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  • Trevor Williams

Saddle Sores: Two Mules for Sister Sara

For those of you new to Saddle Sores, this is a series that critiques Western films for historical accuracy. It's all in good fun with films ranging from beloved classics to obscure pieces of forgotten media.

For this review, let's talk about Clint Eastwood, nuns, mules, and the French Intervention in Mexico.

This 1970 film stands out from its peers in several different ways. First, it might surprise you to learn that this film was premiered in France before ever seeing an American release. (Two Mules for Sister Sara is one of many foreign Westerns that were brought into existence by Clint Eastwood exploiting a loophole in his contract for Rawhide, which stipulated that he could not do other acting jobs in the continental United States.)


The film also departs from the typical Western formula by setting its story in Mexico with an emphasis on the conflict between French colonial interests and local Mexican resistance. Unfortunately, the exact timing of the film is not clear. Our closest estimate is somewhere between 1865 and 1867 for the events of the film. While Hogan (Clint Eastwood) helps narrow down the timeline by making brief and cynical mention of fighting in the American Civil War "two years ago", such a statement raises intriguing questions that make his character more mysterious. He never specifies whether he fought for the Union or the Confederacy, which is in stark contrast to how almost all Western films portray veterans of the Civil War. His practical nature and loose morality also causes us to question whether he was discharged or if he deserted after growing disillusioned with the conflict, introducing further uncertainty into the specific year.


The film also bucks convention by having one of the main characters as a nun, who are usually relegated to support roles in Westerns. Sister Sara (played by Shirley MacLaine) is on a quest to aid the ragged but determined Mexican rebels against the oppressive French military, but both Hogan and the audience begin to doubt Sara's story as she engages in behavior unfitting of a nun. This uncertainty about Sara's true nature is one of the fun parts of the film to see play out.


While we won't spoil the most important aspects of the story, there is one particular scene that must be addressed. At one point during their travels, the pair are ambushed by dozens of Yaqui Indians who hit Hogan in the chest with an arrow. The arrow is metal-tipped, which would have been very unlikely for the Yaqui to use. As an isolated tribe who lived in mountainous areas and did not engage in frequent trade, it is very unlikely that the Yaqui would have had the metal to spare to create arrowheads; the Yaqui would frequently use ironwood instead of metal for their arrowheads. This arrow is also so thick that looks more like a crossbow bolt instead of an arrow shot from a bow.


If you are wondering why we are focusing so much on this one arrow, it is because the movie also places a lot of emphasis on this scene. Sister Sara scares off the Yaqui by using the "medicine" of her cross to frighten their elder (and you never see them again, by the way, which renders this whole scene somewhat pointless). We then spend an uncomfortably long period of time watching Sara try to follow Hogan's instructions for extracting the arrow. Some of his suggestions, such as shoving the arrow through rather than pulling it out as is so common in films, make perfect sense... which makes it all the more baffling when he wants to cauterize the wound by igniting black powder packed into the arrow. Black powder is not always clean and there is a significant risk of its chemical components only aggravating the wound. Perhaps the two of them should have considered pouring their bottle of whiskey down the arrow shaft instead of down their throats...


Speaking of black powder, the weapons in this film are all over the place, chronologically speaking. Cartridge weapons technically would have existed at the time of the film's events, but they would be nowhere near as widespread. Hogan himself uses an 1873 Colt revolver, which would have had no need of black powder. Some of the Springfield bolt action rifles used by the French soldiers would not even be in production for forty years! Don't play any drinking games with the guns in this movie, for you are just as likely to die of alcohol poisoning. (For you firearm enthusiasts, we recommend checking out the Internet Movie Firearms Database for more information on firearms used by specific movies or actors.)


In general, we thought that the first half of the movie was entertaining as you try to figure out just who Hogan and Sara are, since they are characters who are not solely what they are portrayed to be. The second half of the film drags its feet, however, and not even the final battle at the fort is enough to instill a sense of excitement. Be warned that this final fight involves melee combat with machetes and bayonets, so those who are squeamish of blood might find it a little too much.


So, is this movie worth watching? Well, if you are a Clint Eastwood fan or want a Western that doesn't follow all the same old beats, we encourage you to give this one a try. It definitely does not have much to offer in terms of historical accuracy, but might be interesting to anyone who has ever investigated the origins of Cinco de Mayo and wants to learn more about France's military incursion into Mexico. If we had to go by letterbook grades, this would be a C for historical accuracy and a B for entertainment.


We hope that you have enjoyed these little analyses that we have been performing here on Saddle Sores. If you have any suggestions or questions, please feel free to ask! Thanks for stopping by. Until next time!


 

Support for the Museum of the Great Plains provided in part by the City of Lawton and the City of Lawton Hotel-Motel Tax Fund.