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David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is not just a great film, it is a nearly perfect one. Even better, it was recognized as such from the start by virtually everyone. The critics lionized it and continue to include it on their “best” lists. The movie business showered it with prizes. Bridge won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director. Audiences made it the biggest film of 1957 and a perennial favorite ever since.

Bridge was Lean’s twelfth film and his first “epic,” which cast the die for the rest of his career. It was followed by Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), also classics. Then Lean ended his career with Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984), which fail as films in part because their slighter stories were overwhelmed by Lean’s epic style of treatment, which had hardened into mannerisms.

Bridge might have shared the same fate because of its source material. Lean’s film adapts Pierre Boulle’s best-selling 1952 novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï. (Boulle is also famous for another novel that made it to the screen as Planet of the Apes.) The novel is set in Japanese-occupied Thailand during the Second World War. The Japanese are building a railroad to connect Bangkok with Rangoon using forced labor, both native civilians and British prisoners of war.

The British prisoners in a particular camp are tasked with building a bridge over the river Kwai. The main conflict is between the Japanese camp Commander Saito and British Lt. Colonel Nicholson. Saito demands that officers do manual labor. This being contrary to the military code, Nicholson refuses, and he and his officers are punished. Naturally, the construction project is plagued by sabotage. Saito eventually relents because he needs the cooperation of the British officers to finish the bridge on schedule.

Nicholson then marshals his men in order to build a better bridge than the Japanese could have done. Nicholson appeals to legalism, esprit de corps, and British chauvinism—but they all fall short of a case for enthusiastic collaborationism. The core of the novel is the absurdity of a man who collaborates with the enemy out of a misplaced sense of duty. It is not clear if Nicholson is supposed to be an imbecile or a madman, but he’s definitely something of a buffoon: a snob, a bore, a martinet, and ultimately a traitor.

Most Brits who read the novel found it to be offensive and rather tasteless: offensive, because it reads as a rather crude Gallic lampoon of the British national character, especially the British military; tasteless, because approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died during the construction of the railway, plus up to 100,000 of the local civilians; it is just not something to be treated lightly.

Lean followed Boulle’s plot fairly faithfully. The main departure—the destruction of the bridge at the end of the film—was approved by Boulle. Where Lean departed from Boulle is his treatment of the character of Nicholson. Lean turned Nicholson from a buffoon into a tragic hero worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. In Lean’s eyes, Nicholson stands for genuine virtues: patriotism, loyalty, duty, pride one’s his work, and obedience to law, authority, and moral principles. He wouldn’t be a tragic hero unless he had genuine virtues.

Nicholson’s “tragic flaw” is that he does not see that his virtues only really make sense when practiced among his own people, for their benefit. In the prison camp, however, these virtues are being exploited by a ruthless enemy who aims to destroy the Empire that Nicholson so loyally fought to preserve. There’s a lesson in this for white people today, since our openness to strangers, altruism, and moral idealism are being exploited by a system that is destroying us as well.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is masterful at exploring the fundamental distinction between aristocratic ethos that prizes honor above all else and the bourgeois ethos that prizes comfort, security, long life, and pleasure above all else.

G. W. F. Hegel famously claims that history begins with a battle to the death over honor, in which two men are willing to risk their lives for an idea. Prehistory is governed by the necessities of life. History is governed by ideas. If both men prize honor above life, and one is defeated, he will choose death before dishonor. But if the defeated party chooses life at the price of honor, he is revealed to be a very different kind of man who is reduced to the status of a slave, to toil for the victor.

This is exactly how Japanese Commander Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa) sees the matter. By surrendering, the British have lost their honor and have been reduced to slaves, including the officers, thus all must work. Saito will not spare the officers from the full measure of their disgrace because of a mere legalism that forbids imprisoned officers from doing manual labor, as if they were still gentlemen. To him, the Geneva Convention is nothing compared to the Japanese warrior code of bushido. The Japanese military felt superior to the British because the Japanese still committed suicide to avoid the dishonor of defeat, whereas the British, being a Christian nation, rejected suicide and used legalisms to preserve their honor even in defeat.

The dispute between Saito and Nicholson—brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guinness—becomes another struggle to the death over honor. Saito puts Nicholson in a metal box in the blazing sun to break his will, but he refuses to relent and do manual labor, even if it kills him. Unfortunately for Saito, the bridge is behind schedule, the Japanese engineer is incompetent, and the prisoners are at best sullen workers, at worst prone to malingering and sabotage.

If the bridge is not committed on schedule, Saito will be expected to commit suicide, a fate that he wishes to avoid. Thus Saito uses the anniversary of the Japanese victory over Russia as the occasion for a face-saving amnesty. Nicholson and his officers will not have to labor but will organize their men to complete the bridge on time. The roles have been reversed. Nicholson has chosen death over dishonor, and Saito has flinched, choosing dishonor over death. It is Nicholson’s high point. After that, his fall begins.

Nicholson’s quest to build a better bridge than the Japanese also makes sense in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Nicholson has beaten Saito on an essential point of honor. But he is still a prisoner, and his men are still slaves. However, Hegel describes as pathway by which the slave can restore his self-respect and humanity. The master rules over men, including slaves. The slave, however, can make himself a master over nature, which is what Nicholson and his men do by building the bridge, and doing it better than the Japanese could. Saito is shamed by this, and even though the bridge is completed on time, he still plans to kill himself.

But in a deeper sense, the Japanese have still won, because they got their bridge, which is an important strategic asset in their war against the British. Next stop: India.

Since both Saito and Nicholson are master types, albeit at times “temporarily embarrassed” master types, the film needs a well-developed slave type as a contrast. The American studio wanted a big American star to appeal to American ticket buyers. Enter William Holden as the American Commander Shears. (In the novel, Shears is British.) The Americans also wanted a love interest to appeal to chicks. Lean groaned, because war stories are guy stories. (Lean got his way on his next film, Lawrence of Arabia, in which there are no speaking roles for women.)

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

David Lean (1908–1991) directed sixteen movies, fully half of them classics, including three of the greatest films ever made: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and, greatest of them all, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lawrence of Arabia is repeatedly ranked as one of the finest films of all time, and when one compares it to such overpraised items as Citizen Kane and Casablanca, a strong case can be made for putting it at the very top of the list. I am hesitant to speak of “the greatest” anything, just because I have not seen everything. But when I think of some of my personal favorites—Vertigo, Network, Rashomon—I can’t honestly rank any of them higher than Lawrence of Arabia.

Everything about this film is epic: from its nearly four-hour running time and its 70-millimeter widescreen image with astonishing detail and depth of focus—to the magnificent settings in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain—to the music by Maurice Jarré—to the cast of thousands crowned by such stars as Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, and Claude Rains.

Lean had to go big, simply to do justice to the story. Lawrence of Arabia is about one of the most remarkable men of the last century, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888–1935) and his role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Based on Lawrence’s sprawling narrative of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the script by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago) and Michael Wilson (The Bridge on the River Kwai) is a supremely masterful screen adaptation. The timeline is simplified and certain characters are amalgamated, both to save time and heighten dramatic conflicts, but the truth of the story is conveyed.

Like Lawrence’s book, the movie has several layers. First of all, it is a historical narrative. Second, it offers lessons in political philosophy. (The word “wisdom” in the title should have been a warning.) Lawrence was a nationalist, not an imperialist. To fight the Turks, he favored aiding Arab nationalists rather than spending British lives to conquer territory and resources in Mesopotamia. But, against Lawrence’s own intention, Seven Pillars also makes a case for empire, a case that Lean’s film clearly reinforces. Third, there is a strong element of Nietzschean self-mythologization: what Aleister Crowley calls “auto-hagiography” and the Arabs call “blasphemy.”

