Roger Ebert Home

"Dirty Harry" is not fascist

From Scott McCrea, Henderson, NV:

[Editor's Note: Clint Eastwood recently announced he will direct a film called "Gran Torino," due in December. Although story details are being kept under wraps, rumors are circulating that it may be the sixth movie in the "Dirty Harry" series.]

I'm glad to see that you are recovering, Mr. Ebert. My family's hopes and prayers are with you and Chaz for a full recovery.

Now, to raking you over the coals for your review of "Dirty Harry" ;-) . I found it frankly ridiculous for it's parroting of Pauline Kael's notoriously silly review calling the former film "fascist." That you do it as well is disappointing. I would have thought you would have had better sense -- and more independence of mind. Perhaps the Roger Ebert of 1973 would have a different opinion than the one of 2008; only you can tell us.

"The movie's moral position is fascist," you wrote, "no doubt about it." It is ironic you used phrases common to the propaganda of totalitarian states in this sentence, i.e. the phrase "no doubt about" as if it silences all dissent. Stalinist double-talk was filled such constructions.

My edition of Webster's New World Dictionary defines "fascism" as:

"a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized governmental control, belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism, etc."

There's nothing in any of the "Dirty Harry" movies (even one as pitiful as "The Dead Pool") that even remotely suggest support for one party rule, or a corporatist government, let alone jingoism, institutionalized prejudice (Scorpio, after all, is a white man) or militarism (Harry's a cop, not a soldier).

Perhaps you used the term in the way the so many Liberals do, as a hate word to be applied to any vaguely right-wing idea or attitude which clashes with your weltanschauung? Again, only you can tell us. But, objectively, the word cannot be, at least with a straight face, even remotely applied to Inspector Harry Callahan or the movie itself.

You overlook the significance of the core leftist ideas of criminal justice: that the criminal's rights trump all is shown in precisely the way such a case would have played out back then. This is exactly consonant with the wild judicial activism of the Warren & Burger Courts; the long series of rulings that did so much to fuel the massive rise in violent crime in the Sixties and Seventies.

The rights of Scorpio's victims, and potential victims, are trampled. The supposed violations of his "rights" trump justice and allow him to walk free; free to wreak even more savagery on the citizens of San Francisco. Happily, today, the evidence would probably be admitted and Harry's alleged infractions would be left to the civil courts for redress (where it's unlikely, at least outside of Frisco, that he would win a dime).

You also fail to mention the fact that Scorpio hires a leg-breaker to beat him up so that he can then claim Harry abused his "rights." The Drive-by media, as they assuredly would today, eat it up. That's rather a gigantic omission when one is condemning a movie cop for a resemblance to the Gestapo; its inclusion would obviously eviscerate your point (though your argument collapses even without it).

You also completely misinterpret Harry's gesture which ends the movie, the tossing away of his badge. It was no symbol of lawlessness, but symbolic of Harry -- and American society's -- disgust with a system of criminal justice that seemed, in the seventies, irretrievably broken. Broken to the point that laws have to be violated to achieve justice. It's no less broken today, but for very different reasons: 232 years ago a group of men came together in Philadelphia to do exactly the same thing with a distant, arrogant, tyrannical government overrode not only justice but basic fairness in the pursuit of indefensible ideals. We call them the Founders.

The popularity of the "Dirty Harry" movies had much to do with Eastwood's charisma; but the reflection -- to borrow your phrase -- of contemporary America's feelings about crime, and the courts' self-imposed impotence, were just as powerful, if not more so, a driver of their popularity. And surely no one could legitimately compare them to the blatant exploitation of such feelings for Charles Bronson's quasi-snuff "Death Wish" franchise.

On a final note: I do agree with you, completely, that a nation's cinema reflect's its values, Zeitgeist, morality, political system, in short its a mirror of that society. Rare are the films that become cause. "The Birth of a Nation" was a reflection of the rising influence of the KKK -- which actually succeeded in dominating several state legislatures, including, oddly enough, Oregon; "Triumph of the Will" did not make the Nazi's dominant, it expressed that dominance. Just as Stalin and Mao's omnipresence expressed their personal absolutisms in the kinds of artistic expression allowed and disallowed (one need only think of Mao's reaction to the "Hundred Flowers" experiment: merciless repression).

To sum up, I don't know whether you were trying to follow Kael's line or were expressing your own liberalism. What I do know is that the review is skewed to present your personal politics. Nothing in the movie in anyway supports your conclusion.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews


comments powered by Disqus