The Evolution of Eastwood: MAGNUM FORCE


“I hate the —— system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.” – Harry Callahan

It was barely two years after Dirty Harry that Eastwood would strap on the signature .44 Magnum once again as Harry Callahan in Magnum Force. The results can’t help but be measured up against the original, in both positive and negative ways.

Picking up sometime shortly after the events of Dirty Harry (a fact only identifiable by a single reference from Harry about his last partner), Harry Callahan (Eastwood) has been relegated to stakeout detail by the stubborn and irritable Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook). However, someone in the city is taking justice into their own hands by murdering accused criminals who escaped the system through wealth or technicalities. When the evidence begins to point towards a group of vigilantes on the police force, Harry determines to uncover the truth and bring them to justice himself.

The film was largely an extension of unused material from the first film and a response to some of the criticisms and controversy that film generated. Eastwood wanted to make it clear that Callahan’s character was not a lawless vigilante, so building upon an idea first introduced by Terence Malick into his version of the Dirty Harry script, a script was commissioned by future director John Milius, with eventual rewrites by Michael Cimino. Eastwood was offered the director’s chair, but declined, which was a puzzling choice given what would become on-set tensions between he and Ted Post, someone who had directed Eastwood multiple times on Rawhide and had helmed the solid western Hang ‘Em High.

The final film caused considerable tension among its creators regarding the finished product. Writer John Milius all but disavowed it, citing the changes to the final act and the heightened violence from his original drafts as veritably ruining his original intentions for the story. In addition, director Ted Post cited multiple conflicts with Eastwood, who he claimed was frequently disputing who was truly in charge on set. Post accused Eastwood of exerting ego and leveraging control on set rather than allowing him to do his job. When the two of them had last collaborated, Eastwood’s star was only just rising in America and his directorial confidence didn’t exist yet. Although Eastwood himself had actively turned down the director’s duties for Magnum Force, it would appear that letting go of the role was harder than initially expected. Post and Eastwood would never work together again.

When viewed on its own merits, Magnum Force is a perfectly entertaining police thriller. The performances, particularly by Eastwood and Holbrook are strong as well as a solid showing by Felton Perry as Eastwood’s new partner. It also features a who’s-who of sorts for soon-to-be stars of the 70s including David Soul, Tim Matheson, and Robert Urich. It also effectively highlights Harry Callahan’s skills as a detective, something the original film didn’t emphasize as much as his boldness or attitude. In direct contrast to the vigilantism of which Callahan’s character was accused in the original, there is a deliberate and occasionally heavy-handed emphasis in this film to show that Callahan IS a part of the system and has no tolerance for predatory vigilantism (I’ll leave it to others to determine the level – if any – of hypocrisy at play in these assertions).

What’s sadly missing, unfortunately, are the strong senses of style and suspense that Dirty Harry had in spades. Magnum Force, for all its narrative merits, feels very paint-by-numbers stylistically. This isn’t wholly unexpected when considering that the bulk of Post’s directorial work had previously been for television, where a somewhat formulaic template might be seen as a necessity of continuity. The film’s major reveals will largely be guessed long before they are revealed, making their ultimate result feeling rather inevitable as well, which undermines the suspense factor.

There would be three more sequels in the Harry Callahan world, all of which would suffer from the common sequel problems. But as far as sequels go, Magnum Force isn’t bad. Eastwood even later cited it as his favorite entry in the franchise (which is interesting given that Eastwood eventually directed one of them). If you’re hoping to experience the same level of fascination and compelling storytelling that Dirty Harry brought, you’ll likely be at least slightly disappointed, but if you’re feelin’ lucky… give it a shot.

Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: HANG ‘EM HIGH

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968)

“All right, now that makes three mistakes we’ve made. The money, we hung an innocent man, and we didn’t finish the job.” – Captain Wilson

Clint Eastwood spent three years in the 1960s filming the “man with no name” trilogy under the direction of Sergio Leone, then another two years after that recording his dialogue for the English language releases. The whole process left him frustrated and stalled, but it also made him an almost immediate superstar. Following the consecutive American releases of the Leone films (which all hit the states in 1967), Eastwood would release no less than three films in the following year.

Amidst the release of the Leone trilogy, Eastwood was given two scripts almost simultaneously. One was a larger scale western adventure starring Gregory Peck called Mackenna’s Gold. The other was a lower-scale revenge piece (also a western) called Hang ‘Em High. Eastwood preferred the latter script, and even launched his own production studio to see it made. Sergio Leone was approached to direct, but he was already deep into production of Once Upon a Time in the West (with which he finally got the chance to work with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson). So Eastwood called on an old friend of his, Ted Post, who had directed him in more than 20 episodes of Rawhide.

Hang ‘Em High begins when Jed Cooper (Eastwood) is taking a newly purchased herd of cattle across the plains. He is suddenly accosted by a posse of nine bloodthirsty vigilantes who, mistaking Cooper for a murderous cattle rustler, lynch him without trial on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for them, they do a sloppy job of it and Cooper survives. Later deputized as a US Marshal, Cooper sets out on a legally sanctioned quest to bring his nine assailants to justice.

For the majority of its runtime, the film treats its elements very directly. The narrative, the conflict, and the character’s motivations and morals are all very simple, almost superficial. Adding some thematic flavor to the whole piece is a hanging-hungry town judge (played by Pat Hingle) and a beautiful owner of the local general store (played by Inger Stevens). While these two characters influence the plot in ways you’d easily predict, each of them also hides a painful darkness that provides some unexpected momentary thematic exploration. For example, Judge Fenton is so protective of the ideal of just punishment that he is willing to hang two younger boys caught up over the heads in associative crime than provide them the opportunity for rehabilitation (a decision that puts him in direct odds with Cooper). Likewise, Rachel Warren (the store owner), who is openly benevolent and sympathetic to hanging victims, is secretly waiting for the opportunity to watch the man who assaulted her years earlier hang for it.

Eastwood’s acting is solid, of course, but there is a bluntness to his performance that feels almost amateurish at times. After three straight films under a decidedly different visionary director than his Rawhide days, working under a Rawhide veteran for this film may have reverted some comfortable habits. The mystique of the “man with no name” is replaced by an only slightly modified version of the heroic “white hat” character that Eastwood had taken on the Leone roles to flex away from in the first place. Perhaps Eastwood saw this film as a blend of comfort and challenge, by playing a more familiar and safer role to which he was more accustomed but obtaining more creative control by sending the film through his newly formed production studio.

But this is not to say that Hang ‘Em High is by any means a low-quality film. It’s skillfully structured, has a frequently gripping and suspenseful script, and features a collection of high-caliber performers (including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, and a cameo appearance by the then-unknown Dennis Hopper). If you pay attention, you’ll locate Jonathan Goldsmith – the “most interesting man alive” from the Dos Equis commercials – as one of the nine vigilantes. It definitely lacks the flourish and grandeur of the spaghetti westerns, but still serves up an entertaining, well-told story.

Hang ‘Em High does not by any means reinvent the western wheel (and rabid fans of the Leone trilogy may not immediately acclimate to the more blunt, direct tone of its style), but it is a solidly entertaining western classic well worth the time of even a moderate fan of the genre.

Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.