On the symbolic plane, Lawrence overthrows the three Abrahamic faiths by rejecting their doctrines and reversing or rewriting their central stories with himself as the hero. The movie takes this process further, both reflecting upon the process by which Lawrence became a legend and perfecting it: cinema as apotheosis. I want to focus on the latter two layers. Thus I will skip huge stretches of the story and leave those for you to discover on your own.

T.E. Lawrence was one of five illegitimate sons of an Anglo-Irish Baronet, Sir Thomas Chapman, and an English mother, Sarah Junner. Highly intelligent, Lawrence read history at Jesus College, Oxford from 1907 to 1910. From 1910 to 1914, he was an archaeologist in the Holy Land, working with such eminent figures as Leonard Woolley and Flinders Petrie. Woolley and Lawrence also gathered intelligence for the British in the Negev Desert in early 1914.

When the World War broke out, Lawrence enlisted. Fluent in French and Arabic and knowledgeable of Arab history and culture, he received a military intelligence post in Cairo. In June of 1916, when Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, Lawrence was sent to Arabia to gather intelligence. The rest is history.

The movie begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, at the age of 46. After a memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral attended by the crème of the British establishment, a priest asks if Lawrence “really belongs here,” which introduces the theme of Lawrence as an outsider. The first half of the movie can be seen as an affirmative answer to that question.

Then we flash back nearly twenty years to Lawrence in Cairo. From the start, Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence as slightly autistic and ambiguously gay. He also has a masochistic side. He likes to extinguish matches with his fingers. “The trick . . . is not to mind that it hurts.” It is a small exercise in self-overcoming, a hint of greater things to come.

Lawrence’s commander, General Murray, despises him as an overeducated misfit, but a civil servant Mr. Dryden (a composite character played by Claude Rains) values his intelligence and language skills. Dryden “borrows” Lawrence for an intelligence gathering mission to Arabia. He is to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the son of Sharif Hussein, and evaluate his leadership potential.

Lawrence tells Dryden that he thinks this mission will be “fun.” Dryden says that the only people who find the desert fun are Bedouin and gods. His unstated premise is that Lawrence is neither. Lawrence flatly declares, “No, it will be fun.” If Dryden is right, and Lawrence is not a Bedouin, that implies that Lawrence thinks of himself as a god. To underscore Lawrence’s funny idea of fun, he lights a match. But this time Lawrence blows the flame out.

Crossing the desert to find Faisal, Lawrence’s guide Tafas is killed by Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif) for drinking at his well. You see, Tafas is from the wrong tribe. This prompts a bit of political philosophy delivered with autistic frankness that borders on the suicidal, given that it is spoken to a man holding a smoking gun: “As long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel.” A nation comes into being when tribes of the same people put aside petty differences and rivalries for a higher good. Throughout his adventures in Arabia, Lawrence’s dream of a rising Arab nation is stymied by tribal rivalries and blood feuds.

On autistic principle, Lawrence rejects Ali’s help in finding Faisal, preferring to risk it on his own.

When Lieutenant Lawrence reaches Faisal, he is ordered by his British military advisor, Colonel Brighton, to say nothing, observe, and report back to Dryden. But Lawrence is irrepressible. As an autist, when he has ideas, he can’t keep them to himself, which intrigues Faisal. Brighton counsels a strategic withdrawal to Yenbo, where the British can resupply him. Faisal wants the British fleet to take the port of Aqaba, but Brighton refuses. It is too well-defended. When Brighton leaves, Faisal bids Lawrence to stay. Faisal naturally fears the English have designs on Arabia, but he is forced to depend upon them: “We need the English or—what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence—we need a miracle.”

This prompts Lawrence to spend a night brooding in the desert. The next morning, Lawrence suggests to Ali that the Arabs should take Aqaba themselves. Aqaba’s guns point toward the sea, because an attack from the land was deemed unlikely. Ali points out that such an attack would require crossing the Nefud Desert, a waste that even the Bedouin avoid. Lawrence proposes crossing the Nefud with fifty men—all members of Ali’s tribe—then raising more troops from the Howeitat tribe on the other side. Ali agrees.

When Lawrence tells Prince Faisal that he is “going to work your miracle,” Faisal replies “Blasphemy is a bad beginning.” Lean films Lawrence’s nocturnal meditations like something more than just a brainstorming session. Now we know that it was a step toward apotheosis.

• Category: Arts/Letters, History • Tags: Hollywood, Middle East, Movies, World War I 

Over the years, I caught bits and pieces of John Milius’ 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian—starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the big lug himself—on cable TV. But I was never tempted to watch the whole film. I finally gave in when I started writing my series on Classics of Right-Wing Cinema, and friends urged me to add Conan to my list.

I admit that a film about Robert E. Howard’s iconic hero, with visuals borrowed from Frank Frazetta, starring the future California Governator, and directed by Right-wing Jew Milius sounds like a formula for a classic of Right-wing cinema, teeming with paleo-masculine heroics and illiberal political realism. After all, Milius wrote the script for Dirty Harry, which is a genuine paleo-masculine, anti-liberal classic of Right-wing cinema.

Sadly, though, Conan the Barbarian is nothing like Dirty Harry, but it is very much like its sequel, Magnum Force, also scripted by Milius, in which the character of Harry Callahan is systematically subverted in a decidedly anti-white and politically correct manner.

The Conan movie went through more than a decade of development hell before finally moving forward with Milius at the helm. Oliver Stone had apparently written a four-hour script set in a post-apocalyptic future. Milius discarded Stone’s script entirely, even though Stone and Milius share the final screenwriting credit. Instead of setting Conan in classical antiquity, Milius sets the story in the Dark Ages, borrowing elements from the Norse and the Mongols.

Howard’s Conan is a fearsome warrior, but he is also intelligent, witty, learned, and cunning. He can read and write. He is fluent in a number of languages. He can solve problems and crack codes. These traits set him apart in a world teeming with warriors, enabling him to become a king. In short, Howard’s Conan is no mere barbarian. Milius’ Conan is strong and cunning, but otherwise he is an oaf with very few lines. It is impossible to imagine this man becoming a king, because he really is just a barbarian.

But surely Milius used some of Howard’s 21 Conan stories? No, not really. He borrowed some names and events, but the plot is his invention. This is John Milius’ Conan, not Robert E. Howard’s, which is something of a cheat if you grew up liking Howard’s Conan. Ultimately, though, Milius’ Conan has to be judged on its own merits. So permit me some spoilers.

The story opens with Conan as a child. His father is a blacksmith who explains the “riddle of steel” to his young son. Later, Conan’s village is attacked by a marauding band. Actually, they look like a marauding heavy metal band: Spinal Tap, but with real axes. It is a bit much.

The band is led by Thulsa Doom, who is played by James Earl Jones. Jones, of course, was the voice of Darth Vader, so he was an iconic choice for a villain. But Jones is a black man, who is as absurdly out of place in Conan’s world as the llama we glimpse later on in the movie. Thulsa Doom has the power to hypnotize people, which he uses on Conan’s mother, who lowers her sword, allowing Thulsa to lop off her head.

