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Archetypes in the movies is certainly nothing new. It’s almost impossible to discuss Star Wars (OT obviously) without talking about heroic archetypes and heroes’ journeys. Many of those archetypes are so ancient that they are as old as storytelling itself. Movies aren’t ancient but they seem to have had quite an effect on storytelling in barely over a century. That effect is big enough that some characters seem to be becoming archetypes peculiar to the modern age. Since this is the sort of stuff that fascinates me I guess you’re stuck reading it. I have five in mind off the top of my head but I think I might find more as I ponder a bit. Hopefully the comment sections will yield some I haven’t thought of. Let’s start with…
The Rogue Cop. This one is modern in part because the idea of a police force as we think of it is modern. Not that much older than movies really. Cops make good Hero archetypes naturally. They’re good guys who stop bad guys. They take oaths and carry shields. Knight of the Round Table type stuff.
Then came Dirty Harry. We love that guy. Why? There aren’t many reasonable people, including real life cops, who think a man like Harry Callahan should be walking free, let alone armed and carrying a badge. Yet there aren’t many people, including real life cops, who don’t root for Harry. He shoots people down rather than arrest them and apparently gets every partner he has killed as well. Still, most people think of him as the good guy. There has to be something there that we like or identify with.
I think it’s just the fact that he will always do what he thinks is right. We all wish we were so confident about what to do that we can just go ahead and do it. It doesn’t seem to matter that Callahan’s code isn’t legal and under the cold light of reason not particularly moral. What matters is that it’s not relative. Dirty Harry knows what has to be done and he’s the one to do it. If you go against the code you go down. Zero ambiguity. Zero guilt.
I can’t really think of an ancient story Archetype that really fits the Rogue Cop. Arthur’s knights were expected to follow the chivalric code at all times. A knight that followed some made up code of his own just wasn’t a good guy. Much of this is modern because of modern social structures of course. Not just the idea of law enforcement but the idea of civil rights. We tend to believe in civil rights but we can’t help but be pissed off when those rights protect those we know are bad guys.
So is Inspector Callahan and the Rogue Cop a true Archetype? Well, what was the last movie you saw where a cop interviewed witnesses, filled out paperwork, got a warrant, gathered evidence, made an arrest (not by himself but with a squad of patrolmen), booked his man, filled out more paperwork, testified in a court of law, and then clocked out and went home? How many people did Martin Riggs arrest compared to how many people he shot or just broke their necks with his bare hands? I haven’t seen the last Die Hard movie but in the first three the only thing John Mclane does that even remotely resembles police work is flash his badge and say ‘I’m a cop’.
The funny thing is real police makes pretty good story. My wife is a True Crime addict and she got me hooked on The First 48, a show on A&E that follows real homicide detectives on real cases. Fascinating stuff and real human drama but it takes the fantasy of movies to achieve the archetypal status and Dirty Harry is the gold standard.
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