Saturday, January 19, 2008

Harry's War: many urban legends abound concerning this anti-IRS "comedy" from 1981


Harry’s War (1981, Taft International Pictures and Image, directed by Kieth Merrill (that’s the real first name spelling)) is, as many people learn during the tax season, is a controversial anti-IRS, anti-government movie. In fact, the greatest controversy seems to be the urban legend that it is officially banned, or that it is illegal to possess it. People send emails about clandestine screenings in sports bars. Well, there’s nothing wrong with it by any standard of the law today (oh, maybe a particular attack conducted by the "hero" 2/3 through the film is seen as "inciting", but there is no threat of "imminent lawless action"), and I rented from Netflix, with no wait-list and even from the nearest processing center in Gaithersburg, MD. Netflix gives it the category of “Independent,” and IMDB classifies it as “Comedy.”

Actually, it has some big stars. The best known is Geraldine Page as Aunt Beverly (one can imagine Meryl Streep here), with Washington DC native Edward Herrmann (born there in the same year as me, almost on the same day) as Harry Johnson, the nephew. Now the story sets them up around St. George, Utah (where restaurants serve lime pie but not coffee because of the Mormon influence) living in a shacky estate on what looks like an abandoned silver mine. Already, you have the possibility that the move becomes a “modern western” or comedy western (maybe even like Mel Brooks and “Blazing Saddles”). Soon we learn that Harry already has his bank account attached by the IRS, and that Beverly has been a home-is-castle holdout against paying any taxes at all. The IRS has its own internal homilies and litanies about this, with no homemade church parchment. Harry tries an in person visit to the IRS, gets the runaround, and pretty much gets arrested with his physical telephone attack. Pretty soon Beverly is in tax court, where she has a heart attack and kicks the bucket right in open court after a tirade. All this set’s up “Harry’s War.” The only thing gentle is the beautiful cat that sits in his lap in one scene. In "fairness" to the government in considering what follows, it must be said that Harry hits first, driving a tank into the IRS office that had stiff-armed him. I don't think Koresh (see Waco, below) did anything like that, by way of "future perfect tense" analogy.

Pretty soon the government, to "hit back," is setting up a Waco-style siege and attack against the compound, as if this was the Branch Davidians (twelve years before Janet Reno had to lead her tragic effort against them under the leadership of a naïve President Clinton). Another comparison could be the Randy Weaver incident. It’s funny for a while, and there is a stirring speech about taxation at the consent of the governed. But then, well, there is a holocaust that pretty much anticipates Waco, with Pat Buchanan narrating the catastrophe live (which I heard on the car radio returning to work from lunch in April 1993; I had visited the site with a “boyfriend” myself on a Texas trip in March 1993).

There is, in the script, some philosophizing by the government about our meeting our “obligations” and talk about the danger of anarchy. There is a bizarre line about going back to “constitutional government.” Now, earlier notions of morality were always concerned about this: think about the draft, and even earlier ideas about how mandatory family responsibility helped shaped anti-gay attitudes. The downside is that you have to have an entrenched, self-serving bureaucracy (in this movie it’s the IRS) to enforce this collective “morality.” There is one line in the script where one of the bureaucrats says that he wants to stop the tax protestors from expressing their views (is that why people think this movie is “banned”?) There is a good line from Beverly in tax court about how, if people take care of each other, the government won’t have to take care of them, and it won’t have to collect taxes. Isn’t that the heart of libertarianism? Harry Browne once said, “repeal the income tax and replace it with nothing.” Irwin Schiff wrote his book “The Federal Mafia.”

1981 was, of course, the time of Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and the film was probably actually made at the end of the Carter years.

The DVD transfer is crude, with only a “Play Movie” link, and is full screen, even though Panavision cameras were used (which means we should see it in at least 1.85:1 instead of 1:37:1, as if it were a TV movie). The original orchestral music score by Merrill Jenson (who also conducts a London orchestra) reminds one of Aaron Copland (particularly the music in the Third Symphony), but the mono-only sound on the DVD is mediocre..

There have been several films (some produced for cable TV) about the Waco tragedy. The most important is probably Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997, New Yorker, dir. William Gazecki, 165 min, R), which I saw in Washington in its initial run at the old Inner Circle (no longer there).

A distantly related film that I recommend is “Bill’s Gun Shop” (2001, dir. Dean Hyers, Dangerous Films), from Warner Home Video (that probably means Warner Independent Pictures). I saw this film at the Columbia Heights theater near Minneapolis in a film festival of local Minnesota-made films in 2000. The story is that of an ambitious young man and gun shop employee Dillon (an appealing Scott Cooper) who gets to ride “shotgun” on a bounty hunt. The film is full widescreen (2.35:1) and is quite professional made. (IFPMSP link). I did know a gun shop owner in Marshall, MN.

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