The children of the village are marched off as slaves to toil in a mill, where eventually Conan grows up to be a giant, muscular brute played by Schwarzenegger. Then Conan is sold to another master, who makes a gladiator of him. Howard’s Conan was a free man from birth and would never have acquiesced to such treatment. Of course such an origin story could be compelling if Conan overcame it, for instance by gaining his freedom through strength and character. But no, at a certain point, his master just lets a highly profitable slave go. It makes no sense and adds nothing to Conan’s rather murky character and motivations.

Conan wanders a bit, finding a sword. Then he meets a witch, who seduces him. When she begins transforming into something unsavory, he simply tosses her into the fireplace and leaves. It is genuinely funny. At that point, I wondered if this film was trying to be camp, like Mike Hodges’ 1980 Flash Gordon, which was also produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

Conan then rescues Subotai, a thief who has been imprisoned by the witch. Played by Gerry Lopez, dubbed by a Japanese actor, and named after one of Genghis Khan’s generals, Subotai is our white hero’s non-white sidekick. Because those are the rules of Hollywood: no white hero can act without a non-white sidekick.

Conan wants revenge on Thusla Doom. The witch told him that Doom can be found in the city of Zamora, so Conan and Subotai set out for there. In Zamora, they meet Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), a strong, independent female thief, because the rules of Hollywood also dictate that no white hero can be depicted without a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need him.

When Conan asks about Thulsa Doom’s snake standard, he is told of the towers of the cult of Set: “Two or three years ago, it was just another snake cult,” but now franchises are popping up in every city. At this point, I was wondering if Lorenzo Semple, Jr., of Flash Gordon and the Batman TV series had a hand in the script.

The three thieves sneak into the tower of Set, where they find one of Thulsa’s heavy metal band feeding nubile females to a giant serpent. They kill the serpent, steal some treasure, and go celebrate. Conan and Valeria become an item.

Suddenly, the trio are arrested and dragged before Osric, the king of Zamora, played by the great Max von Sydow. The fact that he played Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon reinforced the camp interpretation. But then Von Sydow does something quite unexpected. He takes a campy script and gives a riveting and passionate performance. His daughter has joined Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, and he wants to hire the thieves to bring her back.

Subotai and Valeria don’t wish to risk it. When Valeria gives her case for quitting while they are ahead, again it is well-acted and touching. It is the dramatic high-point of the film, which then lapses back into camp, spectacle, and mindless action. But for a few minutes, we get a sense of the great sword and sorcery movie Conan could have been if Milius had just played it straight, with sincerity rather than irony.

Conan wants revenge, so he heads to Thulsa Doom’s headquarters alone. Milius portrays the Doom cultists as degenerate, credulous flower children being exploited by ruthless sociopaths. Using an amusing ruse, Conan steals a priest’s costume but is caught. Doom makes a rather chilling speech about the relative powers of steel and flesh. By flesh, he really means the hypnotic power of his words over the minds of his followers, which he demonstrates by enticing one to leap to her death. This contrast between words and steel is central to the whole plot, but it also dictates a fundamental change in Conan’s character. Howard’s Conan was a master of steel (well, bronze) and words. Milius’ Conan is an inarticulate thug.

Doom orders Conan to be crucified on a tree, but Subotai rescues him. Then Subotai, Valeria, and another Asian sidekick, a wizard with an annoying voice named Akiro, use magic to bring Conan back from the brink of death. The wizard warns, however, that the magic will have a heavy toll. Valeria is willing to risk it. Akiro is played by an Asian, because a white hero cannot be aided by a wise white mentor, and Morgan Freeman was otherwise engaged. Those are the rules of Hollywood.


Michael Powell (1905–1990) is one of the tragic geniuses of film: a genius because he is one of the most visually dazzling directors in the history of cinema, tragic because he too often he wasted his talents on inferior scripts, most of them provided by his longtime collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee to whom Powell often gave co-director credit.

Powell worked his way up from a studio gofer to a leading director. Many of his journeyman efforts are lost. His career as a mature director begins in 1937 with The Edge of the World. With the exception of The Edge of the World and I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Powell spent his first ten years churning out anti-German, pro-cosmopolitan war propaganda, visually and technically dazzling but often quite silly: The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Powell also directed a number of short propaganda films for the British government with titles like The Lion Has Wings (1939), An Airman’s Letter to His Mother (1941), and The Volunteer (1943).

Powell’s genius only flourished fully after the war, in such apolitical works as Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), which is one of my favorite films. Aside from The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera of the same name, most of Powell’s films in the 1950s were mediocre. Then he produced one last masterpiece, Peeping Tom (1960), the story of a serial killer which was so shocking and distasteful that it pretty much destroyed his career.

Black Narcissus is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by [Margaret] Rumer Godden about a small group of Anglican nuns who set up a convent and school in Mopu, a princely state in the Himalayas. The local potentate, General Toda Rai, gives the sisters an abandoned palace, a former harem decorated with erotic art, perched on the edge of a dizzying precipice with a magnificent view of the Himalayas. Near them is a Hindu holy man, who turns out to be the former owner of the palace. Below them is a bewilderingly complex, violent, and superstitious society. Their only guide is Mr. Dean, an Englishman who manages a tea plantation for the General.

Black Narcissus seems, in part, to be about what can be called “the spirit of place,” understood in terms of landscape, culture, and even human structures. The nuns are all European women, and even though they have already spent some time in India, they seemed to have been relatively cloistered, whereas in Mopu, they are on their own, founding a new convent. Beyond that, the atmosphere in Mopu is particularly potent, bringing each member of the order to a crisis.

Sister Briony, known for her strength, becomes sick due to the high altitude. Sister Philippa, who was brought to tend the vegetable gardens, is overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and plants flowers instead. Sister Honey’s soft-heartedness leads her to give medicine to a fatally ill baby, against the advice of Mr. Dean, who knows that the locals will blame the sisters for the child’s death, which will endanger their mission and perhaps their lives.

The most dramatic crises, however, are those of Sister Clodagh, the young Sister Superior, and Sister Ruth, who is both highly neurotic and affected by the high altitude. Both Clodagh and Ruth are prideful women, which pits them against one another from the start. Beyond that, both women are stirred by the palace’s erotic history and décor, as well as the presence of a highly attractive bachelor, Mr. Dean, into an increasingly conscious sexual rivalry. Dean too, for his part, is clearly attracted to Sister Clodagh, although at first they both seem to hate each other. Dean is also dismissive of the Sisters’ Christian faith and mission. Toss in a budding romance between the General’s son, who is being tutored by the Sisters, and a nubile vixen of the lowest caste who lives at the convent, and you have a simmering cauldron of sexual tension that soon boils over, with disastrous results.

The story’s combination of aestheticism, eroticism, and riveting dramatic conflicts inspired some of Powell’s best work. From start to finish, Black Narcissus is visually ravishing, with tension and suspense mounting until the viewer feels, like Sister Ruth, that he is losing his mind. As the story unfolds, the production becomes increasingly stylized, from the stark simplicity and Vermeer-like light of the scenes before the nuns depart for Mopu, to the voluptuous colors and décor of the palace, to pure German Expressionist horror at the end. The music by Brian Easdale, who also composed the music for The Red Shoes, is some of his finest work. The cast is excellent, with outstanding performances by Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth.

Black Narcissus was filmed in Technicolor entirely on soundstages, except for some scenes in a London botanical garden, because of Powell’s desire to meticulously control light, color, and atmosphere. Some of the matte paintings look fake, but one is more forgiving when one realizes that practically everything else you took for real is fake as well.

