Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
I was just reading an article about a Carmelite Sister named Begona Arroya. The article described her quite unnatural red hair dye and her thin green shawl that allowed her to blend with the prostitutes of southern Spain, to whom she ministers. “I dress so I won’t intimidate the women I need to reach,” the nun says.
The 1970 western Two Mules for Sister Sara is not about a nun mistaken for a prostitute, but rather a prostitute mistaken for a nun. (Sorry to start right off the bat with a spoiler, but the film is nearing fifty years old.) The film was directed by the great Don Siegel (Eastwood considered the man his mentor as a director) and came from a story by Budd Boetticher, another revered director of Westerns.
Shirley MacLaine plays Sara, who dresses as a nun because, as she explains, “In Mexico a nun can travel safely among murderers and thieves.” But as the film opens we see that this is not exactly true. Three men have stripped her and are about to rape her. She pleads with them, “You’re Christian men, how can you do this?” “Christian men?” They mock her, singing, “This is the way we go to church, go to church, go to church…”
But she is rescued by a man who happens upon them, a man named Hogan (played by Clint Eastwood). The men offer to “share” the woman with Hogan, which leads him to shoot the men (one in the back). When Sara puts on clothes, she is wearing a nun’s habit.
Sara asks for Hogan’s help in traveling the wilderness of Mexico, and Hogan agrees -- because she is a nun. He says, “Lady, if you weren’t a nun I’d let you save your own bacon.” He is quite annoyed when Sara makes him wait while she gives the men who tried to rape her a Christian burial. He points to the vultures overhead and argues, “Sister, are not those God’s creatures? We wouldn’t want to cheat them out of decent meal.” But he lends her a shovel and does acknowledge her work as a “first class gravedigger.”
As they travel, Sara insists on stopping when she sees a shrine, arguing that not praying there would be sin. Hogan says, “It’s a small shrine, make it a short prayer.”
Hogan finds himself attracted to “Sister” Sara, which greatly annoys him. “Maybe a nun shouldn’t be so good looking,” he says.
“I’m married to Jesus Christ,” she answers.
“That’s what I’m steamed up about,” he says.
But as they travel he notices what he thinks are un-nunlike qualities on her part. She drinks and seems to handle her liquor well. (“That’s a lot of whiskey before breakfast,” he states. “My faith in God will turn the whiskey into water,” she explains.) She also uses words like “ass” (as a body part, not referring to one of her mules found in the title). And she seems quite comfortable in a cantina (though she makes a point of ordering lemonade). She does try to hide some things. She doesn’t let Hogan see her smoke.
When the two bunk down for the night (on separate bedrolls), Hogan says something that makes Sara laugh.
“Do you think nuns don’t laugh?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never spent the night with one.” Which leads Hogan to ask, “Haven’t you ever wanted to be a whole woman?”
“I’ve chosen a different path. When those feeling come, I pray until they pass.”
“I didn’t know that nuns lied.”
When Sara’s spotted by a French soldier, she fears the worst, but the soldier only recognizes her habit. He calls her to comfort a dying officer. The officer recognizes her and calls her a “filthy bitch,” shocking the surrounding soldiers by directing such language at a nun. They apologize for him, assuming the dying officer is delirious. So she is safe.
When Hogan finally learns that Sara isn’t a nun, he’s angry. But Sara explains that he had said that he would have left her if she hadn’t been a nun. It is interesting that the film is set in a time and place when members of the clergy are assumed to be innocent and wholesome and in need of protection. But even back in that day, I’m sure there were plenty of Sisters like Begona Arroya who knew the realities of the world. I couldn’t help thinking of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, who everyone assumes is innocent of evil, but who is actually quite knowledgeable on the subject due to confessions and the Scriptures.
There are a couple of churches in the film, but they’re just buildings. In one, the Mexican army hides. The rebels launch their attack on the French from the other. (At the latter church, the bishop had a secret tunnel so he could keep out of harsh weather between his house and the church building.) But we don’t see any authentic clergy in the films.
Still, because the church buildings are pretty, and because of the good things Sara does while she’s pretending to be a nun, we give the Movie Church in this very entertaining film Two Steeples.