Film character Harry Callahan, a.k.a. “Dirty Harry,” is often regarded as a fascist figure and symbol of police brutality.
Viewing films such as the original Dirty Harry film that came out in 1971, one can see why. In one particular scene he brutalizes a suspected serial killer, Scorpio, and in doing so successfully obtains the location of a woman the killer has buried in a well.
If that film had been released now, instead of 40 years ago, it would be difficult for most moviegoers to empathize or support Dirty Harry as he guns down thugs, hoodlums, criminals, and other threats to law and order. In fact, he would be seen as a role model for the typical bullying police officer who power trips at every opportunity.
Having watched several of the films recently, I believe many people missed the message when they first saw it. Also, to place Dirty Harry’s action within the context of the 21st Century would be unfair, because he was a creature and product of the times in which the films came out.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, America saw a massive spike in crime rates across the board. In cities like New York City, crime was rampant. Police were unable to enforce the law, and prosecutors found it difficult to keep criminals in prison. At the same time, police were using brutal tactics against Civil Rights demonstrators. Anti-war protesters saw police as “pigs.”
It is within this context Dirty Harry appeared.
The message of the film wasn’t that police needed to be given more authority and be allowed to do whatever they please. Other films such as 1974’s Death Wish dealt with the same issues, except the protagonist is Paul Kersey, a civilian vigilante, who shoots murderers, muggers, and thieves in the midst of their crime. In this film, the police pursue the vigilante, even as his actions cause the mugging rates to plunge.
The message of the films were this: When government refuses to enforce legitimate laws and protect its citizens, someone will take it upon themselves to do it. If you don’t want them to act on their own, then enforce the law.
The trouble with the idea of Dirty Harry as a bully cop and fascist is that he doesn’t fit the description well. His primary interest is in stopping actual crimes with actual victims. Theft. Kidnapping. Rape. Murder. Terrorism. He doesn’t see the public at large as a threat, but the criminal element that is inherent in any society. He doesn’t care about parking tickets and speeding. He doesn’t bother with the nuances of the law that can be used against citizens. He doesn’t use his power to benefit his own career, which is constantly endangered due to his willingness to go outside the system to stop a criminal. In The Enforcer, he refuses praise for the arrest of black militants, which he not only had no involvement in but knows they are innocent of the crime, and he harangues his supervisor for it.
One wonders where Dirty Harry would stand in our time, particularly if he worked at the Ferguson Police Department and witnessed scenes like this.
If a Dirty Harry film were to be made today, it would probably have him as much an outcast within a modern police department as he was in the 1970s, except for different reasons. Then, the departments were politically correct and emasculated to the point where they couldn’t prosecute a killer because they had illegally obtained the weapon he used to commit the crimes. Today, the police resemble paramilitaries more than law enforcement officers, even as crime rates have dropped to all-time lows, and use violence to enforce their own will. My guess is Dirty Harry would regard the no-knock searches and SWAT raids for nonviolent crimes, indeed the whole War on Drugs, with justifiable contempt.
I say this because one of the Dirty Harry films addressed our modern predicament in Magnum Force. A group of vigilante cops take it upon themselves to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Even though nearly all of their victims are more or less criminals, Dirty Harry still views them as murderers. When offered to join them, he says, “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me,” as though also addressing audience members.
John Milius, the screenwriter for Magnum Force, remarked in an interview that Dirty Harry differentiates between what “the law” says and what is right and wrong. Human beings, Milius argued, innately knew what is right and what is wrong and do not require written explanations.
In a later scene with the head of the vigilante outfit, his own supervisor in the police force, Dirty Harry says something that confirms where he would stand in today’s current situation.
When police start becoming their own executioners, where is it gonna end? Pretty soon you start executing people for jaywalking. And executing people for traffic violations. And then you start executing your neighbor because his dog pissed on your lawn.