Black Narcissus was released in 1947, when the British Empire was pulling out of India. In that context, a story about British nuns going mad because they are “out of place” in India was taken as anti-colonialist, anti-Imperialist propaganda. That may well have been Pressburger’s intent. As an ethnonationalist, I don’t have any problem with an anti-imperialist message. But I doubt it occurred to Powell, or to the original novelist, that Black Narcissus was about much more than sex.

The Legion of Decency in the US regarded Black Narcissus as anti-Christian and demanded a flashback to Sister Clodagh’s life before becoming a nun be removed. Clodagh came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. From childhood, she thought she would marry her sweetheart Con. When she discovered that he planned to go to America and leave her behind, she decided to take her destruction into her own hands and become a nun. She engineered an honorable defeat for herself.

I don’t see anything anti-Christian about acknowledging the fact that some people join religious orders out of disappointment with the world. Nor does it strike me as anti-Christian to acknowledge that celibacy often leaves a lot to be desired.

The deeper message of Black Narcissus is not about sex but about race. Mr. Dean did not lack opportunities for sex in Mopu. Nor were Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth shut away entirely from men before coming to Mopu. They were constantly surrounded by the natives, after all. What upset the plans of all three was not the presence of a member of the opposite sex, but of a member of the opposite sex of the same race.

Each time I watch Black Narcissus, I prize it more highly. I have avoided spoilers, because I want you to watch it too. But be sure to seek out Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, because there is now a pretender to the title. In 2020, a three-part British miniseries of Black Narcissus was run on BBC One and FX.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies 

The Searchers (1956) has been acclaimed not just as one of John Ford’s greatest films, and not just as one of the greatest Westerns, but as one of the greatest films of all time. This praise is all the more surprising given that The Searchers is a profoundly illiberal and even “racist” movie, which means that most fans esteem it grudgingly rather than unreservedly.

I think The Searchers is absurdly overrated, for it is far from flawless. But it is still a great work of art that plumbs deep themes and stirs deep feelings. It should be seen by everyone, even people who generally don’t watch movies. (Spoiler Alert: I am going to talk about the whole story, so bail out here if you want to see the film with fresh eyes.)

Although The Searchers is set in Texas in 1868, Ford’s treatment goes beyond the historical to the mythic and epic. The movie begins in a dark room. A door opens on a magnificent Monument Valley landscape. The silhouette of a woman appears in the doorway. As she steps forward, into the light, she moves from being two-dimensional to three. It is like watching a specter, a shade, taking on an embodied form. It has the feel of a creation myth.

But what is being created? The answer seems to be civilization, and it is a very different myth than the one told by liberal social contract theorists. The opening also suggests that the interior realm of family and domesticity is less real than the exterior world. It certainly proves to be more vulnerable and less harsh.

A rider approaches across the desert. This is a lawless land, where every stranger is regarded with apprehension. The wife is joined on the porch by her husband, then her daughters, then her son, all scanning anxiously. The figures are shot from a low angle. They move with dignity. They barely speak. The whole feel is monumental, epic.

As the rider comes closer, they recognize him as a long-lost member of the family: Ethan Edwards, played with searing charisma by John Wayne. After eight years of fighting, first with the Confederacy then as a mercenary for the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, the wanderer Ethan has come to the ranch of his brother Aaron, Aaron’s wife Martha, and their three children, Lucy, Ben, and Debbie.

Ethan clearly aims to stop fighting and make a home there. He gives his sabre to Ben and a Mexican medal to Debbie. He presents Aaron with a substantial amount of money to “pay his way.” But Ethan’s attempt to reenter society and enjoy the fruits of peace does not last a single day, for there’s trouble afoot.

The next morning, Ethan goes off with a group of Texas Rangers to recover the stolen cattle of a neighboring rancher, Lars Jorgenson. When they find the cattle slaughtered with Comanche lances, Ethan concludes that the cattle theft was a diversion to pull the men from the ranches, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The party splits up, riding to defend both the Jorgenson and Edwards ranches.

When Ethan arrives back at his brother’s ranch, he finds it in flames. Aaron, Ben, and Martha are dead. Lucy and Debbie have been abducted by Comanches. After a brief funeral, Ethan and a group of Rangers go in search of the girls.

After a battle with the Indians, the party splits in two. Most of them return home, while Ethan continues the search accompanied by Lucy’s fiancé Brad Jorgenson (Harry Carey, Jr.) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an orphan who was adopted by the Edwards and considers the kidnapped girls his sisters. When Ethan finds Lucy dead, a distraught Brad charges into the Indian camp and is killed. The searchers are thus reduced to Ethan and Martin, so we need to pause a bit and examine both characters.

Who is Ethan Edwards? He is a warrior and a wanderer in wild spaces: the space between warring civilizations and the space between civilization and savagery. He lives in the state of nature, not civil society. In the state of nature, there is no overarching power to enforce the peace, so a man needs to know how to protect himself. Thus Ethan knows how to thread his way between hostile peoples, negotiate treaties with enemies, strike bargains with crooks, and deploy both trickery and violence in a fight. He knows Spanish, Comanche, and probably some other Indian tongues.

Ethan fought on the side of the Confederacy out of loyalty. (He won’t swear another oath to the Texas Rangers.) Once the Confederacy was defeated, he fought for the Emperor Maximilian for money. But war is a young man’s game. Ethan is getting too old for it. Thus, he wants to take his earnings and make a home for himself with his brother’s family in Texas.

Ethan is a dark character. He has done dark deeds. He fits “any number of warrants,” which doesn’t necessarily mean he is guilty of anything. But the local Rangers would rather be his friend than his enemy. On two occasions, the Ranger Captain Clayton chooses to ignore Ethan’s possible crimes because they need his help. They sense that Ethan is like them: a guardian of peace and family life, even though he has known precious little of them himself.

For instance, when a fight breaks out at a wedding at the Jorgenson home, Ethan shoos Mrs. Jorgenson inside because he doesn’t think a woman should see such things. When Ethan finds the bodies of Martha and Lucy, both of whom were presumably raped, he spares others the sight. He has peered into the abyss so that others don’t have to.

Ethan doesn’t wish to remain in the state of nature. But he understands that he may never see civil society. He may have to give his life so that others will see it. He may have to do things that render him unfit for civil society, so that others can enjoy it in innocence and peace.

At one point, Mrs. Jorgenson says, “A Texican’s nothin’ but a human man out on a limb . . . This year and next and maybe for a hundred more. But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country will be a fine good place to be . . . Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come . . .”

Texas is a pagan land that demands human sacrifices before it becomes a decent place to live. This is why Ethan interrupts the Christian burial of his family to begin the search for the killers. Texas is not yet ready for such niceties. It needs more blood and bones, and Ethan is ready to lay down his own.

Ethan is a man in a hurry. The proximate reason for haste is that with each passing minute, the girls are closer to rape, torture, and death. The deeper cause is that he’s over the hill, so his time is short. Thus he’s rude and abrasive. He treats weakness with contempt. He is focused on action and has no time for social niceties. He is cold and ruthless, using Martin as bait to trap and kill the treacherous merchant Futterman. He is also increasingly savage. He shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian, because mutilated men “can’t enter the spirit land” but must “wander forever between the winds.” He scalps another Indian corpse for the same reason. He even slaughters buffalo simply to starve the Indians.

Ethan’s search for Debbie quickly takes on the quality of an obsession. He barely knew the girl. She was eight years old when he returned from eight years of wandering. But she is all that remains of his family, and he searches for her for five years, long after most men would have given up. He is Odysseus, who returns home for a day, then becomes Captain Ahab.

