“This is a wonderful country, my boy, but our legal system
doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.”

—Harold Smith, in Remo Williams,
The Adventure Begins

America’s “major” film critics have been very busy—and very worried— lately. They have a lot to worry about; the movies just aren’t going their way anymore, which ought to make the rest of us very happy.

Of course, the greatest critical bête noire of the decade has been Johnny Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s forthright, inarticulate Vietnam vet whose escapades, the critics fear, will soon so distort the values of America’s young as to get us embroiled in “another Vietnam.” Interestingly, these are the same folks—Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Stanley Kauffmann, and Rex Reed—who argue that pornography doesn’t contribute to crime. We have cause to wonder why they hope to exempt movie violence from the protection of their beloved First Amendment. Different tastes?

Certainly Stallone, with his astonishing box-office power, has borne the brunt of the critical hatred unleashed on recent crime-genre films, but other actors, directors, and writers have come in for their fair share of abuse as well. The honor roll includes actors Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford; writers and directors John Milius (Magnum Force, Red Dawn), Donald Siegel (Dirty Harry), Michael Cimino (Magnum Force, The Year of the Dragon), Lewis Teague (Fighting Back), Ted Kotchelf (First Blood, Uncommon Valor), and Clint Eastwood; and producers such as Dino de Laurentiis, George Lucas, Cubby Broccoli (the James Bond series), Eastwood, and Milius.

It’s true that recent crime-genre films are more explicitly violent than their predecessors, but it is the films’ tremendous popularity which really annoys the American clerisy. Critics such as Kael et al. have offered many theories as to why these films are so popular, but they all boil down to a few simple ideas about how dull-witted contemporary audiences are and how vulgar and meretricious many filmmakers are. These critics have wisely concentrated on the issues of violence and misogyny, as this allows them to sidestep issues such as aesthetic quality, audience response, and sobriety of intent which would otherwise do considerable damage to their arguments.

They often take special pains, in fact, not to say outright that a particular film is “bad,” apparently in an attempt to save credibility with the public. Since it would be foolish, for example, to say that George Miller’s The Road Warrior is a bad film, Pauline Kael dismisses it by calling it “stupid” and goes on to insult the film’s audience: “The Road Warrior is for boys who want to go around slugging each other on the shoulders and for men who wish that John Wayne were alive and fifty again,” a “criticism” which works only because New Yorker readers would rather die than be called a John Wayne fan. Likewise, on Sneak Previews Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler pretended to be quite undisturbed by the politics of Red Dawn but condemned it for being boring, one thing which it is most certainly not.

Then there’s the name-calling: Clint Eastwood is a “fascist,” Milius a warmonger, Stallone a stupid egomaniac, Roger Moore “ludicrous,” etc. Stanley Kauffmann calls Charles Bronson’s Mr. Majestyk “ridiculous” and Death Wish “insidious.” John Simon falls into line and refers to John Milius as “this unsavory character,” American Film runs a piece on Rambo films and entitles it “The Fascist Guns in the West.” Pauline Kael, as usual, tops them all in rancor, if not coherence, in saying of Paul Schrader, scenarist of Taxi Driver and writer-director of Hardcore, “For Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn’t know how to turn a trick.”

These critics have been so virulent and irrational in their condemnation of recent crime films that their motives seem suspect. Why all the fuss? If young people want to watch good guys make a hash out of bad guys, well, that doesn’t seem to be much of a threat to American society. But Kael writes as if it were. Still, I believe they’re sincere. I also believe they are dead wrong about these films.

First and foremost, they are wrong about the motives of the people who make these films. They are not making these films because they’re greedy or bellicose or sexually repressed or stupid, all things of which these filmmakers have been frequently accused. These films are being made by artists from all across the political spectrum. In fact, many of the people involved in these productions have also made some of the most critically acclaimed films of our time. Such critical favorites as William Friedkin, Peter Weir, Alan Rudolph, Nick Nolte, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Mickey Rourke, and Genevieve Bujold have all been involved in the making of recent crime-dramas.

