Long before Gran Torino, which may be his swan song, Clint Eastwood played San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. That 1971 film disturbed the left because it talked back to them.
For the left, rats are comrades, as Orwell put it in Animal Farm. In the vision of Dirty Harry, the rights of innocent victims are more important than the rights of criminals. Callahan tells the mayor that the assassin terrorizing San Francisco will kill again, “because he likes it,” not because he had a rough childhood, can’t find a job, uses drugs, and so on. And when Callahan’s new partner says he studied sociology at San Jose State, the detective responds sarcastically with, “Sociology? Oh, you’ll go far.” Jump ahead 37 years to Gran Torino, and there is definitely sociology going on, along with some historical lapses and politically correct stereotypes straight from Hollywood central casting.
Eastwood, now 78, plays Walt Kowalski, a veteran of the Korean War, 1950-1953, not exactly fresh in the minds of most filmgoers. The film doesn’t tell them that it started when North Korea’s Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, backed by Stalin, invaded South Korea, a U.S. ally, not the other way around, as I.F. Stone had it. The film offers no flashbacks to the conflict or any meaningful exposition. Here the Korean war comes across, through Walt, as white America versus “zipperheads,” “chinks,” “slopes,” “egg rolls,” and of course “gooks.”
At the outset, Walt’s wife has just passed away, and his neighbors in an older Detroit neighborhood are being replaced by Asians. He resents the Hmong family next door but it does emerge, through some rather didactic exposition, that the Hmong fought with the United States against Vietnamese communist forces. Someone like Walt would have known that, but he is portrayed here as willfully ignorant and a bigot of considerable diversity. He also unloads on “dagos,” “micks,” and “colored guys,” and the script makes clear that this is all part of being a Real Man. No N-word or anti-gay jokes, however.
Walt’s white contemporaries are pretty much the same as him, so one gets the feeling that the entire Korean War generation is nothing more than a lost squad of racists, Archie Bunker on the big screen. Walt is handy at fixing things but can’t seem to prepare a meal beyond beef jerky and beer. He is also coughing up blood and it’s pretty clear he is on the way out. He’s a symbol of a dying city, dying industries, and a corrupt racist nation in which nobody has much of a chance, particularly immigrants.
Walt slowly makes friends with the Hmong next door, especially Thao, a bookish teenager fond of gardening. A Hmong gang tries to recruit Thao and tasks him to steal Walt’s 1972 Ford Gran Torino, which Walt bought new, after personally installed the steering column on the Ford assembly line. Walt never drives the car in the film, and prefers instead an older Ford pickup, a better vehicle to convey the redneck image. Thao fails to steal the Gran Torino, and Walt confronts the gang with an M-1 Garand, a weapon used in the Korean War and World War II. He tells one gangster to shove off, otherwise, he says, he will shoot him in the face then go inside and sleep like a baby. The gang backs off but tells Walt he better watch his back.
Walt does his Dirty Harry thing again, this time with a .45 automatic, when a trio of blacks, “spooks,” as he calls them, makes a move on Thao’s sister. For a Detroit location, blacks are rather rare, as are the police. There are not many Hmong there, either. A Hispanic gang, more suited to southern California, also threatens Thao but Walt never confronts them. He doesn’t interact much with his priest, though he manages a half-baked confession.
A Hmong holy man, “reads” Walt and finds some problem in his past. It turns out that, in Korea, Walt had killed a lot of people, including one unarmed enemy soldier who was only trying to surrender. Here is the familiar screen stereotype of the American veteran, crazed from his own atrocities and struggling with his demons until the end. There is no hint that American soldiers in Korea accomplished anything other than mass killing. Walt is really a composite of vets from WWII, Korea, and of course Vietnam.
Walt helps Thao, whom he has “manned up,” to get a construction job. This draws gang attacks on Thao, his sister, and their family. Things are building to a showdown, and Thao wants to team up with Walt and take them down. But Walt faces the gang alone, his own way. The denouement is not exactly Sudden Impact or Dirty Harry denouement, but Eastwood’s performance will please viewers and critics. One hopes Clint Eastwood makes more movies, including more that talk back to the left, because symbolizing a dying America and playing the Crazed American Veteran Stereotype is not the best way for a certified screen legend to bow out.