D.A. to Callahan: “Where the hell does it say you got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the fourth amendment!”
Back in school, my friends and I routinely joked about making compilation videos of certain formulaic scenes that appear in movies, so you would have, for instance, a four hour video of episodes where the good guy cop visits the captain’s office to get his orders or a (new) partner or an ass chewing. That’s more or less where this 5 for the day topic starts: the relationship between an authority and its subordinates - police chief and beat cop, captain and sailor, lord and vassal - there are infinite manifestations of this relationship expressed in countless genres beyond cop thrillers. Each picture has something a little different to say about authority and the people below it—though invariably, when discord between the authority and the individual develops, sympathy goes to the the individual, never the authority.
1. Authority Is Inefficient
Dirty Harry—It’s hard not to mention Clint Eastwood in this discussion, since he’s chafed under more authority than I could shake a stick at, from this blueprint of the modern cop drama all the way up to In the Line of Fire. Sometimes, as in The Gauntlet, he’s at such absurd odds with authority that it results in a hail of bullets from the entire Phoenix police force. But Dirty Harry is particularly good because it lays out the different perspectives as clearly as possible. Inspector Callahan’s sole purpose is to stop crime. He has no tolerance for paperwork, waiting rooms or any sort of rules and regulations. His superiors are responsible for the bureacratic machine that Callahan must work through, though he sees it only as a machine of obstacles. Authority may keep him in partial check, but his respect for it is minimal. When he meets with the mayor regarding the serial killer case, the mayor asks:
Mayor: Alright, let’s have it…
Callahan: Have what?
Mayor: The report, what have you been doing?
Callahan: For the past three quarters of the hour I’ve been sitting on my ass in your outer office waiting on you.
Callahan is surly with every level of authority and the audience sympathizes because they see him on the street, getting things done while his superiors are focused on abstract things like civil rights and legalities.
2. Authority Can Be Crazy
Mister Roberts—Two schools of thought on how to deal with authority permeate this picture. On the one hand is the Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) method, who chooses to intervene, as best he can, with the tyranny of Captain Morton (James Cagney) in order to lessen the burden to his men. On the flipside is Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) who, despite grandiose schemes to humiliate the captain, chooses instead to stay completely out of his sight. So successful is he that halfway in the picture when he does run in to Captain Morton, Pulver must introduce himself.
Captain Morton: How is it I don’t see you around much,Pulver?
Ensign Pulver: I’ve often wondered the same thing myself, sir.
Sure he has.
3. Authority Can Be Maddening
Paths of Glory—Micro and macro exchange fisticuffs in this brutal antiwar film, which is expertly designed to raise your blood pressure. Colonel Dax’s compassion for his men is up against a stone cold wall of generalship. The arbitrary and unjust punishment that’s dished out, along with the command from on high to force Dax to choose who dies and who doesn’t is just….well, it’s infuriating just to think about.
General Mireau: If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!
Even if Kubrick wasn’t attempting to demonize authority in this movie, I’m not sure it would be at all possible to breed any sympathy or understanding for their position.
4. Authority Can Be Surmounted
Lord of the Rings—Layers of authority do not necessarily constitute an immovable caste system—especially in Middle-earth. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the Gray visits Saruman, the White, who is the head wizard of the council, though still under the flaming eye of Sauron. The two square off after Gandalf refuses to do the wrong thing, by joining Saruman in an agreement that would inevitably be as trustworthy as a Hitler/Stalin pact. Saruman defeats and imprisons Gandalf at first, but by The Two Towers, circumstances have changed and Gandalf (now the White) is over the now defeated Saruman. Since Gandalf is all about restoring freedom to Middle-earth it is unlikely that Saruman would ever regain his position. In film, corrupt authority tends to collapse and righteous authority tends to last forever.
5. Authority Must Be Obeyed
The 47 Ronin–Americans are completely comfortable mocking or disobeying authority—we relish it. Dissent is prized in our society—for some, above all else. Think of Harrison Ford sassing the President in Clear and Present Danger: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, I don’t dance.”
And, if I recall correctly, the audience cheered. But what happens when the clash happens in a culture built on filial piety? I once watched 94 ronin—and not one of them was irreverent. Chushingura (47 Ronin) is a staple of Japanese literature, drama and film. From the puppet theater of Tokugawa Japan to modern day television, this true story has been made and remade more often than A Christmas Carol. For many, it’s a tradition to watch a version of the story on New Year’s Eve. Kenji Mizoguchi’s version was made during the war and it does actually celebrate adherence to authority, in fact, the story is about adhering to layers of authority that, because of conflict within those layers, requires the self destruction among Lord Asano’s vassels. The message is incomprehensible to an American, but part of the fabric for the Japanese.