ByEric Hanson, writer at Creators.co
Eric Hanson holds a Bachelor's in Film Studies. Some of his favorite films include To Kill a Mockingbird, 2001, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Eric Hanson

Film is no stranger to heroes that are often as beloved as they are controversial, and few are quite so universally loved and universally controversial as Inspector Harry Callahan, better known as "Dirty Harry." This tale of a relentless cop willing to bend the rules to bring criminals to justice has sparked much praise and criticism since the original film's release. In spite of the series' reputation, there was a time when it tackled — of all things — police corruption, and in the process revealed a lot about how far the Dirty Harry character was willing to go.

'Dirty Harry' And The Controversy

Callahan taunts a suspect with his .44 Magnum. 'Dirty Harry' [Credit: Warner Bros]
Callahan taunts a suspect with his .44 Magnum. 'Dirty Harry' [Credit: Warner Bros]

The 1970s were a time of high tempers and hot-button controversy, the perfect environment to make one of the most talked about movies of the decade. The original film launched ’s American motion picture career after coming off the Sergio Leone westerns and a long run on the TV series Rawhide. It tells of a San Francisco police officer on the hunt for a ruthless sniper terrorizing the city. Harry’s methods were hardly what you'd call normal police work.

Callahan tortures a suspect. 'Dirty Harry' [Credit: Warner Bros]
Callahan tortures a suspect. 'Dirty Harry' [Credit: Warner Bros]

He's shown at times to get a thrill out of using his .44 Magnum revolver, and even tortures the suspect for the location of a kidnapping victim. Many found the implications of Harry’s actions disturbing, critic Pauline Kael going so far as to call it a "Gestapo movie."

In spite of (or perhaps even due to the controversy) Dirty Harry was a massive hit at the box office. Warner Bros wanted to do a sequel almost immediately, but how to avoid making the same movie twice? The answer was to go in the opposite direction. Screenwriter John Milius thought it would be interesting to try an experiment, and provide an answer to the criticisms against the first movie. The first movie is about law and order, but what happens when law and order become corrupted?

Let's do an interesting sequel. We’ve done one side of this coin. Let’s do the other. What happens when we go too far?

'Magnum Force'

'Magnum Force' poster. [Credit: Warner Bros]
'Magnum Force' poster. [Credit: Warner Bros]

is the second film in the Dirty Harry saga. After suffering fallout from his handling of the events of the first movie, Harry is assigned stakeout duty. Something mysterious is going on in the City by the Bay, however. Many of San Francisco's most notorious criminals are being brutally executed by a gang of mysterious gunmen. Many in the police department believe it's the work of rival criminals, but Harry makes a startling and terrifying discovery.

A vigilante cop prepares to execute a suspect. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]
A vigilante cop prepares to execute a suspect. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]

These executioners, as it turns out, are a squad of traffic cops turned vigilante. Hiding behind their badges and uniforms, the four go around the city, eliminating assorted criminals from mob bosses to pimps and all in between, slipping away unnoticed in the aftermath. Unlike Harry, who seldom does violence without being fired upon, these officers shoot unarmed foes in cold blood. Jay Cocks commented on this interesting development.

So you think this is some sort of right wing law and order picture. Now he’s gonna make a picture where law and order itself is compromised and called into question.

One of the vigilantes murders a fellow cop. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]
One of the vigilantes murders a fellow cop. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]

In many ways the traffic cops are caricatures of Harry himself. They readily — even gleefully — use their weapons with cold precision, not caring who gets in the way of their targets. Throughout the film they're shown to have little regard for public safety, killing numerous innocent bystanders. They murder escorts, guests at a pool party, even other police officers who might act as potential witnesses. More of the public they’re supposedly trying to protect ends up in the morgue than the actual criminals the squad is hunting. The irony was not lost on William Beard, who commented on how this related to the criticisms of the first film.

The vigilante cops. [Credit: Warner Bros]
The vigilante cops. [Credit: Warner Bros]

When Pauline Kael and other reviewers said that 'Dirty Harry' was fascist, 'Magnum Force' sets out in response to these accusations by saying ‘No wait. You want to see fascists. I’ll show you fascists.’ And if gives you these traffic cops in their black uniforms and their white helmets and they look like Nazi stormtroopers.

Aside from throwing a different kind of villain at Inspector Callahan, Magnum Force sought to explore his character more in depth. Given Harry's attitudes and methods seen in the first film, one might expect him to throw his support behind the squad. Instead, Harry finds himself conflicted.

Moral Harry

Callahan starts to suspect one of his co-workers. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]
Callahan starts to suspect one of his co-workers. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]

Harry is forced to set aside his own biases in order to uphold the law. Early on in the film he suspects a close friend of his is behind the murders, and even informs his superiors in order to make an arrest. Though it turns out his friend is innocent, this shows Harry’s ability to set aside his own personal feelings when it comes to those who commit crime. Regardless, the villains in the film are police officers. Though they wear the same badge, Harry proves just as relentless once they’re in his crosshairs.

The vigilantes invite Callahan to join them. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]
The vigilantes invite Callahan to join them. 'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]

Still, Harry does want to put away criminals, be it in cells or body bags. This drive is in many ways the character's great flaw, often causing him to cross moral lines in his pursuit of justice. It’s this flaw the cops try to exploit when they ask Harry to join them. They give him a simple ultimatum: "Either you’re for us or you’re against us." Though Harry admires the work and skill of the officers when they work within the law, their methods have gone too far. Harry refuses to be a murderer, and gives the squad an answer that may as well be a direct message to the original film’s critics.

"I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me."

'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]
'Magnum Force' [Credit: Warner Bros]

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