talking about Eastwood in the early part of the his career and Mifune as a swashbuckling Samurai. Haven't watched any of Mifune's character roles yet that he did later in life.

    PPS: Dude, I have become a fan of that old chap after watching Rope and Dial M for Murder! Foreign Correspondent was also pretty good. Still can't get over the 10-15 minutes shots in Rope.

  2. Unexpected appreciation of Ol' Clint is much appreciated.

  3. it is weird to see new appreciations of old stuff. shows the lack of intelligence and argument everywhere.
    but then some mention is better than no mention. although one would appreciate to read proper appreciation where there are no loose ends and trivial observations.

  4. True Jai, why did you not write on Clint Eastwood earlier? You could have written about Two Mules for Sister Sara a long time back as Moonstruck Maniac points out. Clint's been acting for four decades now... Terrible.

  5. Whatever, I'll always like "cowboy" story..
    that fantastic..

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  6. Thanks for the shout out to Two Mules, Incidentally, Budd Boetticher wrote the story - what a collection of B-moviers this has - Siegel, Eastwood & Boetticher! You are right about how Eastwood's early career was pretty closely hewn to the Western & city cop genre. The only exceptions being his directorial debut Play Misty For Me, the musical (also Western) Paint Your Wagon & Where Eagles Dare.

  7. One of the few early Clint movies I haven't watched. Thanks.


  8. Weirdly enough the inscrutable oriental had problems toning it down I think because he came from an extravagant stage-acting tradition with big gestures and tamasha-style emoting.
    Senor Ninguno of course was the ultimate emotional cripple in his early roles.

    But you really shouldn't compare them - even in absurdities like Red Sun, Mifune was the genuine article.

  9. Frankly speaking i love to see "cowboy" films.Lots of drama ,action and many other sequence can be seen in this type of films.Seems to be really fantastic.