skip navigation
Magnum Force
Remind Me
,Magnum Force

Magnum Force

Film history would be different if Clint Eastwood hadn't played Inspector Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, the most controversial film of 1971. When it was announced the previous year, the title was "Dead Right," the director was Irvin Kershner, and the star was Frank Sinatra, who had successfully starred in The Detective in 1968. The part was also offered to Paul Newman, according to Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, but Newman turned it down on political grounds. "Well, I don't have any political affiliations," Eastwood said when he heard about the project, "so send it over." The result was a smash hit for director Don Siegel and a string of sequels for Eastwood, starting with Magnum Force in 1973 and continuing through three more features over the next decade and a half.

It's hard to understand the significance – and, yes, the politics – of Magnum Force without also bringing Dirty Harry into the picture. Inspector Callahan's first adventure, scripted by Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink, plugged directly into American debates that were raging at the time, sparked by recent Supreme Court decisions that guaranteed legal counsel and notification of Constitutional rights to anyone arrested on a criminal charge. Many liberals saw this as a great forward step for civil rights. Many conservatives saw it as a great unnecessary step in judicial meddling with law enforcement.

Dirty Harry takes a provocative position on all this. The title character is a San Francisco cop who tracks down and arrests a psychotic killer known as Scorpio, who then goes free because Harry didn't have time to get a warrant first. Scorpio soon strikes again, kidnapping a busload of children this time. Caving under pressure, Harry's superiors tell him to back off while they study their options; but Harry lives up to his reputation as a "dirty" maverick and moves in anyway. At the end Scorpio is dead, the kids are safe, and Harry is so disgusted with his profession that he throws away his badge.

Thanks to the magic of sequels, Harry is back on the job in Magnum Force, although his new commander, Lieutenant Briggs, has moved him from homicide to stakeout duty, where he'll be easier to control. In an opening scene that could have come directly from Dirty Harry, a legal technicality allows a notorious mobster to walk away from a murder charge; before he gets home, however, a highway patrolman pulls over his chauffeured car and shoots everybody in it. Similar killings follow, and while the perpetrator may be a vigilante rather than a psychopath like Scorpio, the results are the same for the San Francisco police – a growing pile of bodies and a public demanding to know who's responsible. Once again Harry wants to take decisive action, and once again he's ordered to steer clear of the case. Thinking over a clue he's heard about, however, Harry realizes that a police officer must somehow be connected with the slayings. Could the vigilante be one of the force's new rookie patrolmen, former Vietnam soldiers who may not be as innocent as they appear? Could all of them be involved? Or perhaps accountability lies with someone much higher on the chain of command?

At one point in the movie, Harry likens the vigilantes to Brazil's infamous "death squads," secret groups of right-wing police officers using deadly force against their political foes. Harry is just making a casual remark, but it points to one of the inspirations for the story, which was cooked up by John Milius, whose violence-prone credits would later include Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984). Milius was "obsessed" with the Brazilian death squads, according to Schickel, and pitched it to Eastwood as a sure-fire premise for a Harry Callahan vehicle. Clint liked the idea, and when Milius left the screenplay incomplete so he could start directing Dillinger (1973), Eastwood hired Michael Cimino, who was slated to direct him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), to wrap it up. Milius and Cimino share screenplay credit for the finished film.

Eastwood's enthusiasm for Magnum Force came partly from the profit potential of a Dirty Harry sequel, partly from the unusual nature of the plot, and partly – perhaps mostly – from the opportunity it gave him to answer some of the 1971 film's severest critics. None was more severe than powerful Pauline Kael, a longtime Eastwood adversary. In her New Yorker review of Dirty Harry she attacked not only that picture but action pictures in general, saying the genre "has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie." Her remarks did not make Eastwood's day, and by making Magnum Force he hoped to prove Kael embarrassingly wrong. Instead of showing Harry as a vigilante, Magnum Force shows him hunting vigilantes down, and condemning their behavior while he's at it. When someone says vigilante justice is validated by the principle of retribution, Harry replies, "When the police start becoming their own executioners, where's it gonna end?" The official criminal-justice system is woefully poor, he adds, "but until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I'll stick with it." Take that, Pauline Kael.

Politically speaking, Kael may have found Magnum Force an improvement over Dirty Harry, but in her review she left ideology behind and focused most of her disdain on Eastwood's performance. "Clint Eastwood...isn't an actor," she wrote, "so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He'd have to do something before we could consider him bad at it." New York Times critic Nora Sayre called the film "a muddle of morality," and Eastwood biographer Patrick McGilligan concludes that the message of the rogue-police storyline is simply that "there are worse cops than Dirty Harry." McGilligan takes a more positive view of Eastwood's acting, though, saying his blend of toughness and "innate likeability" was what made Magnum Force his biggest money-maker to date – a record it held until 1976, when Dirty Harry returned in The Enforcer.

The director of Magnum Force was Ted Post, who had directed Eastwood in the 1968 western Hang 'Em High as well as two dozen episodes of Rawhide, the 1959-64 television series that first established Eastwood's name. Clint had directed three movies of his own since starring in Hang 'Em High, however, and by all accounts he now treated Post more condescendingly than before. Indeed, Post later complained that Clint had sabotaged his feature-film career by (literally) calling many of the shots and then allowing Hollywood to believe that he, not Post, was the movie's real director. Whatever the facts of the matter, Magnum Force moves along at a good clip, and tightly wound performances by Eastwood as Harry and Hal Holbrook as the bad lieutenant make up for the flatness of everyone else. Another asset is the film's obligatory catchphrase: "A man's got to know his limitations." Today it's less remembered than "You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?" from Dirty Harry and "Go ahead, make my day" from Sudden Impact (1983), but in 1973 it was parroted everywhere Dirty Harry movies played – in other words, everywhere.

Director: Ted Post
Producer: Robert Daley
Screenplay: John Milius and Michael Cimino; story by John Milius; based on original material by Harry Julian Fink and R.M. Fink
Cinematographer: Frank Stanley
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Jack Collis
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Clint Eastwood (Harry Callahan), Hal Holbrook (Lt. Briggs), Mitchell Ryan (McCoy), David Soul (Davis), Felton Perry (Early Smith), Robert Urich (Grimes), Kip Niven (Astrachan), Tim Matheson (Sweet), Christine White (Carol McCoy), Richard Devon (Ricca), Tony Giorgio (Palancio), Albert Popwell (Pimp), John Mitchum (DiGiorgio), Margaret Avery (Prostitute), Jack Kosslyn (Walter), Clifford A. Pellow (Guzman), Adele Yoshioka (Sunny), Maurice Argent (Nat Weinstein), Bob March (Estabrook), Bob McClurg (Cab Driver), Russ Moro (Ricca's Driver).

by David Sterritt