Let’s just get this out there right away—I love Dirty Harry movies. I’m a sucker for the dialogue, for Clint Eastwood’s swagger as no-bullshit San Francisco Inspector Harry Callahan in the grimy post-peace-and-love days of the ’70s, and eventually ’80s. I even like the not-as-great installments, like The Dead Pool (Where else are you gonna see a young Jim Carey lip synch to Guns N’ Roses before OD-ing in his trailer…or did he?)
Here, we’re primarily talking about a scene from Magnum Force (1973), the second installment in the franchise following the monstrous success of the original Dirty Harry (1971).
The first film was a fairly straight forward story of a cop hunting down a murderous bad guy, though it contained controversial elements for the time, namely the use of force on part of police and the feeling that major cities in the U.S. were being taken over by criminals with police helpless to stop them. These themes can be seen in plenty of other movies in the late ’70s and the 1980s, even into the ’90s, basically following the crest of the crack cocaine epidemic and resulting gang violence in the country.
Harry is an angry man in the first film, grieving the loss of his wife, who died in a car wreck when she was hit by a drunk driver before the film begins. He’s always been a dedicated cop, but now it’s all he has, and his anger, frustration with bureaucracy, and propensity to be in the wrong place at the right time, keeps landing him in hot water and even questioning whether or not he wants to be a cop anymore.
The central plot of DH is a Hollywood version of the real life hunt for the Zodiac killer in the Bay area, and that was a little different for the time too. When the film was made, these were still current events, with the killer’s last victim murdered in 1969. Criminals in movies tended to be evil masterminds, violent and one-dimensional gang leaders or mercenaries, or just wild street punks. Scorpio (Andrew Robinson) was, in essence, a serial killer, though his MO changes with almost every victim—the first is shot with a rifle at considerable distance while swimming in a rooftop pool; the second is a 10-year-old boy, who is presumably killed in a similar way; he then shoots a police officer when he’s almost caught setting up a sniper’s nest; and then he kidnaps a teenaged girl and holds her for ransom.
He attempts to kill Harry when he brings him the ransom money, but is stabbed and flees without his cash. Harry tracks him down fairly quickly and tortures him until he gives up the location of the kidnapped girl, but when police get to her, she’s already dead, implying there was never a chance to save her.
While the Scorpio killer is not completely analogous to the real Zodiac, his method of instilling fear in the public with letters and threats after his killings is the same, and the specific threat of killing a school-bus full of children was made in Zodiac’s letters—a scenario that was somewhat realized when Scorpio takes a busload of children hostage, though thankfully never carried out by the real-life killer.
The similarities are prominently presented in the film Zodiac in which SF Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) goes to an opening-night screening of Dirty Harry. We see him viewing the scene in which the SF mayor and other officials read a letter sent by the Scorpio killer (standing in for Zodiac), which strongly echoes earlier scenes in Zodiac where Toschi is in a room of people going over one of the killer’s letters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. Toschi walks out before the move ends, obviously frustrated and a little disgusted. Unlike the real case, DH ties the story of the Scorpio killer up fairly neatly, with the bad guy dead (though it’s not quite that simple). The real case had no such resolution, and the identity of the Zodiac killer remains a mystery over 50 years later.
With the aforementioned spread of crime and urban blight in U.S. cities at the time and the perception that police were either corrupt or unable to protect the residents, the idea of vigilantism took hold in pop culture. You have extremes like Death Wish and then you have characters like Harry, who straddle the line. At the end of DH, after finally dispensing with Scorpio after a lengthy chase, Harry throws his Inspector star into the marsh and walks away as the camera pulls back. One could interpret this as Harry walking away from police work, disgusted that this killer was allowed to take so many lives—or one could interpret this as Harry deciding to take matters into his own hands from that point on and work outside the law—sort of like John Shaft in the 2000 remake of Shaft, where John starts out as an NYPD detective, but ditches his badge and becomes a law-bending private investigator.
But none of that was the case.
The unplanned sequel Magnum Force sees Harry still on the force and actually a bit more well adjusted—and a bit less angry, though still just as wily as ever. Whereas in the first movie, he was something of a pariah on the police force, now he seems to be a bit more well respected, and his shooting prowess is legendary—he takes the force’s combat shooting trophy at every annual competition. But the brass still hate him.
This film presents Harry’s own near-vigilante ideals taken to their natural extreme in a gang of men who dress as motorcycle cops and straight up execute criminals who have escaped justice. Turns out they’re actual cops, and Harry has to deal with some internal conflicts about his ideas of justice, right and wrong, and how far he’s willing to go.