As for those filmmakers most closely associated with the genre, Eastwood, for example, makes as much money on his goofy comedies as he does from his “Dirty Harry” films; Norris, Schwarzenegger, and Ford have all expressed interest in making comedies and love stories. Neither money nor ideology is the main reason these films are being made. They’re making these films because they like the subject. Impossible to believe, perhaps, especially for rich New Yorkers who travel to work in limousines, but there are people out there who actually like to make films about crime. The reason is clear: They’re interested in morals.

For that is what crime films are about: morals. They are not about guns, “macho” posturing, crass self-aggrandizement, or any of the other phantasms pursued by phony critics as easy targets for derision. They are about questions of right and wrong. Most citizens have at least a rough idea of what’s legal and what’s illegal; what is harder to determine in any given situation is what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s why these films go outside the law: because that’s where the ambiguity is, where the answers are unclear, and where one can question society’s basic values. That’s where the hard choices are: outside the law.

Lazy critics have lumped these films into a category usually called “gun films,” “revenge films,” “vigilante films,” or even “fascist films.” I don’t think these films constitute a genre in the literary sense, because they cut across several genres, making definition difficult. However, although the term is usually used derisively, I will cheerfully consent to calling these pictures “vigilante films,” because that is precisely what they are. What is a vigilante, after all, except a man who bands together with his friends and neighbors to restore order, especially when the law has broken down? In the “vigilante film,” people are pushed outside the law because society fails to provide protection from criminal forces or fails to provide retribution for one or more heinous criminal acts.

That word “heinous” is important. Vigilante films don’t concern themselves with shoplifting or burglary or purse-snatching or even muggings. The central concern is with wanton murders, serial killings, rapes, drug dealing, armed robbery, organized crime, terrorist acts, and other horrific dangers to the civil peace.

These things happen, remember, and in our country they often go unpunished, for one reason or another. Vigilante films, at their worst, pander to the impotent audience member’s desire to see a rude form of justice done. This desire, however, could as well be fulfilled by characters who stay inside the law: i.e., the police, operating by the book. Contemporary audiences, on the other hand, don’t respond so well to characters who stay within the law, and filmmakers don’t seem to have much interest in straightforward, by-the-book cops. Indeed, vigilante films often ridicule the bureaucratic-minded, square-toed cop who is more concerned with procedure than justice. No, it’s clear that audiences and filmmakers want to see their heroes go outside the law. The question is why.

The answer to that question is more complicated than Kael and her colleagues let on. The vigilante film is a fairly recent development. Hollywood’s “cop films” and “gangster films” of the 1930’s often inadvertently glorified their criminal lead characters by portraying them as romantic rebels against society. Audiences sympathized with the gangsters played by Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Clark Gable in such films as The Roaring Twenties (1939), Little Caesar (1930), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934); they were little guys from the slums making it big the only way they knew how.

When these same actors played cops, however, they lacked audience sympathy. The cop has society behind him; while there is danger in his life, there just doesn’t seem to be the same challenge and romance as there is in the life of a gangster. The gangster’s life is tougher, freer, and more romantic—the gangster gets the pretty girls.

This remained a problem for crime films for over three decades. Then, with the loosening of Hollywood’s Production Code in the 60’s, along with the heady combination of freedom and nihilism characteristic of American elite culture during the latter part of that decade, Hollywood produced a spate of films explicitly glorifying criminals and extenuating or even excusing their behavior. Many filmmakers—and most critics—saw American society as too corrupt to have any right to criticize the romantic rebels played by Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Faye Dunaway in this group of films released near the end of the decade. Audiences were treated to films like Bonnie and Clyde, which mourned the deaths of a pair of psychotic, murderous, armed robbers; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film which was so utterly corrupt and cynical as to present a pair of vicious highwaymen as just a couple of happy-go-lucky pranksters out for a good time.

