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On Death & Taxes: Harry’s War

harrys-war-movie-poster-1981-1020248565 [1]3,648 words

Today being April 15, the much-dreaded “Tax Day” (for our non-American readers, this is the deadline each year when federal income taxes for the previous year must be filed with and paid to the U.S. government’s Internal Revenue Service), I thought it appropriate to call attention to a largely forgotten film that deals with the subject of taxation, and by implication, the larger issues that the question of the federal government’s authority represents: Harry’s War [2].

Harry’s War doesn’t seem to be obscure only because of its age (it was released in March 1981), but by design. At the time, it only received a two-week release in theaters. The following year, it was shown on cable, which is how I first saw it, at the age of 9 (which probably explains a lot about my later political development). According to Wikipedia, it was never again shown on television after 1982, although I know this isn’t correct as I distinctly remember that one of the cable channels used to show it every April 15 during the 1980s. Apparently it was also released on VHS at the time, although according to one commenter at the Internet Movie Database, copies of the film were pulled from the shelves of video stores shortly after their release as the result of a recall by its distributor. The film was unavailable on video for many years, until a poor-quality DVD of the film was released in 2005, and even this has gone in and out of distribution ever since (it was unavailable on Amazon, I noticed, until just this past week). Today, it is available through Amazon Instant Video [3].

It’s not difficult to discern the reason for this, as will soon become apparent. (It certainly can’t be because of its lack of star power, since its cast listing reads as a veritable “who’s who” of big-name television and movie stars of the period.)

I don’t mean to portray Harry’s War as a lost Citizen Kane, as it certainly is not. The film has some annoying flaws, and in some ways, the film is extremely mainstream, unoriginal and dated. On the surface, it is presented as a social satire of a type that was extremely common during the 1970s and early ’80s (Network is a superb example of the genre), and, in spite of its grim and occasionally violent subject matter, the film remains lighthearted in tone and comic throughout. But its underlying messages, both about taxation and about federal authority in general, remain as relevant as ever and, as I will argue, the film was actually a herald of things to come in American culture.

Considering the film’s obscurity, a brief plot summation is in order:

The film opens with a senior IRS official delivering a speech to his agents, while an ominous drone hums in the background, suggesting great evil. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film, because of the vaguely threatening way in which it is delivered. It’s worth quoting in full:

“Taxes are the lifeblood of this nation. Collecting taxes is a thankless job. As officers and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, we are more than just an arm of the government. We are the heart and hands of the United States Treasury. There are, however, an increasing number who willfully disregard their obligation, resist the payment of taxes, and even openly criticize the Internal Revenue Service. Washington, and all of us, are gravely concerned over this growing contempt for taxes. Agents are herewith directed to discourage non-compliance through investigation, prosecution, and other statutory actions within our broad authority.”

We are then introduced to Harry Johnson, played by the über-WASPy Edward Herrmann. Harry is a postman who is so patriotic that he is disgusted at the careless way in which his fellow postal employees treat the American flag that hangs outside their office. Harry, we soon learn, is a divorcée who only sees his two young daughters on weekends. His ex-wife, Kathy (played by Karen Grassle, of Little House on the Prairie fame), is a ballet instructor who apparently left Harry because he was “too boring.” This subplot is the most trite part of the film, as Harry earns redemption in the eyes of his ex-wife.

Harry receives a letter from his Aunt Beverly (played by no less an actress than Geraldine Page), who it turns out is not an actual blood relative but is a family friend whom he was close with as a boy. Harry hasn’t seen Beverly in years, and she asks him to come to her home to help her with a problem. Harry dutifully drives out to her enormous house in the middle of nowhere (its location is never stated in the film, although the film was shot in Utah), out of which Beverly runs an antiques and army surplus store. He is greeted by gunshots from Beverly upon arrival, who assumes that he is an IRS agent, until she realizes who it is, and welcomes him with open arms.