That’s why it’s a good sequel—it’s not just another plot for the main character to participate in, but it’s also about the main character, and his growth.
The Infamous “Light Specials” Line
But now we come to the thing I’d grappled with for years, fearing it would tarnish the image of Harry Callahan.
Harry is famous for his hand cannon. He used a Smith & Wesson Model 29 in .44 Magnum in the original film, delivering one of the most famous movie monologues of all time while holding the imposing revolver, in which he calls it the most powerful handgun in the world. At the time it was true, not counting single-shot handguns. It was soon eclipsed by revolvers chambered in .454 Casull, but nobody cared.
Demand for the Model 29, which had actually been discontinued when the movie was made, skyrocketed and S&W scrambled to catch up. There were so few of the guns around when the first film was made that the screen-used revolvers were assembled from leftover parts from S&W—they couldn’t build two guns with the same barrel length, so you’ll see the revolver changes from a 6.5-inch to an 8-inch in different scenes. In subsequent movies, he carries the 6.5-inch model exclusively.
In Magnum Force, Harry is again rocking his Model 29. He shows up to the indoor police shooting range at night, when he usually has the place to himself, only to find four young rookie motorcycle cops well into a practice session. They all carry Colt Python revolvers in .357 Magnum with 4-inch barrels.
Once they exchange pleasantries, Sweet (Tim Matheson) asks Harry, “What kind of load do you use in that .44?”
Harry’s response has puzzled gun people ever since: “It’s a light special. This size gun, it gives me better control, less recoil than a .357 with wadcutters.”
Gun people heard that line as “a light Special” with a capital S. Could it be that Harry Callahan, the man who delivered the .44 Magnum speech and is the main character of a movie called Magnum Force, uses .44 Specials in his Model 29?! And light ones at that?!
This bothered me for years. I decided to believe Harry simply meant that he custom loaded his .44 Magnum rounds with a lighter charge to help mitigate recoil—and one lonely evening, while rewatching Magnum Force with the director’s commentary on (a few drinks may have been involved) I found out I was right!
Director John Milius says in the audio commentary that the “light special” line was garbled by the cast and crew somehow during the take that was ultimately used, and the words should have been reversed.
What Harry was supposed to say was he used a “special, light load,” or a “light, special load” meaning he used a specially prepared lighter Magnum cartridge, likely handloaded—though maybe not, as he freely dumps his spent brass in the range bucket.
Still, we can rest easy—Harry wasn’t loading his .44 Magnum with wimpy .44 Specials—and the line is just a result of a garbled bit of dialogue, likely because nobody on set realized a .44 Magnum revolver can also fire .44 Special cartridges, or maybe nobody there even knew .44 Special was a thing.
A Truly Great Gun Range Scene
There are a few ridiculous gunfights in this movie, and Harry’s uncanny aim with his extremely old-school shooting stance and grip where the supporting hand is grasping the wrist of the shooting hand, or a bladed one-handed shooting stance that he sometimes uses, look downright silly through 2020 eyes—but the shooting range scene we’ve been discussing is pretty well done, especially for 1973. (Sometimes he uses a two-handed revolver grip, but there’s no rhyme or reason as to which grip or stance Eastwood uses in different scenes. During the competition scene, he shoots almost casually with one hand, as if he slipped back into his cowboy days.)
I cannot count how many times I’ve seen movies and TV shows, from all eras, in which cops head into the indoor shooting range with either no hearing protection or eye pro, or missing one or the other, and just carry on casual conversations while other people are shooting in bays all around them—indoors. They don’t put their ears on until they go to shoot, if at all, as if the sound only effects you if it comes from your own gun. It’s so frustrating, but it happens constantly in movies, and it’s even worse on TV, where the actors aren’t even usually firing blanks anymore—with the gun’s muzzle flash and report added in post.
The behavior at the range in this movie feels like a real range. It’s not a public range, so it’s pretty rudimentary. There’s no cable system, they just walk downrange to post their targets, and the basement practice space can’t accommodate more than six shooters or so comfortably. It’s exactly the kind of place I’d imagine Harry Callahan going to shoot alone.
Everyone, including Harry, is using ear pro (hilarious looking ancient earmuffs that will make you understand why they got the nickname “cans”) and safety glasses. When Harry steps up to the firing line for the first time, he even does that awkward one-handed operation we’ve all performed to pull his earmuffs from his neck onto his head.
