Lately, I've been watching "western" films as research for a couple writing projects I'm woking on. I'm very interested in not just the real history of "the west" but also how this history has been represented in cinema, which tends to shape people's ideology more than actual history. Most people spend much more time watching films and television than reading history books, so if I want to understand how Americans have understood "the west" I need to watch western films.
One of the real icons of "western" cinema is Clint Eastwood who, along with John Wayne, has done more to shape a mythology of "the west" and the "western hero" than anyone. Films like "The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly," "A Fistful of Dollars," and "Joe Kidd" established a kind of western archetype: the vigilante hero. In the context of films like these, we (the viewer) are meant to side with Eastwood's no-nonsense brand of justice. He is a lone gunman, doling out "law" in a lawless land. Disputes are settled, not with reasoned argument, but with gun fights. No matter how high the body count, we are meant to believe Eastwood is doing what must be done, and he's the only one with the "guts" to do it. Questions of good and evil are fairly black and white. Despite the fact that his solution is usually violence and murder, Eastwood always emerges as the "hero."
In the "Dirty Harry" films of the 1970s and 80s, this western vigilante hero is transplanted into modern, urban San Francisco, and like much of the "new realist/neo-noir" cinema of the 1970s, questions of good and evil get a little more murky. The trailer for the original "Dirty Harry" film began: "This is a movie about a couple of homicidal killers. The one with the badge is Harry." In the "new west" of modern San Francisco, Eastwood's brand of vigilante justice (doled out with his signature phallic Magnum .44) seems morally questionable, sometimes even bordering on fascist.
The Dirty Harry films, whether ironically or not, sometimes feel like right-wing propaganda, insisting that guns are still the final solution to society's ills. Lawyers and politicians are cowardly and corrupt, and what the city really needs are old school, gun-totin' vigilantes like Dirty Harry. The "outlaws" of old are re-imagined as the "punks" of the modern, urban metropolis: hippies, pimps, "black militants," union leaders, and revolutionary activists. The lessons of the Civil Rights movement are completely lost on Dirty Harry, who tends to regard anyone who disrupts the "law and order" as a menace to be dealt with brutally, usually with a Magnum .44. The second film in the Dirty Harry series, "Magnum Force," is a virtual love letter to powerful handguns.
Dirty Harry is overtly racist, sexist, and homophobic. This may be excused in films set in the 1800s, but in the 1970s and 80s, he comes off as an out-of-touch sociopath. Terms like "nigger," "spic," and "queer" are thrown around like it's no problem. In the third Dirty Harry film, "The Enforcer," Harry is horrified to learn that he has been assigned a woman as his new partner. For Harry, the white, male chauvinist, women have no place in the violent, masculine world of urban law enforcement. Understanding Harry's mindset actually gives us great insight into the law enforcement ideology of late 20th century America: male-dominated, white, suspicious of the aspirations of minorities ("hoods" to Harry), women, and youth culture in general.
Watching the Dirty Harry films, I'm unsure if I'm supposed to side with the "hero" or not. There isn't really a "hero" to these stories. Yes, Harry always kills the "bad guys" at the end, but the path he takes to get there is always ugly and "dirty." I'm not sure what the message of these films is even, except maybe to hold a mirror, albeit a dark mirror, on certain aspects of modern American urban life. At the end of every Dirty Harry film, Harry is alone against a desolate-looking urban landscape, and I can't help thinking of that image of an 81-year old Clint Eastwood in 2012, alone on the stage at the Republican National Convention, speaking to an empty chair.