There’s a lot to dislike about Ethan Edwards, but he’s the only man who could have rescued Debbie. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford wants to confront liberals with the fact their civilization could not have been built without illiberal men and illiberal deeds.


For years now, readers have been urging me to review Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), which adapts Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel of the same name. I have resisted, because although A Clockwork Orange is often hailed as a classic, I thought it was dumb, distasteful, and highly overrated, so I didn’t want to watch it again. Of course I had first watched it decades ago. But maybe I would see it differently if I gave it another chance. So I approached it with an open mind. But I was right the first time.

A Clockwork Orange is set in Great Britain in a not-too-distant future. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his three buddies are violent hooligans who engage in rape, assault, robbery, and wanton destruction. The movie opens with an amphetamine-fueled crime spree. They beat up an old drunk, brawl with another gang, run people off the road while joy riding, then use a confidence trick (“There’s been a terrible accident. Can I come in and use your phone?”) to invade a couple’s home, whereupon they beat the man, rape his wife, and trash the place. The whole sequence is deeply distasteful. Violent sociopaths like Alex and his friends should simply be killed.

Alex is high-handed and cruel to his buddies as well, using treachery and violence to assert dominance over them. This merely breeds resentment. One night they decide to rob a wealthy woman’s house. The old accident trick does not work, so Alex breaks in. There is a struggle. She attacks him with a bust of Beethoven, so he kills her with a sculpture of a penis. Hearing sirens, he exits, whereupon his ex-friends clobber him with a bottle and leave him for the police.

Let that be a lesson to you.

Alex is imprisoned for murder. He seeks to ingratiate himself with the authorities by feigning Christian piety. (As a violent sociopath, he finds the Old Testament more to his liking.)

When a new Left-wing government comes into power, they want to free up prison space for political prisoners, so they introduce an experimental cure for his violent sociopathy: the Ludovico technique, which is basically a form of Pavlovian conditioning. Alex is the test subject. He is injected with a nausea-producing drug then forced to watch films of violence, including sexual violence. Eventually, he can’t even think of violence without becoming violently ill. Pronounced cured, he is released into society.

Newly paroled, Alex bumps into the bum that he assaulted, who recognizes him and wants revenge. He calls together his fellow bums to beat Alex, whose Ludovico conditioning makes it impossible for him to fight back.

Ironic, huh?

Let that be a lesson to you.

When the mob of hobos is broken up by two cops, they turn out to be two of Alex’s old gang, the very ones he humiliated. Eager to exact further revenge, they beat him mercilessly and abandon him in the countryside. Alex is helpless to resist.

Ironic, huh?

Let that be a lesson to you.

Alex wanders through the countryside until he takes refuge at the home of the very couple he and his gang brutalized. Ironic, huh? The husband was crippled by the beating. The wife has died and been replaced with a gigantic muscular dork named Julian. The husband figures out who Alex is and drugs him. Then he and some of his friends, who oppose the government that introduced the Ludovico technique, try to drive Alex to commit suicide, hoping to create a scandal that will embarrass the government. Alex throws himself from a window and is severely injured but does not die.

To contain the scandal, the Justice Minister throws the cripple in prison and tries to win Alex’s favor by tending to his wounds. While unconscious, he is also given brain surgery to reverse the Ludovico technique. The happy ending is that Alex returns to being a violent sociopath, but this time he will enjoy the patronage and protection of the state. Thus the tale veers from pat moralism to pure cynicism in the end. Apparently, the book’s final chapter was “redemptive,” but this was omitted as being contrived—as if that weren’t true of the whole story.

But isn’t this all redeemed by a “deep message” about human freedom? No, not really, because the moral psychology of A Clockwork Orange is remarkably crude.

The Ludovico technique is based on the observation that normal people have a distaste for violence and cruelty directed at the innocent. Then it simply ignores the fact that normal people don’t necessarily have a distaste for violence, even cruelty, directed at bad people. It also reverses cause and effect, reasoning that since normal people feel distaste at violence, if they can create a mechanical association between violence and sickness, that will somehow make Alex a morally normal person, curing him of his violent sociopathy.

Of course, this whole theory completely ignores the element of empathy. Normal people feel disgust with violence and cruelty because they can empathize with the victims. Sociopaths lack empathy, and the Ludovico technique does not change that. Alex does not feel sick with empathy for victims, he just feels sick. And his physiological response makes no moral distinctions between violence meted out to the deserving and the undeserving. When he is attacked, he can’t defend himself, because even violence in self-defense makes him sick.

Of course utter stupidity is no objection to most progressive social uplift schemes, so it doesn’t exactly make such a “cure” for crime implausible.

Burgess’s “deep” objection to the Ludovico technique is equally crude and dumb, but in a different way. The prison chaplain argues that the Ludovico technique is evil because it takes away Alex’s freedom, which takes away his humanity. Alex, being a sociopath, takes pleasure in hurting innocent people. The Ludovico treatment teaches him to feel disgust at violence.

But if this is a dehumanizing assault on freedom, what are we to make of our own disgust with Alex’s behavior? Is that also a dehumanizing form of unfreedom? Presumably so.

Does this mean that when Alex becomes a violent sociopath again his humanity has been restored? Presumably so.

Since Alex the sociopath can contemplate violence without any feelings of disgust, whereas normal people cannot, does this mean that Alex is both more free and more human than normally constituted people? If so, this is a pretty good example of a reductio ad absurdum.

The Ludovico technique and Burgess’ alternative both depend on a pat dualism between body and mind, which leaves no place for what the ancients called virtues and the moderns called moral sentiments. For the ancients, virtue is rooted in habit. For moral sentiments theorists, our ability to perceive the good is caught up in feelings like empathy and disgust. But to the Ludovico technique, virtue is indistinguishable from Pavlovian conditioning, and moral sentiments are indistinguishable from a sour stomach. From the chaplain’s point of view, the freedom of the mind is so separate from the body, habit, and feeling that a sociopath’s lack of virtue or moral sentiment actually make him freer and thus more human than morally healthy people.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Kubrick, Movies 

John Ford’s last great film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) enjoys the status of a classic. I find it a deeply flawed, grating, and often ridiculous film that is nonetheless redeemed both by raising intellectually deep issues and by an emotionally powerful ending that seems to come out of nowhere.

The stars of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, both fine actors given the impossible job of playing men in their 20s, even though they were aged 54 and 53 at the time. It just doesn’t work. Ford thought that drunkards and men with funny voices were hilarious. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we get two funny drunkards and three men with funny voices, including Andy Devine and Strother Martin. There is also a great deal of scene-chewing overacting and overbroad parody that often seem downright cartoonish. The film is poorly paced as well, burning through screen time and my patience with dramatically needless details of frontier kitchens and political conventions.

Beyond these lapses of taste, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also contains Left-liberal messages on race. For instance, Devine’s Marshal Link Appleyard is married to a Mexican woman. Oddly enough, the same actor’s character in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is married to a Mexican as well. This must have been Ford’s preference. In real life, Andy Devine was married to a white woman.

Wayne’s character Tom Doniphan has a loyal negro sidekick named Pompey (Woody Strode). Pompey even endures the indignity of being refused service at the saloon, but Doniphan stands up for him, although he does refer to him as “my boy Pompey.”

At the very center of the film is a scene in which newly-minted lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) teaches reading and civics to a class of white adults, plus Pompey and a brood of Mexican children. (All the children in Shinbone are nonwhite, a poignant sign that white civilization has not yet been established there. Now such classrooms are signs of white civilization in decline.) Lawyer Stoddard teaches that the fundamental law of the land is the Declaration of Independence, which holds that “All men are created equal.” The Declaration, of course, is not the fundamental law of the land. That would be the Constitution, which says nothing about all men being created equal.