Beverly, it turns out, doesn’t recognize the right of the federal government to levy taxes, and hasn’t reported her income or paid taxes in years. As a result, the IRS has estimated her income, and is demanding $190,000 in back taxes, or else they will seize her property. In spite of her stinginess with the government, however, Beverly is actually quite generous with her local community, and gives away items from her antiques business to the needy, and also serves a large dinner every Saturday night to anyone who wants to come.

Harry attends one of these dinners, and it turns out that Beverly is fond of discussing politics while serving the food. She takes potshots at feminism and women’s lib, although her main passion is Communism, and pontificates about her belief that there are Soviet agents within the government who are working to bring about the eventual conquest of the United States by the Soviets. (The Cold War was still alive and well when Harry’s War was made.) Harry doesn’t know what to make of these views, but tolerates them out of love for his aunt. At one of the dinners, one of the derelicts accidentally drops a tape recorder (they were much more difficult to conceal back in 1981), revealing that he is a spy working for the IRS, and Beverly throws him out of her house.

Harry also discovers that she maintains a large arsenal of weapons and explosives on her property, which he learns when he accidentally steps on a land mine, and is rescued by her neighbor, Billy (played by Elisha Cook, Jr., whose film career was in its 51st year at the time and included films such as The Maltese Falcon), a somewhat mentally addled World War II veteran who helps Beverly out with her activities. Harry also stumbles across a fully-equipped bomb shelter beneath her house.

Beverly wants Harry’s help in trying to avoid the IRS’ seizure of her property. Naively believing in the essential goodness of the IRS, and believing that it’s all just a misunderstanding, Harry begins reading the tax code and making the rounds at the IRS’ office, seeking a solution to the problem by trying to convince the authorities that Beverly’s charitable contributions to her community over the years compensate for her failure to pay taxes. He thinks he’s actually making progress, but we see discussions among IRS officials in which they decide to make an example out of her. Harry represents Beverly on her day in tax court, at which the tape made by the spy at Beverly’s dinner in which she is discussing her conspiracy theories is played, and the judge ends up denying her an exemption on the grounds that she is actually running a political organization and not a charitable one, and orders her property seized. An enraged Beverly lashes out verbally at the judge, but suffers a heart attack in the courtroom, and dies shortly thereafter. As Beverly was unmarried and had no children, Harry is her sole designated heir, and therefore has inherited everything that was hers.

After the funeral, a despondent Harry drives out to Beverly’s home only to discover that the IRS has already seized it. He is confronted by Ernie Scelera, the IRS agent who was in charge of Beverly’s case (wonderfully played by David Ogden Stiers, better known for his role as Major Charles Winchester III in M*A*S*H*, who claimed in a later interview that his role in Harry’s War was his favorite among all his own work), who makes it clear to Harry that he is powerless to get the property back. An enraged Harry chases Ernie off the land, and then forces his way into the padlocked house.

That night, Harry hears an announcement on the radio that Ernie is going to be interviewed at a local TV station the following day. The next day, with help from Billy, he gets a World War II-era U.S. Army halftrack that Beverly kept on the property working, and, after dressing in a manner very much like Patton, drives to the station. We see Ernie preparing for the interview, informing the host that he doesn’t want to discuss Beverly’s case, but of course, once the interview begins, all the questions are about her and about the IRS’ culpability in her death. As Ernie attempts to defend the IRS’ actions on the grounds that she resisted all of the IRS’ attempts to help her, Harry crashes the halftrack through the wall of the studio and debarks to announce that he opposes the IRS’ ability to seize property without due process and that he is declaring war upon it, all of it being broadcast live. With that, he drives back to Beverly’s estate, smashing a police car that attempts to stop him along the way.

Ernie then faces the wrath of his superiors, who are worried that Harry’s statements, coupled with public outrage over Beverly’s death in tax court, could cause the American public to begin questioning the very basis of taxation, since, as Ernie’s boss says in alarm, “This whole damn system works on a bluff. Once it’s blown, we’ll go back to a constitutional government!” Two armed IRS agents are sent out to the property, but flee in terror when they discover that Harry has mined the entire surrounding area. The police then set up a cordon around the house, and the IRS officials send journalists who come to the scene away with a story that Harry has already been taken into custody, but that no one can go near the house until the National Guard can arrive and defuse all the mines.

