I’ve been reading a lot of movie and music reviews from the 1970s recently. Somewhat to my surprise, I keep bumping into accusations of fascism. The most famous instance of this is probably Pauline Kael’s review of Dirty Harry, which appeared in The New Yorker on January 15, 1972. Among other things, Kael called the film “deeply immoral” and accused it of “fascist medievalism.”
But Kael was not alone in using the “f” word to describe Dirty Harry. Roger Ebert’s review of the film (which appears on his website labeled January 1, 1971, but which must have run January 1, 1972, as the film was released in late December 1971), though generally more positive than Kael’s, simply declared “the movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.”
The fascist label makes some rough sense, I think, applied to Dirty Harry. But it also shows up in more unexpected places.
In the January-February 1974 issue of Film Comment, Paul Schrader devoted one of the last critical pieces he wrote before devoting himself entirely to filmmaking to an analysis of the Japanese yakuza genre. In the middle of the piece, Schrader defends the yakuza genre from accusations of fascism:
The yakuza morality of giri-ninjo [duty-humanity] may seem potentially fascistic to [Japanese film critic Tadao] Sato, but to Americans, accustomed to the open fascism of films like The Godfather and Dirty Harry, yakuza movies seem clearly humanitarian.
To me at least, accusing The Godfather of “open fascism” seems odd.
So I decided to explore a bit the way the term was applied to American films of the 1970s in the pages of Film Comment, a journal that was enormously important to film criticism in that decade. Here’s some of what I found.
In the May-June 1977 issue of Film Comment, Jonathan Rosenbaum published an iconoclastic comparison of Car Wash and Network (he much preferred Car Wash). Rosenbaum describes Network as displaying “quasi-fascist cynicism.”
Arthur Lubow’s review of Star Wars in the July-August 1977 issue (“A Space ‘Iliad’”) denies that Star Wars is a “fascist movie” (Lubow puts the words in quotation marks) because “its good humor and lack of rancor insure that it’s not.” But Lubow spends most of the review arguing that much of Star Wars’ popularity derives from its successful adaptation of “the Nazi myth.” Starting with Lucas’s famous visual quotation from Triumph of the Will as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive medals at the film’s conclusion, Lubow suggests that many other elements of the film also resemble Nazi narratives: the pure farm boy, disgusted by Jawa merchants and barbaric “Sand people,” defeats the universe’s greatest technical achievement – the Death Star – by using the Force, “a version of Bergson’s élan vital and Jung’s collective unconscious.” “A reviewer from the Volkische [sic] Beobachter would find much to praise,” wrote Lubow.
Stuart Byron, introducing an interview with director Robert Aldrich for the March-April 1977 issue of Film Comment, notes in passing that “it has been common to dismiss Aldrich as a fascist,” but rebuts the accusation: “In retrospect, the parabola of his career makes no sense unless he is viewed as a left-wing director.” Byron speculates that the accusations of fascism are connected to Aldrich’s belief that “the forces of authority are so great that they can only be countered by an equal force that sometimes gets out of hand.” Byron then references Sylvia Polonsky’s “suspicion that Aldrich is a Stalinist,” and concludes that “[h]e is certainly a most pessimistic democrat.”
What’s striking is how fast and loose all of these political accusations seem in retrospect. “Fascism” in these articles has something to do with authoritarianism, something to do with violence, something to do with a lack of humor. And whatever else it is, it’s far right-wing. Though Pauline Kael was most famous for calling Dirty Harry a fascist movie, she also, as we have seen, described it as “medieval,” and elsewhere in the review called the film “a kind of hardhat The Fountainhead.”
The accusations of fascism certainly reflect the sense among a lot of film critics—and other cultural critics — in the 1970s that an insidious cultural and political conservatism was on the rise in America. Watergate contributed to the sense of American democracy being undermined by the right. Then Harvard undergraduate and future legal scholar Peter M. Shane even wrote a long analytic piece for the Harvard Crimson in September 1973 entitled “Watergate: A Miscalculation in Nixon’s March to Fascism.”
Of course, not everyone bought into these accusations of fascism. In his Summer 1972 “L.A. Journal” column for Film Comment, Stephen Farber expresses impatience with the “eastern critics” who “continue to moralize about violence” in the movies. Hollywood is simply “mass producing the ultra-violent fantasies that have continued to delight American audiences over the decades.” Indeed, Farber, suggests,
the growing critical hysteria in regards to violence raises troubling questions of its own. Over and over again, in reviews of Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Macbeth, The Cowboys, in thinkpieces on fascism and nihilism in films, the same shrill, stern point of view assaults us.