Ford was known as a patriot and an anti-Communist, but on race, his politics were aligned with the Hollywood progressive consensus. Ford did not, however, identify with outsiders against America’s WASP ethnic core because he was Jewish. Instead, he did so as an Irish Catholic.

Judging from Ford’s cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore the Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—the West could not have been won without the help of golden-hearted, silver-tongued Irish drunkards. These stereotypes seem rather broad and offensive today, but Ford—a heavy drinker himself—obviously regarded them affectionately and thought their inclusion to be progressive.

I list these problems up front, because I don’t want you to be surprised or deterred by them. For in spite of its flaws, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a worthwhile movie. As the title suggests, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about violence, specifically the relationship of violence to manliness and civilization. The film’s message is deeply anti-liberal. Indeed, although Ford could not have known it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance illustrates many of Carl Schmitt’s criticisms of liberalism. Thus I include it in my series of Classics of Right-Wing Cinema.

The movie opens with a train pulling into the town of Shinbone in an unnamed state in the American Southwest. Shinbone is conspicuously bright, clean, and attractive. Everything looks brand-new. The only thing old and dusty is the stagecoach, a victim of progress suitably abandoned at the undertaker’s parlor. Shinbone was built on a soundstage. Ford was known for shooting on location because he loved authenticity. But Shinbone’s cleanliness and newness—its clear artificiality—were quite deliberate representations of progress and the end of the frontier.

Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) are met by the former Marshal, Link Appleyard. They have arrived to attend the funeral of their old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who is being interred in a pauper’s grave at public expense. As a sign of the changes in Shinbone, we learn that Doniphon will not be buried with his gun, because he had not carried one in years. When the local newspaper editor demands to know why a sitting Senator is attending the funeral of a pauper, Stoddard agrees to tell the tale.

We flash back some decades. Ransom “Rance” Stoddard, fresh out of law school, has gone West, not so much to seek fame and fortune as to improve the place by bringing law, literacy, and progress from back East. Outside a much rougher version of Shinbone, the stagecoach in which Stoddard is riding is robbed by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang (including Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin). When Stoddard objects to the rough treatment of a woman, Valance beats him severely then drives away the coach, leaving him to his fate.

Played to cartoonish excess by Lee Marvin, Liberty Valance is a cold-blooded murderer and thief. He’s also a drunkard and a petty bully. The entire town of Shinbone lives in terror of him. He’s the kind of man who needs killing, so decent people can plant crops, raise children, and sleep at night.

It seems odd that an American movie would have a villain named Liberty. Isn’t America the land of liberty? But Liberty Valance is not really an American. He’s a man of the Wild West. America is a Republic with laws. The West is the state of nature. Liberty Valance represents the liberty of savages in the state of nature, where one man’s liberty is exercised at the expense of another’s. Savage liberty must die so civil liberty can be born. Thus it is appropriate that Liberty Valance is a hired gun of the cattle interests, who oppose statehood and the coming of law and order.

Stoddard is rescued by Tom Doniphon, who owns a small horse ranch outside Shinbone, and brought into town. For no sensible reason except that he likes her, Tom awakens Hallie, who works as a waitress at a local eatery, to help tend to Stoddard’s wounds.

Tom quickly pegs Rance as a greenhorn and a tinhorn. He doesn’t know how the world works, but he talks like he does. When Tom tells Rance that he’d better get a gun if he wants justice, Rance launches into a speech:

But do you know what you’re saying to me? You’re saying just exactly what Liberty Valance said. What kind of community have I come to? You all seem to know Liberty Valance. He’s a no-good, gun-packing, murdering thief, but the only advice you give me is to carry a gun. Well, I’m a lawyer! Ransom Stoddard, Attorney at Law. And the law is the only . . .

Jimmy Stewart was brilliant casting because he’s obviously in love with his own voice.

Rance doesn’t see any difference between force used by criminals and force used by decent men against criminals. He’s an idealist who apparently thinks the laws can magically enforce themselves. In John Wayne’s most often-imitated line, Tom calls Rance “Pilgrim,” which pretty much sums up his combination of moralism and utopianism. He’s a spindly, priggish, progressive zealot. He reminds me of Barack Obama.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Liberalism, Movies, Westerns 

Director Tony Kaye’s anti-skinhead morality tale American History X (1998) is proof that propaganda is far from an exact science. Just as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket caused a surge in Marine recruitment, American History X actually increases audience sympathies with neo-Nazi skinheads, despite its best efforts to present them as hateful hypocrites and losers.

American History X stars Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a young skinhead in Venice Beach, California. It is a riveting and compelling performance, Norton’s finest work. I saw American History X after I saw Fight Club, where Norton’s character is so unimposing and unassertive that he projects Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden as an alter ego. Thus I was surprised that in American History X, Norton plays a character every bit as swaggering, self-confident, and violent as Tyler Durden. They don’t seem like two different characters so much as two different men.

Derek Vinyard is the eldest of the four children of a fireman who was murdered by blacks while putting out a fire in their neighborhood. Derek was outraged and becomes involved with a local neo-Nazi mastermind, Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach) who is supposed to remind us of Tom Metzger. Derek is highly intelligent and articulate. He is also a natural leader. With Cameron’s help, he builds up a serious and well-organized skinhead gang.

Three incidents stand out. First, Derek challenges some Crips to a basketball contest for control of a local public court and wins. The game is one of the best-shot sequences in the film. Second, Derek makes a rousing, well-argued speech against race replacement immigration then leads his gang to trash a Korean-owned grocery store that employs illegal aliens. Third, when Derek’s widowed mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo) begins dating Murray (Elliot Gould), a Jewish teacher at Derek’s high school, the dinner table conversation becomes explosive. Derek refers to Murray as a “Kabbala-reading motherfucker” and reveals a huge swastika tattoo which he says means “not welcome.”

One does not need to endorse Derek’s Nazi ideology, rhetorical excesses, and physical violence to admire his sincerity and conviction, or to see the merits of his arguments. As for his opponents, they have nothing to offer but hurt looks, breaths sharply drawn in disapproval, and mumbling about racism and social inequalities.

Since the purpose of this film is to warn us against Derek’s ideas, one wonders what director Kaye and screenwriter David McKenna were thinking. They could have presented Derek as a vulgar, hateful loser like his fat friend Seth, whom Murray could easily best in a battle of wits. Instead, they chose to make Derek highly intelligent and articulate. This was a gutsy move, which goes against all media stereotypes about skinheads. However, if they are going to present Derek as fearsomely intelligent, then they need to match him with a more capable opponent, and they don’t. This means that Derek Vinyard can win any fair debate, which matters to some movie watchers.

Derek’s opponent and ultimate salvation is supposed to be Bob Sweeney, played by Deep Space Nine’s Avery Brooks. Sweeney is said to be a brilliant guy. He has two Ph.D.s. (Why is he teaching in a high school then?) He claims to see “holes” in Derek’s racialist worldview, which he dismisses as “bullshit.” But it rings hollow from the start. Brooks has made a career reading lines in his resonant, well-modulated black man’s voice. But he doesn’t come off as particularly intelligent. Derek’s father Dennis dismisses Sweeney’s pontificating as “nigger bullshit,” impressive only to the witless and gullible. When Sweeney actually argues against Derek, it turns out that dad was right. Sweeney’s arguments are terrible. Again, one has to ask what the filmmakers were thinking.

