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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Worm Turns (originally published 5/99)

Although we are a nation that cherishes personal freedom, most of us agree that there must be limits. Unless we advocate anarchy, we agree that someone has to be in charge, and that we should all submit to the rules laid down by those we've placed in charge. As a control measure, we generally reserve the right to choose at the polls the people who will be in charge, and to replace them if they misuse their power.

In theory it's a perfectly good system, and in practice it works as well as any other. Even so, there have always been instances of glaring abuse of authority. Even in our free society, there are plenty of examples of oppression of the individual. When that happens, the individual's recourse is very limited. In other words, you can't fight city hall.

The futility of taking on the intractable monolith of government does, however, make for good drama. A character who singlehandedly and stubbornly stands up for his or her rights in the face of governmentally imposed injustice can hardly fail to win our sympathy. That's the premise behind "The Castle," a 1997 Australian film that is just now being shown here in the States. It tells the story of a working class family that refuses to surrender their home to make way for an expansion of the nearby airport. They will stop at nothing to defend their castle, eventually going as far as to surround the house with a moat stocked with piranha. If you enjoy stories about individuals who are willing to go to any extreme to defend their personal liberty against official tyranny, look for these titles on home video.

"Storm in a Teacup" (1937). This British comedy is not, strictly speaking, a story about an individual standing up for her rights. Instead, it is another person who takes up the crusade on her behalf. Mrs. Hegary is an unassuming woman of modest means living in a small Scottish town. When she is unable to come up with the license fee for her pet dog, the town Provost, an officious bureaucrat named Willie Gow, takes the dog away from her, intending to have it destroyed. A newspaper reporter, played by Rex Harrison, witnesses this outrage and decides to make national news out of it, thereby spoiling Gow's ambitions for higher office.

"Harry's War" (1981). Given the recent round of hearings promoting a kinder, gentler Internal Revenue Service, I'm surprised that this little film hasn't been rediscovered. Edward Herrmann stars as Harry, a mild mannered postman who is driven over the edge by the $190,000 fine wrongly imposed on his innocent aunt by the IRS. When his protests are dismissed by supercilious bureaucrats, the enraged Harry rounds up some military surplus goods and declares war on the IRS.

"Tank" (1984). James Garner, possibly our most successful cinematic everyman since James Stewart, plays Zack Carey, an army sergeant major counting the days until his retirement. Stationed at a base near a small Georgia backwater town, Zack falls afoul of the local sheriff, as nasty a piece of work as any moustache-twirling villain of the old stage melodramas. When the sheriff frames Zack's son on a drug charge and sends him to prison, Zack takes matters into his own hands. Firing up the Sherman tank he's been restoring as a hobby, Zack sets out to free his son.

"Turk 182!" (1985). When Terry Lynch, an off-duty fireman, is injured rescuing a child from a burning building, his brother, Jimmy (Timothy Hutton), expects him to be hailed as a hero. Instead, the mayor refuses even to authorize his disability pension because he had been drinking at the time of the incident. The incensed Jimmy initiates a one-man crusade to embarrass the mayor, leaving messages all over town in the form of graffiti signed "Turk 182," Terry's nickname and badge number.

The common thread between the protagonists of each of these films is that their goal was not so much to win as to be vindicated. They didn't want to annihilate their oppressors, but rather to expose them as wrongdoers. In that sense, each of them owes a debt to the original fictional flaunter of wicked authority. Each of them, in his own way, was trying to be Zorro.

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