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Retro Review 1981: Harry's War

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, March 3, 2011

Harry’s War (Original Release Date: 1 March 1981)

A number of folks on the Internet appear to believe the Big Bad Government is hiding this movie from us. If more people were aware of it, they reason, it would foment revolution.  It would effect change.  It would cause people -- if you’ll permit me a corruption (and translation!) of one of the go-to quotes in Kant’s Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? -- to doff the self-imposed yoke of immaturity, don a new yoke of exaggerated self-worth, and inculcate a similarly exaggerated sense of self-worth in those too stupid or unfortunate to realize the power to shrug off the yoke of immaturity rests on their own shoulders.

Enough of that.  The above paragraph is meant to illustrate that you can’t write about movies, politics, and philosophy in the same paragraph without coming across like an asshole.  Name dropping makes it worse.  Also, if you were wondering, including a quote or a title in a language other than the language in which the rest of the paragraph was written doesn’t make it better.  That said, I am liable to drop another name or two below, and talk of politics may be unavoidable. (I probably should have said "ineluctable," here, since the lid to Pandora’s πιθος has already been lifted.)

(See, what I’ve done above is attempt to prove to you I am capable of writing "intelligently."  Intelligent people are right [or left!] about everything.  Now’s the part where I condescend to you and go "folksy."  You know who was folksy?  Will Rogers.  You think you’re better than Will Rogers, Punk?!)

I am, by nature, not blessed/cursed with the desire to take a political stance.  My grandfather tells me this makes me a namby-pamby.  I can’t argue with him.  No.  Really.  I am incapable of arguing with him.  He just gets louder and louder, and I’m too sheepish to assert myself around him.

Harry Johnson is the same way.  He has a love of his country -- we see that when he makes a point of taking time out of his work day (he’s a deliveryman for the USPS) to administer the proper fold to the flag he found "wadded up in a corner on the floor" earlier -- but as far as taking a stance goes, it’s never been something he’s needed to do.  He has faith and trust in his government, and has never had a reason to fight for any right denied him.

Let me pause for a moment and repeat the character’s name: Harry Johnson.  Harry.  Johnson.  I don’t think there’s any significance to the name, and I doubt the filmmakers were being bawdy.  Still, it’s an amusing name for the character, and people just keep on saying it.  I, too, wish to keep on saying it.  All right.  Back to the review.

We learn Harry Johnson’s unwillingness to take a stance has been the major factor in his wife’s decision to divorce him.  She thinks he should be more assertive.  It may be the only problem in their relationship.  Nothing else is ever mentioned.  If so, it’s a stupid reason.  It took me out of her corner from the get-go.  I don’t think it was supposed to, but being a fellow namby-pamby, I resented her for it.  She also doesn’t seem to want to let him see his two daughters very often. When he drops in to ask if they want to go with him to visit his hometown, his soon-to-be ex complains that he’d already seen them twice that month.  Sheesh, Lady.  You’re not even divorced, yet.  Are there any legal grounds to prevent him from seeing his kids whenever he wants?

His reason for returning to his hometown is to visit an old friend.  She has written him a letter asking to see him, and it becomes clear he hasn’t been there since he was a kid.  It also becomes clear to the audience very quickly that this woman, whom he calls "Aunt Beverly," is an elderly woman, and that there is absolutely no romantic interest between the two of them.  This isn’t made clear to his idiot wife, who writhes in jealousy until she makes an uninvited trip out to Beverly’s property and realizes she (the wife) was being a dumbass.  The realization doesn’t last long, as she is too busy whining about how, despite her husband finally having a direction in life -- he’s accepted an offer to take over Beverly’s junkyard/antique business -- it is not a direction of which she personally approves.

If the movie works, it works because Harry Johnson starts out as such a naïf. (Can I get away with writing "naïf" without coming across as pompous?  I’ll let Quasar decide.  Whaddaya say, Quasar?)  He’s too naïve to realize his wife might be jealous, and he’s too naïve to consider the possibility that the government might be wronging its people.   He learns, though.  It is thanks to the IRS’s treatment of Beverly (full name: Beverly Payne.  I considered that her name might be an allusion to Thomas Paine, but I abandoned the consideration when I decided such an allusion would make it less likely that Harry Johnson’s name was a happy accident) that he learns this. They are charging her $190,000 in back taxes because they are "pretty sure" she’s rich.  She’s not, and the IRS’s harassment of her directly leads to her having a heart attack and croaking while defending herself in court.

When he learns his lesson, he lashes out the way any naïf does when his worldview has been challenged.  The difference is that he has access to World War II-era vehicles and weaponry, thanks to having them willed to him by Beverly.  Of course, he has to steal them back from the IRS, since they have seized her property.  When he does, he declares war on the IRS.  (He actually says, "I declare war on the IRS!")  The rest of the movie is light on story.  There’s a pretty long chase scene, then a fight with the U.S. Army that takes up the last third of the picture.  Once the movie has made the potentially irresponsible point that it thinks the government infringes on basic human rights, and that taxes are unconstitutional (at one point, one taxman says to another, "This whole damn system works on a bluff, and you know that!"), it’s content to be something of a mindless action comedy.

Oh, and that fucking bitch of a wife of his decides she wants him back when she sees him wearing a helmet and firing arrows at the local law enforcement.  Go figure.
 

Final Word:  Recommended?  Maybe.  A number of sites identify it as an example of "Libertarian" cinema.  I guess it is. I think it, at times, is as naïve as Harry Johnson.  It really does seem to want to communicate the notion that taxes are the great evil, and that it is wrong for us to have to pay them.  It reminds me a little of The Astronaut Farmer.  It’s also the work of Kieth Merrill, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and is apparently considered suitable viewing for LDS members.  If you’re looking for a movie to show some politically minded LDS members, I guess this’ll do.

Availability: It’s on Netflix Instant.  It’s also on Google Videos, though it’s missing the first twenty minutes or so, there.

Standout Scene: Harry Johnson drives some sort of Jeep/tank hybrid through the wall of a local broadcast station.

Hey, I Know That Guy!: Edward Herrmann plays the head vampire in Lost Boys.  More recently, he played William Randolph Hearst in The Cat’s Meow.  At this stage in his career, he’s a dead ringer for Harold Lloyd.  David Ogden Stiers played Winchester on M*A*S*H.  You’ll probably recognize Elisha Cook, Jr., but you may not be able to place him.  He was one of the premiere character actors of his time, and was in a range of pretty well-known movies.  He was in The Maltese Falcon, Shane, The Big Sleep, The Killing, and Rosemary’s Baby.  He was also in Salem’s Lot, which I liked a lot as a kid.

Nostalgia Score: 4/10.  I had never seen this before, so I had no attachment to it beyond its featuring actors I like.  It didn’t quite look or feel like an ’81 movie.  Its score gives it an older feel, and it looks more like it was shot in the early seventies.  It felt like seventies-era, live-action Disney to me.

Movie Score:  59/100

 

The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 8 years 39 weeks ago

A word of warning: despite the title of the video making it fairly clear that the video covers the end of the movie, I thought I might as well bring to your attention that the video covers the end of the movie.  There be spoilers.

I think it's probably the only Harry's War video on YouTube, so it was that or nothing.