What is even more surprising is the way the critics of the time fawned over this trash. Pauline Kael called Bonnie and Clyde “the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate.” In fact, Kael was so stunned that she couldn’t understand how anybody could dislike it; “To ask why people react so angrily to the best movies [i.e., ones Kael likes] and have so little negative reaction to poor ones [ones Kael dislikes] is to imply that [Bonnie and Clyde’s detractors] are so unused to the experience of art in movies that they fight it.” She explicitly sympathized with the lead characters: “[S]ome part of us wants to believe in the tiny possibility that they can get away with it. Is that really so terrible?”

In a similar vein, John Simon wrote that Cool Hand Luke “may have been the best American film of 1967,” and in a generally unfavorable review of Easy Rider, wrote, “I would willingly sympathize with these kids if their case were better argued.” Judith Christ called Bonnie and Clyde “superb” and noted appreciatively that the film was not just “another bit of lip service to morality.” These, mind you, are the same people now decrying the violence of the vigilante films.

Audiences, for their part, flocked to these hateful, nihilistic films, and critics and fellow filmmakers showered them with awards. What the critics of the time failed to understand, however, was that a spate of such cynical fare was bound to produce some sort of backlash. And indeed it did, a backlash in fact far more extensive and popular than the group of films to which it was a reaction.

Peter Yates’s Bullitt (1968), starring Steve McQueen, took some tentative steps toward vigilantism, but the genre really begins, for all practical purposes, in 1971, with the release of Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood. By now, just about everybody has seen or heard of Dirty Harry, in which Eastwood plays rogue cop Harry Callahan, out to get justice whether society wants it or not.

Directed by Donald Siegel with uncredited screenplay rewrites by John Milius, Dirty Harry solved the problem that had plagued crime films since their inception: it found a way to make the cop the True hero by presenting the cop as the rebel against the system. This was truly a revolutionary idea. Harry Callahan is continually plagued not only by criminals but also by his weak-kneed superiors within the department. His courageous, principled rebellion against the bureaucrats in the San Francisco Police Department made him an instant hero with American moviegoers, especially college-age males.

Dirty Harry presented almost all of the vigilante film’s characteristic elements in their first complete incarnation. Clint Eastwood, as Harry Callahan, portrays a man obsessed with a particular criminal, a serial-murderer called the Scorpio Killer, played by Andy Robinson. There is the hero’s attachment to his gun, in this case Harry’s famous .44 Magnum. There are the scenes where the killer taunts the police with their inability to catch and hold him. There are the cowardly, by-the-books superiors in the SFPD, effectively exemplified by Lieutenant Bressler (Harry Guardino), Harry’s boss. There is the fact that the killer is apprehended by the hero but released on a legal technicality. There are the violence, vertiginous pace, and gritty visual details now inevitable in films of this type.

And most memorable—and controversial—is the stunning confrontation at the end between cop and criminal. While the Scorpio Killer, wounded, lies on the ground, his hand only inches from a gun, Harry points his sidearm at the killer and dares him to try to pick up the other gun. Harry:

Uh-uh. I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking, did he fire six shots or only five? Now, to tell you the truth, I’ve forgotten myself in all this excitement. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and will blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do you, punk?

Dirty Harry was a seminal film, a turning point for the crime-film genre, and, incidentally, a box-office blockbuster. Critics, on the other hand, hated the film. Kael, for example, called it “greedy, opportunistic, fascist” and “a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place.” She saw the film’s ideas as not only wrong but downright indecent and dangerous:

Dirty Harry is obviously just a genre movie, but this action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced. If crime were caused by super-evil dragons, there would be no Miranda, no Escobedo; we could all be licensed to kill, like Dirty Harry. But since crime is caused by deprivation, misery, psychopathology, and social injustice. Dirty Harry is a deeply immoral movie.

