Filming the western “Sierra Torride” was not easy for Shirley MacLaine. The actress suffered in particular from violent sunburn and double pneumonia, and also had a rather stormy relationship with director Don Siegel.
Sierra Torrid : a comic western full of action
Before The Prey, Inspector Harry and Escape from AlcatrazClint Eastwood and Don Siegel reunite on Sierra Torrid. Released in 1970, this western marks the second collaboration between the actor and the director after A sheriff in New York.
The film takes place during the French intervention in Mexico in the 19th century. As three bandits are about to rape her, a nun named Sara (Shirley MacLaine) is saved by Hogan (Clint Eastwood), a mercenary.
The supposed sister Sara then decides to help Hogan in his mission: to discover the weaknesses of a fort held by the French. Dynamite, gunshots and romance are on the program of this humorous western, which benefits from the chemistry between its two main characters and score by Ennio Morricone. If the atmosphere is quite light in the feature film, it really is not during the shooting.
An eventful production
During the production, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood – also an executive producer through his company Malpaso – have to support Martin Rackin, whom they don’t esteem very much. Presented as “an almost parodic version of the Hollywood magnate – with gold chains, cabin tan and virulent speech” by biographer Richard Schickel, this producer tries to modify the story thought up by Budd Boetticher, a specialist in westerns who has worked on several occasions with Randolph Scott.
He also wishes minimize costs as much as possible, which ends up irritating the director and his headliner. Before imposing his vision on the final cut, Martin Rackin also favors filming outdoors in Mexico, which has harmful consequences on the health of Shirley MacLaine.
Originally, the role of Sara was designed for Elizabeth Taylor, but she is ultimately fired from the project. While the official reason behind this decision is not known, biographer Patrick McGilligan states in his book Clint Eastwood: A Legend that it might come from Martin Rackin. The latter would have refused that the shots take place in Spain, which the actress hoped for in order to be alongside her husband Richard Burton.
Big tensions between Shirley MacLaine and Don Siegel
Shirley MacLaine therefore inherited the character and when filming began in February 1969, Don Siegel could not get along with the interpreter of Sara, believing that she has too much character. Quoted byExpresshe assures about it:
It’s hard to be kind to her. She’s too unfeminine and has too many balls. She is very, very tough.
The director also criticizes the actress for being a “night owl” and regularly arriving late on set. After yet another dispute (in which Clint Eastwood prefers not to get involved), Shirley MacLaine leaves the production furious one day. Don Siegel does the same and is preparing to pack his suitcase when he hears a knock at his hotel room. The actress then apologizes to him and things work out between them, as the filmmaker writes in his memoirs:
From then on, she became gentle as a lamb.
In addition to having to accept Don Siegel’s temper, Shirley MacLaine has to play under complicated conditions, enduring the harassing Mexican heat in her nun’s outfit. To help her hold on, a man is hired and instructed to follow her with an umbrella. This does not prevent the actress from catching severe sunburn and double pneumonia. Concerns that reinforce the tense atmosphere of the shoot, diametrically opposed to the relaxed atmosphere of the film.