Universal, 1970, 116 minutes
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas and Alberto Morin
Story: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Albert Maltz
Producers: Carroll Case and Martin Rackin
Director: Don Siegel
After overthrowing the dictator Santa Anna in 1855, liberal forces established a new government in Mexico that greatly weakened the power of the Catholic clergy. Refusing to meekly accept a diminished status, the clergy persuaded several conservative generals to launch a coup d’etat in 1858, and form a conservative government, which led to The War of Reform. The civil war between liberals and conservatives ended in a liberal victory in 1860. Although Benito Juarez was elected president, both sides had run up sizable debts to foreign creditors during the war, and the new government was understandably reluctant to repay loans borrowed by a regime that had repressed them. Hoping to keep both his government and the creditors satisfied, Juarez tried to negotiate a long-term payment plan with the nations that held most of the debt: Britain, Spain and France.
Seizing the excuse of debts from the civil war, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France schemed to place Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the throne of Mexico, in order to create a pro-France Catholic empire next to the United States, which led to the French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). Although armies loyal to the republican government of President Juarez were defeated by a French army in 1864, Maximilian never gained the support of the Mexican populace, just the conservative elite, while the French were unable to control the countryside, which was dominated by Juaristas, guerrillas loyal to Juarez. The bankrupt Mexican government could not afford to pay the salaries of Mexican soldiers, so it failed to attract many native recruits. Even though the legitimate government only controlled four out of twenty-four provinces, it stubbornly refused to surrender. Despite Maximilian’s neutral stance during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and rejection of the Confederacy’s offer of recognition, the Union government would not recognize Maximilian as the ruler of Mexico. After the fall of the Confederacy, Maximilian made every effort to avoid giving the Union government any reason to intervene in Mexico.
A man named Hogan comes across three American thugs who are raping a nun. After killing the thugs, he finds that the nun, Sister Sara, is working with the Juarista rebels against the French. Although he has already agreed to help the Juaristas, Hogan is initially unwilling to travel with a nun, but the two find themselves cooperating to help the Jauristas capture a French fort.
Although the movie is set during the French Intervention in Mexico, there is basically no context, and Maximilian is never even mentioned. The Jauristas’ resistance against French invaders serves as a background for the evolving relationship between the two lead characters. However, the presentation of the situation in Mexico is accurate. Having suffered a series of crushing defeats by the French, the Jauristas were in dire straits, and had no more real armies, but an abundance of guerrillas.
The script is clear, the French are the villains because they oppress the Mexican people in order to make Mexico a French colony. There is no mention of the conservative Mexicans who supported Maximilian, but they were mostly in the larger cities, while the story takes place in the countryside. The evil nature of the French is confirmed when they execute a Jaurista, who dies shouting “Viva Jaurez,” in front of his sobbing wife. The French did kill Jauristas whenever they found them, and there was even a unit made up of tough French, Mexicans and foreigners dedicated to the task.
Unlike earlier movies on the French Intervention in Mexico, the French cavalry are armed with rifles, not lances or swords, and are competent.
Budd Boetticher wrote the story with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in mind. Eastwood became involved when Elizabeth Taylor wanted him to play the lead, and Eastwood brought in Don Siegel to direct. Unfortunately, when the studio refused to film the movie in Spain, which would enable Taylor to spend time with her husband, Richard Burton, she was replaced by Shirley MacLaine. While Taylor could pass as a Mexican nun, MacLaine could not, so her pale skin was explained by her being an American expatriate. Unlike Taylor, MacLaine was not meant to spend all day in the blazing sun, so someone was hired to hold a huge umbrella over her between scenes. MacLaine was initially difficult to work with and drove Siegel to walk off the film until she apologized and became more serious about her performance.
MacLaine is miscast but she is convincing as an irritatingly persistent nun, who immediately engages in a battle of wills with Hogan. The sexual tension is great, Eastwood conveys sexual frustration very well, and there is a good chemistry between the two leads.
The story moves at its own pace and scenes are given time to develop. The arrow removal scene took a bit more than ten minutes, but it would have been handled in seconds in most Westerns. While there is no lack of action, there is a surprising amount of humor, mainly caused by the constant arguing between the two leads. Furthermore, there is an interesting running debate over miracles vs accidents.
The bad-tempered tough guy who is civilized by a charming female companion when they are unexpectedly thrown together is not a new plot device but it works here and has a surprising, unexpected twist.
Filmed in Mexico, the landscape is beautiful but harsh and unforgiving. There are several great sets, especially the old rundown church.
It is one of Ennio Morricone’s better soundtracks, and both Sister Sara and Hogan have their own theme music.
Although Budd Boetticher and Siegel were friends, Boetticher was disgusted with the changes made to his screenplay, especially Eastwood’s cynical protagonist, who was very similar to his characters in the spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone. With a soundtrack by Morricone, a Hispanic setting and an amoral protagonist who wears a poncho and smokes cigars, the movie does appear to be an imitation of the spaghetti westerns. However, this criticism is unfair since Eastwood’s acting style was evolving, and he played a more vulnerable character than he had for Leone.
Bonnie and Clyde started the era of New Hollywood in 1967 but Old Hollywood did not disappear overnight. There is probably no better way to understand the difference between Old and New Hollywood than to watch a double-bill of The Undefeated and Two Mules for Sister Sara. The two movies were filmed in the same year and both dealt with the French Intervention in Mexico but there is a huge generational gap between them.
If you want to learn more about the French Intervention of Mexico, check out my French Intervention in Mexico Page.