They all pull their ear-pro off after someone empties a cylinder to talk a little, but they all put it back on before the next guy shoots. Harry even ejects his brass into a plastic bucket that we’re all too familiar with. When Sweet tries Harry’s .44, he simply dumps his brass right on the floor—maybe a subtle early indication that he’s a dick.
We also get to see how Harry carries his ammunition. In the first movie, we never actually see him reload his Model 29, because there isn’t really a need. You could argue that he should have reloaded it during the final leg of the chase at the mill at the end of the movie—and maybe he did off screen. That would add another layer to the repetition of his “do I feel lucky” speech to Scorpio, knowing he had a full cylinder.
In Magnum Force, we see Harry load his revolver with speedloaders twice during the range scene, stashing the empties in his jacket pocket. We see him use speedloaders again during the police shooting competition, again keeping them in his jacket pocket.
The young cops also use speedloaders, and Davis is clearly seen reloading his revolver and putting the speedloader back into the pouch on his gunbelt during the bullseye shooting stage. Both men toss their speedloaders away while going through the combat course with shoot and no-shoot targets.
While Davis rolls and almost does a backflip leaping from cover to cover, engaging targets as they pop up, Harry just strolls through the course, immediately shooting targets one-handed with his .44 Magnum. I guess if you shoot the bad guys fast, there’s no need to take cover. Plus, they are not-shooting-back paper targets and nobody said the competitors had to shoot from cover.
Take note that the younger Sweet and Davis both use a more modern two-handed revolver grip and what appears to be a standard isosceles stance. That shows the filmmakers and Eastwood all knew the way Harry shoots is old school, and that they were emphasizing these young cops were the hot new talent.
The fact that Harry, without hesitation, throws the shooting competition by shooting a police officer target, while issuing a veiled threat at his complicit lieutenant, just so he’d have an excuse to try Davis’ (David Soul) gun and later dig a slug from it out of a target’s frame so he can run ballistics on it—that’s just awesome.
Harry Callahan is the Grandfather of Action Movie Heroes
It’s worth noting that the Dirty Harry films, which were released long before the explosion of the “action movie” genre, established a lot of formulas for cop movies and action films that influenced a lot of great flicks in later years. In some cases, they straight up copied entire concepts and set-ups from the DH series.
In the first film, the would-be jumper that Harry harasses and then knocks out so he can be safely brought down in the bucket truck—the scene where Riggs (Mel Gibson) handcuffs himself to a jumper and they both take a leap onto an airbag in Lethal Weapon is pretty darn close. The game of payphone tag Scorpio plays with Harry when he attempts to deliver the ransom money—they basically took that idea and expanded it a bit, forming a large chunk of the plot for Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995).
Harry was a great shot, hitting almost everything he aimed his .44 Magnum at, while bad guys almost always missed, spraying bullets everywhere—ever see that in an action movie? That’s basically Arnold throughout the 80s. Harry would go up against groups of bad guys and always come out on top, rarely even getting injured, and never seriously. Even that time he got thrown off a pier, losing his beloved revolver, he just bounced back up, grabbed his AMP Auto Mag Model 180 pistol out of its case, and went and killed all of the murdering rapists.
Sure you could argue that Harry himself is an evolution of the gunslingers in the westerns made in the 50s and 60s, some even played by Eastwood himself, but it’s that evolution and transition into modern times that made Harry a successful model for the next two decades in film. He was a necessary bridge—a hero while also being an anti-hero who has moral conflicts, while also not being a near silent weirdo like The Man With No Name and most of Steve McQueen’s characters.
Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis—they would all use a version of this character and these themes throughout several film series that created a whole genre. Stallone’s Marion Cobretti from Cobra (1986) is a total Harry Callahan ripoff and it’s easy to imagine the script was crafted from an unused DH sequel or that someone in a pitch meeting said, “the character is like a younger, hipper, 80s version of Dirty Harry, but in L.A., and ripped.”
Russell’s Snake Pliskin from Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A. (1996) is basically a dystopian Harry Callahan. Pretty much every character Norris and Seagal ever played (aside from Norris’ Missing in Action series) was just Harry Callahan flavored with martial arts—and usually some kind of special forces background explaining why they were so awesome at everything. Harry didn’t need that though. He just had his moral compass, stubbornness, went to the range every single damn day, and kept a cool head in a fight, like Wyatt freakin’ Earp, or, you know, John McClane.
Cripes, Harry even had a distinctive one-liner that changed for every movie:
“You gotta ask yourself one question, do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
“Go ahead, make my day.”
“You’re shit outta luck.”
I rest my case.