We ought to be as suspicious of “sermons about violence” as we are about “puritanical complaints about sex,” Farber argues.
Of course, accusations of fascism went way back in American cultural criticism, especially on the left. Though fascism was, from the start, a protean accusation. Pre-Popular Front Communist authors would label anything to their right “fascist”; even social democratic viewpoints were “social fascist.” “Fascism” became a more limited category to Popular Front authors. And as a certain amount of precision in its use grew among political scientists and some other public intellectuals, its use as a mere epithet grew as well. And by the end of World War II, the paradigmatic examples of fascism, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, were no more.
Even while loose and semi-epithetic uses of “fascist” continued in the 1970s, more sophisticated critical understandings of fascism were also starting to appear. In the February 6, 1975 issues of The New York Review of Books, for example, Susan Sontag published a review of The Last of the Nuba, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1973 collection of photographs of the Nuba people of Sudan. Entitled “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag’s essay argued that the aesthetics of Riefenstahl’s photographs was essentially fascistic. Riefenstahl, who was best known as the director of Triumph of the Will, had claimed, since 1945, to have been politically naïve in the 1930s. Sontag’s argument that her later work bore the marks of fascism was both plausible on its face (given Riefenstahl’s connection to Nazism) and involved a much more sophisticated understanding of what might make a work of art “fascist.”
In late 1977, Ellen Willis, writing in the Village Voice, expressed a belated appreciation for the Sex Pistols. She had previously resisted both British and American versions of punk rock, finding it boring, derivative, cold, and misogynistic. But earlier that fall, she had run into “punk evangelist” and fellow rock critic Robert Christgau:
He argued that people who put down the punk bands as ‘fascist’ were really objecting to their lack of gentility. The English bands, he said, were overtly antifascist, and after all it was in England that fascism was a serious threat, not here. I wasn’t so sure, I said, either that fascism wasn’t a threat here or that the punk rockers were incapable of flirting with it.
Willis writes that she didn’t have in mind punkers’ use of “Nazi symbolism” (which she saw as “both stupid and vicious”) but something more subtle, but pervasive:
I meant that sexism combined with anger was always potentially fascistic, for when you stripped the gentility from the relations between the sexes, what too often remained was male power in its most brutal form. And given the present political atmosphere, that potential was worrisome. The American right was on the move; the backlash against feminism was particularly ominous. Jimmy Carter, with his opposition to abortion, his fundamentalist religion, and his glorification of the traditional (i.e., male-dominated) family, was encouraging cultural reaction in a way that was all the more difficult to combat because he was a democrat and a populist. Closer to home, I found it deeply disturbing that so many liberal and leftist men I knew considered [mayoral candidate] Mario Cuomo some sort of working-class hero – that they were at best willing to ignore, at worst secretly attracted to, Cuomo’s antifeminist attitudes. The punk rockers were scarcely defenders of tradition, but like pseudopopulist politicians they tended to equate championing the common man with promoting the oppression of women. That the equation was as inherently contradictory as “national socialist” was unlikely to deter men from embracing it.
What ultimately overcame this line of thought for Willis was a sudden appreciation of the sheer aesthetic qualities of the Sex Pistols, “the immediate, angry force of the music.” And through the Pistols, she came to appreciate the Ramones, as well.
Nevertheless, Willis’s passing concerns about punk and fascism are very interesting, both in the quite specific way in which she identifies fascism with a certain antifeminist gender politics and in the way she saw fascism as somehow immanent in American life in the late 1970s, visible even in figures like Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo.
Critics like Wills were right about at least one thing, conservatism was on the rise in the U.S. It would be worth exploring what happened to this discourse about fascism in America after 1980.
 Don Siegel, the film’s director, considered himself a liberal, most appreciated Paul Nelson’s positive review of Dirty Harry in Rolling Stone, which was one of the few publications on the left that defended the film and its title character (J. Hoberman, The Dream Life (New York, 2003), p. 331).
 This essay, under the title “Beginning to See the Light,” is reproduced in the collection of Willis’s rock criticism Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which does not say in which issue of The Village Voice it originally appeared.