Dirty Harry, for all its success at the box office, did not inspire a large number of imitators. Eastwood produced a sequel, Magnum Force, in 1973, but few other filmmakers seemed to have much interest in following his lead. The French Connection was also released in 1971, but although Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a likable and hard-nosed hero, the film doesn’t really get into vigilantism very deeply. Walking Tall (1973), directed by action-film veteran Phil Karlson, was one of the few that did.

Then, in 1974, came Death Wish, a harrowing revenge fantasy starring Charles Bronson and directed by Michael Winner. Bronson plays Paul Kersey, a mild-mannered, politically liberal engineer who lives in New York City. His wife and daughter are savagely raped, and his wife dies as a result. Bronson then takes to the streets and makes a hobby of inviting attack by appearing vulnerable, then turning on his attackers and killing them. Critics were appalled, but Death Wish was a popular hit.

Again, however, there were few imitators. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Eastwood’s Magnum Force (written by John Milius and Michael Cimino) contributed an important element of this type of film by tracing much of the corruption to the police force itself. And in 1976, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver pushed the vigilante film’s possibilities for violence even further with its story of Travis Bickle, a lonely Vietnam vet living on sugar, scotch, and cereal, who decides to clean up some of the “scum” infesting New York City. By the late 70’s, however, the vigilante film seemed to have died a natural, if perhaps premature, death, except for the occasional Eastwood or Bronson release.

That all changed with the arrival of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris. Suddenly, vigilante films sprang up in surprising profusion, resulting in the critical hatred described above. But are these films as bad as all that? Aesthetically, they range from the classic Dirty Harry and Death Wish to such frankly low-brow stuff as Class of 1984 and Cobra. They range in tone from the bleak despair of The Year of the Dragon and The Road Warrior to the sober intellectuality of Trouble in Mind and Sudden Impact to the raucous comedy of Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, and the “Police Academy” series. Aesthetic quality and film style seem to have little to do with the criticism.

Kael et al. hate these films, but they’ve never been able to say exactly what it is they dislike about them that isn’t also in numerous films they like. Instead of reexamining their reactions to the films, these critics have taken a scattershot approach, finding something to dislike in every film in the genre, while keeping up the pretense of judging each film separately. Their criticisms, however, have inevitably ended up hammering at the same points over and over. Misogyny or antifeminism is among the most frequent charges despite the aggressive behavior of Rae Dawn Chong in Commando or Sondra Locke in Sudden Impact; and in Tightrope, Trouble in Mind, Witness, and many other vigilante films the women prove to be strong, independent, and intelligent, if less bellicose than some of their male counterparts. Furthermore, James Cameron’s two films as director and co-scenarist. The Terminator and Aliens, clearly put the lie to this caricature of the genre. In both films the female lead is shown to be a strong and effective defender of herself and those dear to her precisely because of her femininity.

Another tactic many critics have used to defame the vigilante film is to link it to the one genre that is even lower in their estimation, the “slasher” film of the Halloween-Friday the 13th variety. Interestingly, critics have somehow missed the one true similarity between the two genres: the fact that the slasher films deal with the same fears of violence and anarchy the vigilante films do, only pitched toward a teenage audience. Certainly such staples of the slasher genre as murderers wearing hockey masks and using power tools to kill or maim their victims reflect middle- and upper-class teens’ fears of proletarian violence. Most critics, however, merely avert their eyes and accuse the filmmakers of glorifying violence, just as they do with vigilante films.

Vigilante films most decidedly do not glorify violence. In fact, they take great pains to show the high cost of living outside the law, even for those who do so only in the pursuit of justice. Their heroes are sometimes killed at the end—as in To Live and Die in L.A., Uncommon Valor, and Reef Dawn—and friends, partners, or family members are often injured, raped, or killed in these films. Often the hero himself is ironically the victim of other vigilantes, as in Dirty Harry, when Harry gets beaten up by a neighborhood watch group which mistakes him for a Peeping Tom.

