Harry's War is a small independent film produced in 1981 by Kieth Merril. The movie suffered limited distribution and play time, allegedly due to fear by theater owners incurring unwanted attention by the IRS. It quickly faded into obscurity into local video stores. It was re-released for a short run in DVD in 2005, and currently is out of print.
The plot centers on the IRS applying aggressive auditing methods against Harry Johnson (Edward Herrmann) and his Aunt Beverly Payne's (Geraldine Page) to extract back taxes for spurious reasons. At the beginning, Harry is portrayed as a nice guy with naïve faith in the American justice system. When the IRS freezes his bank account and confiscates his aunt's large, ramshackle mansion, his aunt Beverly succumbs to a heart attack in court and dies. Enraged, Harry transforms from a nebbish sheeple to an avenging agitator. He declares a one-man war on the IRS. His nemesis is the local IRS director, Ernie Scelera (David Ogden Stiers).
Here's some choice dialogue I transcribed from the movie, regarding property rights, due process, and unbridled power welded by governmental agencies.
After three hours of getting the run-around with indifferent IRS flunkies, a frustrated Harry Johnson forces his way into the IRS Director Scelera's office.
Harry: "Sir, I sorry to barge in on you like this, but something is happening…"
Scelera to his secretary: "Call security."
Harry: "Please! I've been waiting three hours…"
Scelera waves his hand for him to be quiet: "I know who you are Johnson. You where here before."
Harry begins to speak, but is cut off.
Scelera: "Taxes, Mr. Johnson, are what we pay for a civilized society. It is the duty of every citizen to properly report and fully pay his fair share of that responsibility. Now the measures this office takes are legal, fair and necessary."
Guards grab Harry and start to usher him out. "There's some mistake here!"
Scelera: "If there is a mistake, Mr. Johnson, your cooperation in the Beverly Payne matter will be very beneficial. Your problems are still little ones."
After Aunt Beverly's death, Harry goes to her house. He discovers it padlocked with an official notice declaring its confiscation by the US government. Harry finds IRS director Scelera on the front porch.
Scelera: "I'm very sorry about Beverly Payne. I really am."
Harry: "Isn't killing her enough for you people? "
Scelera: "Look, you blame us, I know. But it's not our fault, Johnson. Beverly Payne frustrated the system. So the system fought back with every" – pauses – Look Johnson, people who ram their heads against a wall eventually die. Privilege of freedom, I guess."
Harry grabs the padlock and chains securing his aunts house confiscated by the IRS; "This is the privilege of freedom, huh?!" Harry rips the confiscation notice off the house door.
Scelera: "Don't be stupid! People like Beverly Payne destroy themselves! I came to offer you a compromise."
Harry: "Compromise?! This is my property!"
Scelera: "This property was illegally transferred in anticipation of debt! Look, either way it belongs to us."
Harry: "You are wrong! You are wrong!"
Scelera: "What do you think this county is about Johnson? It's about housing, it's about Education, Defense, Welfare, Medicare, Highways, Social Security – it's about taxes Johnson! She – she was a fool!"
Harry demands Scelera to leave.
Scelera: "You're the fool, Johnson; I'm the United States Treasury. What are you?"
Harry: "I'm — ". Harry becomes speechless. His face turns red with anger. He grabs a pipe and chases IRS Director Scelera of the porch.
Scelera parting words as he walks away:"You can't beat the United States government, Johnson. Not in a million years. The taxes will be paid. We get it one-way. We get it another. But we will get it. Pauses. Oh by the way, Johnson. You're trespassing here. "
Several scenes later, IRS Director Scelera gives a news conference at a local studio:
"The internal revenue service is the most single import part of the united States government. There are two million people who file no income tax returns. So far they have gone unprosecuted, but weu2018re going to change that. The Constitution simply didn't contemplate the requirements of our contemporary society. Taxes are a part of life and they will be collected.
The so-called power of the IRS is necessary to insure collections. Some people insist on fighting against the system. But they only destroy themselves. Never have we been in complete control of tax affairs than we are now. We intend to keep moving in that direction. We still have a few small problems."
Harry's eccentric aunt owned a large collection of surplus military items. Among them is a fully functional WW2 US half track. Harry drives it to the newscast, and crashes the armored half track into studio. Exiting the vehicle, Harry places himself in front of the on-air news camera and speaks to the viewing audience;
Harry: "I have something to say! I declare war on the Internal Revenue Service of the United States! I'm challenging the right of the IRS to assess, harass, intimidate, and seize the properties of citizens without due process! I'm challenging the right of the IRS to destroy people. People like Beverly Payne. God gave us life, gave us liberty. At the same time, I say……to those of you people trying to keep those same liberties alive, I declare war on the IRS and all the little men because they're tyrants! We Americans have risen up before tyranny before. And we will rise up again. In the words of another patriot, u2018we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God! u2018It's time somebody did something."
Harry jumps in half track and makes his escape back to his Aunt's house. Following a prolonged siege by local and federal authorities, Harry holds Director Scelera hostage and announces his demands:
Harry:"I'm no madman. I admit I'm a little angry. I've never been more sane, or seen things more clearly, or understood things so well."
Scelera: "I thought you wanted to make a deal?"
Harry:"I want an honest hearing"
Scelera: "You got it. I give you my word. I promise."
Harry: "You promise? What are you talking about? Who are you to promise me anything? Are you a judge? You tried to prosecute me. Are you going to judge me now too? I want them – points to the TV cameras — to judge."
Scelera: "That's ridiculous, that's impossible! That's illegal!….."
Harry:"Illegal is it!?! A trial by my peers is guaranteed to me by the Constitution! Is the IRS more important than that?
Scelera: "Look, Johnson….."
Harry: "Is the IRS above the Constitution of the United States, Mr. Scelera?
Long silent pause as the nearby media, National Guard troops, and law enforcement ponder Harry's statement.
Harry: "The case of Harry Johnson versus the Internal Revenue Service. You can all see the government's case — I'm looking right down the barrel of it. My case is so simple it frightens people like them. With all their might and all their machinery, rules and confusion, they never bother with the one fact that's so simple. Who told them they could tax us? Who gave them the power to tax us? Did you? I didn't.
I'm not at war with this country. I'm not particularly against taxes. But when Mr. Scelera, and his people, thinks they have the right to come in here and seize my property without due process of law, well something, 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…..All that power in one place, boy. Hitler would've loved the IRS. So would Napoleon and Caesar. They would understand it — I don't! 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."
I won't spoil the ending with more details, except to say the final showdown results in a conflagration eerily foreshadowing the Waco disaster that would occur 12 years later.
With the growing national debt and the expanding Federal government, the message in Harry's War is still relevant today. Kieth Merril should take comfort that his little known independent gem was just too far ahead of its time.
Ron Shirtz [send him mail] is a transplanted Californian teaching Graphic Communications in Northern (Not “Upstate”) New York. His hobbies include arranging deck chairs on sinking ships, tilting at windmills, and being fashionably late.