In fact, Harry is still inside the house and, unaware of what is happening outside, has been firing out messages (by crossbow) requesting that the media be brought to the scene so that he can make a statement. The IRS and the police make some attempts to capture him, but Harry manages to foil them each time. His ex-wife and children, having seen what was happening on TV, arrive to try to find out what happened to him, and Billy shows them a secret tunnel that allows them to circumvent the cordon and gain entrance to the house. The National Guard arrives and prepares to storm the property, setting explosives to force their way in, but when the Major in charge (played by Noble Willingham, a noted character actor who appeared in countless movies and TV series) spots the children in the house, he calls off the assault. After being informed by Billy that no one in the outside world knows what’s really happening, and realizing that the IRS is going to attempt to dispose of him quietly before any more word gets out, Harry instructs him to go to as many TV and radio stations as he can and get them all to come out to the house. Major Andrews, believing that the family is being held hostage, refuses to attack again, in spite of the urgings of the IRS officials (“I just might be on the wrong side in this war,” he says).

That night, Billy arrives with an army of reporters at the house, and Harry then offers a hostage exchange: his family for Ernie. Realizing that this is his last hope of preventing Harry from speaking to the media, Ernie allows the exchange. Immediately thereafter, facing the TV cameras, Harry attempts to justify his actions:

“I’m not at war with this country. I’m not particularly against taxes. But when Mr. Scelera, and his people, think they have the right to come in here and seize my property without due process of law, something’s the matter. If I was accused of murder, I’d have more legal rights than I would know what to do with. But when the IRS audits you, they make you think you don’t have any rights at all. They make their own laws. They administer them, they enforce them, and they prosecute them, and they judge them. . . . Government doesn’t have any right to do anything we don’t give it. And they are supposed to protect us from what the IRS is doing – in the name of government! That’s what this is all about. That’s all.”

With that, Harry drops his weapon and goes back into the house. Realizing that Harry has now been successful in turning public opinion against the IRS, Ernie goes into a rage and grabs a pistol from one of the police officers, firing wildly into the house and setting off the charges set earlier by the National Guard. The resulting explosion and fire level the house with Harry still inside, and everyone assumes that he has been killed. The next day, however, we see Harry emerge unscathed from the bomb shelter. A textual epilogue informs us that the incident led to a Congressional investigation, the creation of a new tax-funded “Beverly Payne Mission Foundation,” and that Harry himself is now running for Congress “under an assumed name.”

A search of the Internet for Web sites that discuss Harry’s War reveals that the film has become a cult classic among libertarians, and it’s easy to see why. The film does a good job of highlighting several facts about the IRS that remain true today, but which many people remain unaware of, such as the fact that they can seize private property without due process, that IRS agents are authorized to carry firearms, and that the IRS itself rests on extremely shaky ground, constitutionally speaking. It’s also obvious that the subtext of the film extends to the whole of governmental authority, with the sense of a power structure gone mad, and is not limited only to taxation. (There is also a clear pro-Second Amendment message in the film, even though land mines play a much more prominent role in the action than guns.)

The biggest flaw in Harry’s War, however, is the same mistake that is made by libertarians, Republicans, and all others who believe they can effect genuine change by working within the establishment: they still believe that all of our problems can be solved by simply reforming the current system, by voting in the right people (Ron Paul or whomever), and elevating the Constitution to near-biblical status. They still believe that the American system was a good one that got corrupted, rather than admitting the much more disturbing truth that the seeds of what later became the monstrosity that is America today were there from the very beginning, even if it took a long time for all of the eventual consequences of its philosophical underpinnings to become apparent. (This is clear in Harry’s War in a scene near the end when, as Harry is preparing to send his family out of the besieged house, he hands them a packet of letters to be mailed in the event that he is killed, including one addressed to the President. I’m not sure what Harry hoped to achieve by that gesture – would someone in that situation really believe that the President is ignorant of what the IRS is doing until he receives a letter from a lone “extremist” explaining it all?)