The most well-realized black character in the movie is Lamont (Guy Torry), an amiable buffoon. The rest of the black characters are vacant, mindless thugs. This too proves problematic for the film’s anti-racist message, for it supports Kipling’s characterization of non-whites as “half-devil, half-child.”

American History X is primarily the story of how Derek Vinyard stops being a skinhead. He starts when his father is murdered, then he falls in with the wrong crowd. He stops when he gets thrown in prison. When three Crips try to steal Derek’s car, he ends up killing two of them and is sentenced to three-and-a-half years for manslaughter.

While in prison, Derek immediately allies with the Aryan Brotherhood gang. This makes sense for two reasons. First, Derek is a neo-Nazi too. Second, even if he weren’t, it would be smart to join them, because whites who go it alone in prison are picked off by non-whites, who form gangs.

But cracks begin to appear in Derek’s racial collectivism. While working in the prison laundry, Derek bonds with a goofy black guy, Lamont, over their common interests in basketball and pussy. Derek also falls out with the Aryan Brotherhood because for some reason he objects to them selling drugs to nonwhites.

One of the most memed moments in American History X is when Derek declares that “Pot is for niggers.” Derek regards non-whites as soulless subhumans. So why not sell drugs to them? Or, at the very least, why make trouble with your allies over it?

But Derek is a bit abrasive and autistic about “principles.” The Aryans tire of Derek’s preaching, so one day, their leader forcibly sodomizes him in the shower. This leads Derek to change his whole worldview.

But that is just dumb and out of character. Derek keeps getting himself into trouble because he is a stickler for principles. But nothing that has happened challenges his basic principles. Lamont proves only that every group has likable outliers, apparently even in prison. And yes, we aren’t so different after all when we focus on the least common denominators, like food, sex, and games. As for the Aryans: they are not supposed to sell drugs and rape one another. But is it realistic to expect sterling characters in prison? Besides, when people betray their principles, couldn’t that be because the people are bad, not the principles?

Derek is taken to the prison infirmary. He needs some stitches. There he is visited by Sweeney, who makes a little speech:

There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me, that I saw happen to my people. I used to blame everybody. Blame white people. Blame society. Blame God. I didn’t get no answers because I was asking the wrong questions. You have to ask the right questions.

When Derek asks Sweeney what the right questions are, the answer is: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?” To which Derek tears up, because no, he has suffered quite a lot for his ideas. Derek then begs Sweeney to help get him out of prison. He has a parole hearing coming up soon.

Sweeney’s arguments are terrible.

First of all, it is merely a shaming tactic to liken complaints about white dispossession to blacks blaming the white man for their own failings. It might appeal to an older generation of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatives, but Derek would see through it. What matters is the question of truth. White dispossession is real. The solution is not to “try harder” in a rigged system but to change the system. Blacks who still fail in a system of objective black privilege can’t blame the system for that. They can only blame themselves.

Deconstructing a Hero

Dirty Harry (1971) is a compelling neo-noir thriller about San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), who is increasingly forced to choose between liberal legal norms and bringing a sadistic serial killer known as Scorpio to justice. Once Harry kills Scorpio, the movie ends with him throwing away his badge, symbolizing a momentous decision. When justice and law conflict, Harry chooses justice.

This is what makes Harry “dirty.” Harry Callahan is not corrupt. He is not willing to dirty his hands with illegality for selfish and petty reasons. But he will go outside the law to secure the higher good. The various events of the movie’s plot beautifully reveal elements of Harry’s character, so that his final choice makes sense.

Dirty Harry belongs in the category of first-rate crime thrillers like The French Connection, L.A. Confidential, To Live and Die in L.A., and Drive.

Director Don Siegel frames Dirty Harry with sweeping Bay Area vistas. Then the camera dives into the action and draws the viewer with it. The script is tightly written and the story swift-paced. Lalo Schifrin’s jazz fusion score marries perfectly with the action and heightens the emotional impact. This being a gritty crime thriller set in swinging San Francisco, there are some racy elements: violence, cussing, nudity, homosexual couples, etc. But Siegel avoids outright obscenity. It is easy to overlook the artfulness of Dirty Harry because the story is so captivating.

The best way to appreciate Dirty Harry is to compare it to its four terrible sequels: Magnum Force (1973), The Enforcer (1976), Sudden Impact (1983), and The Dead Pool (1988).

Dirty Harry was decried as “fascist” for making a hero of a vigilante cop who was also characterized as a racist, although the movie pulled its punches on this particular matter by making Harry an equal opportunity hater and partnering him with one Chico Gonzalez. But Dirty Harry was also a huge hit, especially among white men. This dictated two things. First, there would be sequels because there would be money in them. Second, the sequels would subvert everything that Leftists found “problematic” about Harry Callahan.

This would dictate that the sequels could not build on the evolution of Harry’s character in the original movie, because that was the biggest problem of all. So instead, they just reduced Dirty Harry to a formula and repeated it four times. Each Dirty Harry sequel required: Clint Eastwood, a big gun, some shootouts with hoodlums, some California degeneracy, a clever line he repeats from time to time, and a jazz fusion score, preferably by Lalo Schifrin.

Since Harry is racist and presumably sexist, they have to pair him with a non-white or female partner. Since Dirty Harry was very much a guy movie, they also tarted up the sequels with some romance.

Since the formulaic repetition of tropes without any character development gets boring fast, these movies feel hollow and meaningless. Thus the filmmakers punched them up with fist-fights and car chases and made the sex and violence extra lurid. Dirty Harry had dashes of Playboy. The sequels in the sleazy Seventies were pure Hustler.

The first sequel, Magnum Force, is the worst. With a script by the allegedly “based” John Milius, Magnum Force is less a sequel than a hard reboot of Dirty Harry. At the end of Dirty Harry, Callahan looks like he is quitting the police force and going rogue. In Magnum Force, Callahan is back on the force as if nothing has happened. Moreover, as a large number of criminals start getting gunned down, Callahan suspects that the culprit is actually a rogue cop gone vigilante. Our new Squeaky-Clean Harry is determined to bring him to justice.

It turns out that the culprits are four good-looking white motorcycle cops played by David Soul, Robert Urich, Tim Matheson, and Kip Niven. Of course the “real” Harry Callahan would have been mentoring young men like this, not trying to arrest them. But instead Harry has a black partner, complete with ’fro, named Early. Naming a black man “Early” sounds like a racist joke to me, but surely that was not Milius’ intention.

It turns out that the young vigilantes are mentored by Lt. Neil Briggs, played by Hal Holbrook, a pencil-necked prig who spends a lot of time chewing out Callahan for being trigger-happy. When Briggs finally reveals himself to Callahan, our Squeaky-Clean Harry argues (1) that vigilantism is a slippery slope that will lead to shooting people over parking tickets, which is absurd, and (2) that the system may be broken, but it is the only one we’ve got, and we can’t let go of it, which is Republican. At this point, Milius has completely destroyed the hero of Dirty Harry. And it was premeditated.

It would take a free-standing essay to detail all the ways Magnum Force is lame, tasteless, and subversive. But life is too short for that, so here are a few highlights.

Magnum Force was directed by Ted Post. I didn’t need to visit Wikipedia to know that he made his career in television. Despite being shot on location in and around America’s most scenic city, Magnum Force looks and feels like television: scrunched shots, dull camera work, sclerotic pacing. Not even Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score—the only first-rate thing about this movie—can breathe life into Post’s directing.

The acting is all TV-grade as well. The only thing that would keep this movie off TV is its extremely lurid treatment of sex and violence.

