Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is riding through Mexico after being despatched to a certain rendez-vous by a band of revolutionaries, but on his way he hears a commotion over a nearby hill and dismounts to take a look. On investigation, he sees that a half-naked woman is being terrorised by three bandits who are seeking to rape her, although they stop when Hogan fires off a warning shot. They tell him that there's plenty there for him as well, or words to that effect, but the gunfifghter is having none of this as puts bullets in each of them. However, when he goes to see if the woman is all right, he has a surprise: Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine) is a nun...
Or is she? That's the question which we're meant to ponder in Two Mules for Sister Sara, a quirky Western that should have been a whole lot more idiosyncratic. Take a look at the credits: based on a story by cult specialist Budd Boetticher (he was lined up to direct at one point), directed by another expert Don Siegel, musical score by Ennio Morricone fresh from a bunch of Spaghetti Westerns, and starring perhaps the last major superstar of the genre, Clint Eastwood. So why does the film feel like a missed opportunity for the most part? It at least begins interestingly, with the typical Eastwood character proving he has a gallant side, but also that he doesn't really understand women.
This prompts a succession of sequences where Sara runs rings around her saviour - no, not Jesus Christ - as Hogan cannot make head nor tail of what she has on her mind, though he is sure he's attracted to her. Yet the fact she's a nun means he cannot take that attraction any further, and he only admits to her his feelings when he's drunk about halfway through the movie. We have our suspicions about this holy woman however, and those are raised when we see her take a secret smoke, down whiskey and indulge in a little light swearing, not to mention those large false eyelashes she wears (how could Hogan miss that?). On the other hand, she does act in a pious manner otherwise.
Taking part in such tasks as offering the bodies of her attackers a Christian burial, an act which baffles Hogan; yes, it's Eastwood in incredulous mode, and he does that well. But having saved her bacon early on, Sara seeks to repay the debt a few times over, and they become a curious combination of protector and protected, often switching roles in that regard as when the nun stops a tribe of Indian warriors from killing Hogan, then goes on to preserve his health by removing an arrow from his shoulder before it does too much damage, a scene that the film makes a meal of. Oddly, the matter of religion only arises rarely in the story, perhaps because of what we discover about Sara nearer the end of the drama, which would almost qualify for comedy status.
Except that it isn't all that funny. Giving the two lead characters a few more witty lines, or going the other way and making it a bawdy romp, might have suited the plot better, but for too long there are stretches where you're asked to take what could have been an ideal comedic set-up far too seriously. Observe The African Queen as a model of how to pull this kind of adventure off with style, but here there is a notable lack of chemistry between Eastwood and MacLaine, which was probably down to her lack of fondness for the role and of the film as a whole. It is resolved into a series of too conventional setpieces that could have come from any number of Mexico-set Westerns, stuff like blowing up the bridge, the assault on the fort, that kind of thing, which renders what should have been distinctive and eccentric somewhat colourless. A pity, as there's not such a bad idea contained in this.