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Harry’s Disciples: ‘Magnum Force’ the Self-Critical Sequel

Harry’s Disciples: ‘Magnum Force’ the Self-Critical Sequel

Magnum Force Title

Harry Callahan’s next adventure originated with John Milius, Hollywood’s favorite gun fanatic, surfer and “Zen anarchist.” Milius wrote B Movies for American International Pictures before breaking through with two Westerns, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Jeremiah Johnson. His knack for macho action and pulpy, colorful dialogue fit Dirty Harry perfectly; Milius wrote his draft in 21 days, receiving a Purdey shotgun as payment.

Though uncredited, Milius claims credit for Harry‘s dialogue, especially the “Do I feel lucky?” monologue. Others, including Richard Schickel, credit Harry Julian Fink with that speech. Clint Eastwood marginalizes Milius’s contributions to the film, admitting “we might have taken a few good items John had in there.” Milius resented this: “Look at the movie and you tell me who wrote that,” he challenged an interviewer.

Milius soon moved past any hurt feelings. After reading several articles on Brazil’s “death squads” – rogue policemen used to assassinate criminals and dissidents alike – he called Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, suggesting they relocate the premise to America. Eastwood agreed, seeing the story as a counter to critics who labeled Harry a “fascist.” After Milius finished, Eastwood brought in a young writer named Michael Cimino to polish the script. The result, Magnum Force (1973), became that unusual film: the sequel that questions the original.

Magnum Force

Magnum Force immediately states its message. In the opening, a mobster’s acquitted on a technicality; a prosecutor complains to the press; crowds protest angrily, one shouting “Fuck the courts!” The gloating gangster’s pulled over by a traffic cop, who shoots him and his entourage. Later, Police Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook) approvingly claims that the killer saved the taxpayers a lot of money; Harry, a late arrival, can’t but agree.

Plotwise, the film’s schematic. Someone’s murdering criminals across San Francisco: mob bosses, drug dealers, scurvy pimps brutally slain. Police officials suspect gangsters masquerading as police; Harry thinks it’s Charlie McCoy (Mitchell Ryan), an aging cop suffering a breakdown. The culprits are actually a quartet of young motorcycle cops led by Officer Davis (David Soul). Clean-cut Vietnam vets and improbable shots, they moonlight as an execution squad with high-placed friends.

Magnum Force takes dead aim at critics who viewed Dirty Harry as an apologia for police brutality. However crude his methods, Harry’s pursuit of Scorpio wasn’t reckless vigilantism. Even if the “death squad’s” victims deserve their fate, their killings confirm their own power. To emphasize this distinction, the filmmakers place various innocents in the crossfire – including a fellow policeman. Any collateral damage is acceptable to these guys: if confronting Scorpio at Dirty Harry‘s end, they would have shot through the kids to get him.

Magnum Force Cops

In one scene, the cops try recruiting Harry, who receives them coldly. “You heroes killed a dozen people this week,” he notes; “What are you going to do next week?” Davis answers bluntly: “Kill a dozen more.” Later, Briggs makes a similar argument; even at gunpoint Harry won’t come around. “Where does it end?” he asks Briggs, noting that vigilantism is an unrestrained license to kill. Harry’s moral compass points towards justice; he overextends himself to stop crime and save victims. Briggs and his henchmen desire an executioner’s power over the people of San Francisco; a truer “fascism” than Harry’s excesses.

Nothing better illustrates this than Magnum Force‘s central set piece. Briggs blames the killings on gangster Palancio (Tony Giorgio) and sends Harry to arrest him. However, Briggs tips off the gangster, whose henchmen ambush the police column. Harry and friends kill Palancio’s men after losing Sweet (Tim Matheson), one of the motorcycle cops. Here again, the difference between hero and villain becomes clear: Harry wouldn’t recklessly endanger fellow officers. It’s a hit disguised as an arrest.

Magnum Force mitigates its edge by altering Harry’s character. In some ways, he’s an even bigger badass than before. The credit sequence features Harry fingering his Magnum, then firing into the camera, forcing his masculinity upon the audience (accompanied by Lalo Schiffrin’s blaring score, more heroic fanfare than his scatty work on Dirty Harry). He busts two robberies and slays a dozen villains (gangsters and crooked cops alike) singlehandedly. In the original, Harry’s main strength wasn’t his handgun or ruthlessness but his moral compass. Here, it’s rapid-fire murderousness, as evinced by his laconic growl: “Nothing wrong with shooting – so long as the right people get shot!”

But the filmmakers incongruously soften this one-man army. Harry gains an Asian girlfriend (Adele Yoshioka) who begs her way into his Harry’s bed; a colleague’s widow (Christine White) also moons over him (Harry manfully resists). Similarly, his banter with his new, black partner (Felton Perry) lacks the edge of his exchanges with Chico and DiGiorgio. Disputing Briggs’ vigilante musings, he says “I hate the Goddamned system. But until somebody comes along with some changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it!” Would the Harry who threw his badge away after killing Scorpio agree?

Magnum Force Briggs

Predictably, critics excoriated Magnum Force. Pauline Kael attacked it in another long, vituperative review, refusing to call Eastwood an actor: “He’d have to do something before we could consider him bad at it.” Judith Crist called it a “gut-bashing, brain-splattering series of sadistic episodes.” Audiences didn’t care, and Magnum Force became another box office smash. Whether the moral ambiguity registered with audiences, they certainly enjoyed its heightened action and Eastwood’s charismatic toughness.

John Milius moved on to his first directorial feature, Dillinger (1973), the first of numerous he-man epics: The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Red Dawn (1984). His best-regarded script, of course, is Apocalypse Now (1979). Michael Cimino’s script-doctoring impressed Eastwood; he directed Eastwood’s next film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). From there, Cimino moved to the heights of The Deer Hunter (1978), then the epochal folly of Heaven’s Gate (1981).

One collaborator didn’t fare so well: director Ted Post, whose workmanlike direction flattens much of Magnum Force‘s impact. Post had worked with Eastwood on “Rawhide” and his first Hollywood vehicle, Hang ’em High (1968). But Post found Eastwood, now a superstar, hard to work with and unreceptive to his direction. Post later complained that Eastwood sabotaged his career, claiming that “Clint’s ego began to apply for statehood.”

Meanwhile, Harry moved onto other, lesser adventures. Harry’s signature line in Magnum Force has him telling Briggs: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Sadly, his creators didn’t follow this advice.

See my original article, “Dead Right: How Dirty Harry Captured the ’70s Culture Wars.”