Still, Harry’s War can be a fun film for those of us on the “true Right” to watch, if only because it’s the only instance I can think of where the United States government is assigned the role of the bad guy, and where a character who actually takes up arms against it, and stands for conservative American values, is made out to be the hero. The character of Beverly, who rejects the authority of the government not out of some revolutionary ideology, but because she has come to believe that the American government is the adversary of the traditional values she loves, is a forerunner of the many groups and individuals in America who have emerged in recent years that espouse a very similar message. And that, I feel confident, is the real reason for its consignment to the memory hole: it was a harbinger of things to come, things that started to become all too real shortly after Harry’s War was made.

The 1970s were the heyday of what became known as the “tax protester” movement, meaning those Americans who refused to pay taxes on the grounds that there is no legal basis for the government’s claim to be authorized to collect them. This no doubt served as the inspiration for the character of Beverly.

In 1983, only two years after Harry’s War was released, Gordon Kahl, a tax protester, decorated World War II veteran and a founder of the Posse Comitatus in Texas was wanted by federal authorities for having refused to pay taxes since 1967. When U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest him, a shootout ensued in which two Marshals were killed. Kahl escaped, only to be tracked down four months later, resulting in yet another shootout with Marshals and the FBI, who set fire to the house he was in while he was still inside. Kahl was shot to death by a Sheriff who was himself killed by a shot from Kahl’s rifle.

Later that same year, Robert Mathews, who had likewise been a tax protester in his youth, started up his notorious group, The Order, and was burned to death after a shootout with the FBI in which the house he was in had been set ablaze, not having had the benefit of Harry’s bomb shelter. This led to a pattern that has repeated itself again and again in recent American history of federal authorities killing American citizens who had questioned the established order in one way or another, including such incidents as the 1992 Ruby Ridge shootout involving Randy Weaver and his family, the 2001 killings at Michigan’s Rainbow Farms, and most notoriously, the standoff in Waco, Texas in 1993 which led to the deaths of 76 men, women, and children in a fire set by the ATF and the FBI. The subsequent rise of the militia movement, and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, were reactions to this federally-sanctioned violence.

Given all of this, it’s no mystery as to why Hollywood studio execs may have stopped seeing the scenario of Harry’s War as suitable material for comedy.

But it is also this litany of recent horrors that brings to light another flaw in the reasoning behind Harry’s War: the idea that popular opinion, when kept well-informed by the mass media, can serve as an effective check against the abuse of government power. This has simply not been borne out by subsequent events. To take the example of Waco, the mainstream media never departed from its narrative of depicting David Koresh and his followers as “extremists” who were a threat to themselves and others and who needed to be stopped, either during or after the siege, despite the considerable evidence that has been amassed showing that much of what had been claimed about the group had been wrong and that the ATF/FBI may very well have deliberately planned the killings.

Likewise, the killings of Tom Crosslin and Rolland Rohm by FBI snipers during a siege at their Michigan farm on September 3, 2001 (they had been charged with growing marijuana on their property) remains almost totally unknown outside of the state of Michigan, due to an almost complete lack of coverage by the media. Unfortunately, the armies of TV cameras never showed up at their farm to allow them to make a grandiose statement to the public concerning their motives. (For those who want to learn more about this incident, there was a book about it, Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up in Smoke [4] by Dean Kuipers, published in 2006.)

The fact is that, as long as the average American remains comfortable, he’ll believe whatever he is told by the mass media, not what the government’s victims would like him to know. We simply cannot rely on public outrage to come to our aid, as long as the “system” remains relatively intact.

Harry’s War is far from a great film. And yet there is value in the story of a man – a White man, no less – who sees through the lies that he’s been taught and ends up fighting against the system for what he believes in, against impossible odds. If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s worth a viewing. (Who knows, if you show it to your 9-year-old son, maybe he’ll end up writing for Counter-Currents one day.) It’s certainly not the sort of film that could be made in America today. I can, however, see Harry’s War perhaps being remade by Quentin Tarantino in the not-too-distant future. Jamie Foxx will star as Harry, who goes on a killing spree of racist White IRS agents who were responsible for the death of his aunt in tax court. At the end, he gets elected President.