The heroes of many of these films suffer from serious injuries or physical disabilities. Knee injuries are particularly popular: Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) of the Mad Max series walks with a decided limp, as do Hawk (Kris Kristofferson) in Trouble in Mind and Daniel (Ralph Macchio) in the final scene of The Karate Kid. Head injuries (Max again) and gunshot wounds (John Book in Witness, Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry) are also common. For a genre that supposedly presents the hero as indestructible superman, the protagonists of these films do a surprising amount of limping and scuttling on the way to their final confrontations.

Furthermore, these physical injuries are only the outward reflections of the more serious psychic disabilities suffered by most vigilante heroes. The cost of going outside the law is evident in the abysmal home lives of many vigilante heroes: There are troubles with wives in many films (e.g., 48 Hrs., Raw Deal), trouble with children (e.g., Tank, TV’s The Equalizer), and unmarried, widowed, or divorced loneliness (Johnny Rambo, Harry Callahan, John Book). In some films, the hero suffers even worse torment as his wife is murdered by his adversary: Max’s wife is killed at the end of Mad Max, Paul Kersey’s wife is killed in Death Wish, and the ex-wife of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is killed in The Year of the Dragon.

To say, then, that these films glorify violence or that they fail to show the negative consequences of violence is patently false. Furthermore, these same critics have no qualms about the comparable levels of violence in films of which they approve: e.g., Kurosawa’s Ran, Coppola’s Godfather films, the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy, and films by Kael’s beloved Brian de Palma. It all depends on whose ox is being gored.

The heroes of vigilante films are never cold-blooded killers who like to kill for the fun of it, although their adversaries often are. The heroes usually have to be pushed into going outside the law. Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Commando has to go outside the law when terrorists kidnap his daughter. Bronson, as noted earlier, begins his vigilante action in Death Wish after his wife is killed. Josey Wales begins his quest in The Outlaw Josey Wales after his wife and son are killed. John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) organizes a vigilance committee to protect his Philadelphia neighborhood in Fighting Back after robbers beat his mother and amputate her finger in order to steal her wedding ring.

Numerous films of this type have treated the theme of violence as a threat to the family unit. The heroes are frequently called into action because of threats to children. Matrix’s adversary in Commando, for example, is quite clearly a homosexual who hates him for, among other things, being able to fit into society and raise a child; significantly, the story begins when he kidnaps Matrix’s daughter. The Scorpio Killer shoots a young boy, holds another hostage, and kidnaps a school bus full of children in Dirty Harry. Jake Van Dorn (George C. Scott) swings into action in Hardcore when he sees his runaway daughter in a pornographic film and resolves to find her and bring her home. Far from being nihilistic or antisocial, the cumulative effect of vigilante films since Dirty Harry has been to strengthen respect for the family as the organizing force of society. Their heroes are not steely-eyed at home, only in the streets.

Far from painting a “black-and-white, heroes-and-villains” picture of society, these films seldom fail to point out the similarities between the vigilante and his adversaries. In the first place, both operate outside the law. But filmmakers use other ways as well, often quite consciously.

The writers of Dirty Harry, for example, were very careful to point out the similarities between Harry and the Scorpio Killer. Both are unmarried (Harry widowed), each resorts to subterfuge in order to entrap the other, each stalks his victim(s) methodically and emotionlessly, and each spends a considerable amount of time on rooftops or high floors of buildings. The implied comparison is taken to an extreme in Eastwood’s one critically acclaimed crime movie. Tightrope.

Leftist critics have accused all these movies of being right wing, but the amount of overt political content in these films is actually pretty small; selective quotation by disingenuous critics make them seem far more polemical than they really are. Furthermore, most of these same critics have shown a corresponding streak of “anticonservatism,” as in the following by Pauline Kael, in her review of Peter Yates’s Eyewitness (screenplay by Steven Tesich): “Still, about midway, I thought, I wish Tesich would get over his love affair with America, or at least stop trying to authenticate the American dream.” As if that weren’t blatant enough, Robin Wood recently called Star Wars and Rocky “precisely the kind of entertainment that a potentially fascist culture would be expected to produce and enjoy.”