In good dramatic conflict, the outcome is determined by the characters of the antagonists. Action is revelatory of character. Events have a deeper meaning. But during the climactic battle with the vigilantes in Magnum Force, one of them . . . dies in an accident.

The allegedly clever line that Harry repeats is, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” which is a far cry from, “Do you feel lucky?” and completes Milius’ transformation of the hero of Dirty Harry into a smug old fart.

Three years later, Dirty Harry returns in The Enforcer. A mostly white group of hippy criminals has stolen military weapons and explosives from what is apparently a private warehouse guarded by a single geezer. They style themselves People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and try to extort money from the city by planting bombs and kidnapping the mayor.

Harry is paired with a female rookie (Tyne Daly), because the mayor wants to court feminists and good press. She tries hard to be a good cop. She also tries to seduce Harry. But her lack of experience gets her killed while rescuing the mayor. Thus The Enforcer actually amounts to a powerful critique of affirmative action and the political flakes who push it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

The Enforcer is directed by James Fargo, who like Ted Post captures the Bay Area’s spectacular scenery, as well as lurid sex and bloody violence, with all the cinematic sweep and dynamism of an episode of The Golden Girls. Harry’s pursuit of the criminals takes him to a whorehouse and onto the set of a porno movie. The killings are extra bloody and lurid. There are plenty of chases to a very routine jazz fusion score by Jerry Fielding.


Dirty Harry (1971), directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan, is a classic of Right-wing cinema. Dirty Harry was hugely popular with moviegoers, spawning four sequels and a whole genre of films about tough cops whose hands are tied by the system and are forced to go outside the law in order to protect the public.

Dirty Harry articulated the growing reaction to the racial unrest, hippy degeneracy, and liberal mush of the 1960s, which led to skyrocketing crime in American cities and white flight to the suburbs. Liberalism holds that society can be ruled by impersonal laws, not men. Thus any film giving a favorable view of vigilantism—in which laws break down and individuals take justice into their own hands—is anti-liberal.

Dirty Harry was seen as a reactionary film at the time. Paul Newman declined the title role because he thought it too Right-wing. Feminists protested outside the Academy Awards with a banner reading “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig.” Thus I found it surprising that Dirty Harry was viewed favorably by leading critics, most of whom were liberals and Leftists, and has since been included in many “Best” lists, including the New York Times’ top 1000, Empire magazine’s top 500, Total Film’s top 100, and TV Guide’s and Vanity Fair’s top 50.

I can’t include Dirty Harry in any of my best lists, but it is still a remarkably good film, with compelling lead characters, a gripping plot, and a tight script. Filmed on locations in and around San Francisco, with creepily effective music by Lalo Schifrin, Dirty Harry captures the beginning of the long, seedy cultural hangover of the ’60s, imbuing it, if not with a glamour, at least with a gloss, bad haircuts and all. Clint Eastwood as Harry Callanan and Andy Robinson as the loathsome villain Scorpio give excellent, compelling performances.

Harry Callahan is another one of Eastwood’s taciturn Aryan heroes, a physically imposing and highly capable alpha male who becomes a protector of public order. Like most of Eastwood’s classics, the world of Dirty Harry is divided into sheep, the wolves who prey on them, and the sheepdogs who protect the flock, to borrow a scheme from American Sniper. However, despite their opposed roles, wolves and sheepdogs have more in common with each other than they do with sheep, and the flock starts bleating nervously when the dogs bare their fangs at the wolves.

Harry Callahan is 40ish. (Eastwood was 41 in 1971.) He is an Inspector for the San Francisco Police Department, a position of responsibility that requires intelligence. He is contemptuous of college boys, so he probably came up through the ranks. He is a widower. His wife was killed by a drunk driver. He does not appear to have children. His work is his life now. He probably also harbors a death wish, or at least an indifference to his own interests, which makes him more effective at doing his duties. Because Harry is more driven than other cops, he prefers to work alone. Partners tend to slow him down and get wounded or killed.

Callahan is called “Dirty” Harry because people trust him to do dirty jobs. He gets “the shit end of the stick.” Dirty work means actually confronting criminals. Sometimes you get dirt and blood on your hands. Sometimes you have to go outside the law to enforce the law. The clean jobs are reserved for the city government and police brass, whose biggest worries are lint and bad press. Their jobs are to demand results from their underlings then second-guess their every move. Dirty Harry is a populist hero because he is the stoic, competent white Atlas who carries the system on his shoulders but is also treated as deplorable and disposable by the elites.

Harry is also supposed to be a dirty because he is a hater: “Harry hates everybody: Limeys, micks, hebes, dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks.” To which Harry adds for the benefit of his new Mexican-American partner Chico Gonzalez (this movie is not exactly subtle), “Especially Spics.” Dirty Harry didn’t just pioneer the loose cannon cop genre, it also established the convention of pairing these white alpha males with non-white sidekicks. But a white alpha male mentoring another white man as a guardian of society would make Don Siegel hallucinate the sound marching feet. However, if Harry hates honkies, he can’t be a white racist. And if his name is Callahan, that makes him a self-hating Mick. In truth, Harry is merely what today we call politically incorrect.

Harry has more than just a touch of sadism, which is brought out in the movie’s most quoted scene. During his lunch break, Harry foils an armed bank robbery by three blacks, killing two with his .44 Magnum and wounding the third, whom he taunts:

I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you, punk?

When Harry repeats the same taunt almost word-for-word at the end of the movie, the effect is chilling. You glimpse a bitter, sadistic side of his character. You wonder how many times he has done this. He enjoys killing scum. Hence his preference for pistols that can decapitate and rifles that can stop elephants.

The plot of Dirty Harry is a standard neo-noir police thriller. Harry’s quarry is a serial killer, Scorpio (based on the Zodiac killer). Scorpio was so effectively brought to life by Andy Robinson that the actor received death-threats and had to change his phone number.

Scorpio is a Dostoyevskyian criminal Untermensch. He’s physically weak, unmasculine, and cowardly, palpably seething with resentment. He screams like a pig, blubbers like a child, and develops a severe limp after Harry stabs then shoots him in the leg.

Scorpio is attracted to weak victims: a young woman in a swimming pool, a couple of homosexuals, a ten-year-old black child, a Catholic priest, a teenage girl, an old man, a bus full of schoolchildren, a little boy fishing. He prefers to kill like a coward, shooting two victims with a sniper rifle, burying another alive.

Two scenes are especially repulsive. Scorpio has kidnapped, raped, and buried a teenage girl alive. She is running out of air. Harry tracks him to his lair and doesn’t wait for a warrant. He just kicks in the door. Pursuing Scorpio out onto the field of Kezar Stadium, Harry brings him down with a .44 shot to the leg, then stamps on the wound, demanding to know the girl’s location while Scorpio shrieks “I have rights. I have rights.” If you have any doubt about where a person falls of the F scale, just show him this scene.

Of course Scorpio is released because Harry didn’t follow proper procedure. His defense was that a girl was dying, so there really wasn’t time for a warrant and a genteel interrogation. But that doesn’t matter to the Jewish DA and the Berkeley Law Professor he consults. Scorpio had rights. Harry violated them. So all of society must be punished. When healthy people watch this scene, their blood boils.

Harry, of course, won’t let this drop. He begins to shadow Scorpio in his spare time, hoping to prevent him from killing again. Scorpio is repulsive with his long hair, gimp, and fruity hippy clothes, including a grotesque peace sign belt buckle. As he wanders around parks and playgrounds looking at small children, your blood will run cold.