There are two roles that Clint Eastwood is associated with more than any other – The Man With No Name, from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of westerns, and the legendary “Dirty” Harry Callahan, from the Dirty Harry series of five films.
Nowadays, though, Eastwood has become known for his outings as a director, introducing his talents to a new generation and reminding older generations just how brilliant he is. In 2008, what was billed as his final on-film role (ultimately untrue), Eastwood directed and starred in Gran Torino, a hard-edged drama-thriller about elderly, racist Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, who ultimately learns the error of his ignorance through his involvement as protector of his Hmong neighbours. Hmong people are from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, many of them seeking refuge in the United States after fleeing tyranny following the Laotian Civil War. Kowalski has watched his neighbourhood shift from blue-collar white American to largely Hmong people, viewing himself as the only holdout of an old America.
Gran Torino is a marvellous film. SPOILER WARNING (but please, the film’s been out for four years and if you haven’t seen it, you should have) Its ending, in which Walt sacrifices his life to end a gang conflict legally, rather than through a massive shoot-out as most of us expected, is the difference between this being a good film, and a great one. I’m going to focus on a lot of the analysis that followed the film’s release.
A lot of people were, and continue to be, quick to draw parallels between Walt Kowalski and a potential elderly Dirty Harry. When I first saw Gran Torino, to my shame I hadn’t seen a single Dirty Harry film – “No Myles, it’s good, but it’s rated R,” said my father at the time, and good for him. So, naturally, Ignoramus Myles took Walt Kowalski the Old Curmudgeonly Bastard to be like a spiritual Dirty Harry.
In many ways, there are certainly similarities. Eastwood imbibes the simple phrase, “Get off my lawn,” with as much menace as he gave Dirty Harry’s “Make my day.” His inclination towards gunpowder diplomacy is reminiscent of Harry’s “I shoot the bastards, that’s my policy.” And finally, Kowalski’s willingness to say what he thinks without fear of repercussion mirrors Harry Callahan’s blunt summary of his department transfer in The Enforcer – “Personnel?! That’s for assholes!
However, it’s the differences between Dirty Harry and Walt Kowalski that define the latter and make Gran Torino the film that it is. Incidentally, though it’s not important, Harry Callahan has way better hair than Kowalski.
It’s the racism that makes the characters so different. In Dirty Harry, one of the cops in the police station tells Callahan’s new partner that Harry’s not racist, he just hates everyone equally – before proceeding to utter a bunch of racist epithets that would make even Quentin Tarantino squirm (probably not). In the sequel, Magnum Force, Harry beds his neighbour, the appealing Sunny, played by Adele Yoshioka. Rather cheekily, she asks him, “What does a girl have to do to go to bed with you?”, to which Harry replies, “Try knocking on the door.” I somehow feel like Walt Kowalski would have told her to get off his lawn and followed that with a few blue words. Harry Callahan is by no means a liberal, but his tolerance of everyone provided they’re on the right side of the law looks positively university-academic compared to Kowalski.
Fortunately, Kowalski comes to realise that his neighbours aren’t actually evil, and comes to embrace the cultural differences between them. He continues to fling racist terms left, right and centre, but the angry edge is gone and it becomes good-natured (if such a thing is possible with racism…). His ultimate self sacrifice represents a full 180° turn in Kowalski’s outlook. Like Harry in Magnum Force, he hates the system but will work with it until something better comes along.
I could watch the Dirty Harry films over and over again without getting sick of them – they’re my kind of film, and Harry Callahan is my kind of hero. But with Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood presents us with a different kind of hero. Not a watch over and over again one – it’s too intense for that. But Kowalski, despite his unpleasantness, has qualities we can all aspire to have. Level-headedness in the face of crisis, supportive of his friends, and a strong sense of right and wrong. These qualities he shares with Dirty Harry, and that’s what makes the two characters so important. They’re not the same person, but they stand up for the same ideals.