In point of fact, vigilante films go to great lengths to establish liberal credentials by showing the deleterious effects of vigilantism on the hero, his family, and society. Clearly their creators don’t advocate that audiences go outside the law to seek justice; they merely want fairer and more rigorous enforcement of the laws that are already on the books. Far from “propagandiz[ing] for para-legal police power and vigilante justice,” as Kael said of Dirty Harry, vigilante films are not calls to action, they are laments. There is always a sting of sadness in the ending of a vigilante film, as the injured but indomitable hero goes back to a broken home to await the next outrage against society. These films lament the moral dissolution their makers see in the society around them. They lament the slaughter of America’s children in the schools and on the streets. They lament the fear and anger in which ordinary people spend their lives due to rampant street crime. They lament the interference of nitpicking civil libertarians who block effective law enforcement. And they lament, above all, the dissolution of family, neighborhood, and community ties which help make crime so prevalent and difficult to stop.

If vigilante films and their filmmakers sometimes seem angry, perhaps they have a right to be, even if that right happens to be one of the few not sanctioned by the American pseudointelligentsia. In this opinion, the filmmakers are clearly in sync with the feelings of their audience. Michael Winner, director of Death Wish, has said:

The picture was a release; it showed somebody doing what everybody else is too afraid to do themselves. Don’t tell me that if there was an item in tomorrow’s paper about a man whose wife and daughter had been raped and killed, and who went out and shot the attackers, the whole country wouldn’t be delighted. I would too; and all the liberals who write this ass-hole nonsense about what a fascist picture Death Wish was, I believe they would as well.

The box-office grosses of these often poorly made films and the reaction to the Bernhard Goetz incident attest to the accuracy of Winner’s comment.

Relevant as they are to the times, these films are telling a story that is by no means new. Vigilante stories have a long history, from Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel through the filmic exploits of the Lone Ranger and Zorro and the comic-book adventures of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, and the like. Much of the most popular American detective fiction has featured vigilantism, in characters such as Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. Such stories and characters seem to be most popular when social cohesion is weakest. The lawlessness and social chaos of Weimar Germany, for example, provided the context for such films as Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Der Speiler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler) and M and Gerhart Lamprecht’s Emil und die Detective (Emil and the Detectives). That vigilante films are so popular now would seem to be considerable cause for concern.

Vigilante films say it in many different ways, but they all say the same thing: The social order in America is in such a mess that there is no assurance of justice to be found by working within the system. This is not the place to discuss the accuracy of that perception, nor its causes. Both sides of the controversy will be happy to trot out the usual suspects. It is, however, important to note that when the public begins to show such a monumental lack of faith in their country’s leadership as is implied in these films, that country would seem to have a considerable problem on its hands. And when popular television series such as Magnum P.I., The Equalizer, Hill Street Blues, and The A-Team provide weekly lessons in that message, you’d think even the dullest members of the American nomenklatura would take notice and begin to question the direction their fellows have been taking the country for the last 25 years or so. But they haven’t, preferring merely to deride these films’ massive audiences as stupid, insecure male chauvinists. Maybe they’re right. Maybe American film audiences are stupid, insecure male chauvinists.

Maybe filmgoers would be better off watching Kiss of the Spider Woman and all the other masterpieces that make the critics’ annual “ten-best” lists. Still, that doesn’t change anything. If a large number of Americans have lost faith in their society’s ability to police itself, that’s a pretty big story which we can’t afford to shrug off. It’s easy for the American clerisy to shut their power windows and ignore the commotion outside their limousines. Too bad it’s not so easy for the rest of us.