Permissible Arms

No Pity: A Strategic Analysis of “Harry Brown”

Posted in united kingdom by Karaka on 8 July 2010

Continuing from a guest post I’m pleased to announce over at On Violence (read “No Remorse” here, and many thanks to Eric and Michael for letting me contribute!), here’s some more analysis of the Michael Caine film, “Harry Brown.” Spoilers ahoy.

One of the things that so fascinated me about “Harry Brown” was that it acts as a potential allegory for small force action. I doubt this was purposeful–the intent seems to be more focused on vigilantism with the twist being the protagonist’s age and past–but nonetheless it serves the idea well.

The terrain is the Elephant and Castle housing estate in South London, whose population have been affected and harmed by the gang of young men who operated from the pedestrian underpass on the estate. The gang are insurgents, largely jobless young men who have engaged in violence and crime, who terrorize the inhabitants of the estate for amusement and to generate fear that offsets their chances of being reported on to the police. The police are conventional force, attempting to intervene on the estate but are held back from action by the laws of the country, including entrapment laws. And Harry Brown is the small force actor, or singular actor, mobilizing against the insurgents with more freedom than his counterparts in the police.

Brown, by being a small mobile force with a less restrictive engagement strategy, can effect change within the structure of the gang itself both by the use of violence and threats but also by manipulating insurgents into compromising themselves. This action allows for the destabilization of the internal structure of the anti-state gang, while also providing an avenue for the conventional force to engage with the overall system and take advantage of the destabilization to uproot the gang’s membership.

Brown starts with the member of the group with the least power–Marky, the young man he snatches–to gather intelligence. Marky, being the newest member of the gang, has less overall loyalty to the gang and can be compromised more quickly. He’s then turned into collateral for the gang itself, though not for any specific exchange and more to draw out higher-ranking members of the gang so Brown can identify and target them.

But Brown is undercut when a crucial piece of intelligence isn’t revealed until after he has already begun to act against members of the gang–there is an exterior force supplying the gang with means, opportunity, and authority. That would be Sid, the pub barkeep, who is gang leader Noel’s uncle. Sid is a foreign supplier of aid and instruction, making the gang more powerful because of his influence. Thus Brown has two targets: Noel, the leader of the gang, and Sid, the supplier of the gang.

At that point Brown is overwhelmed. His capability is disproportionate to the capability of those two actors together. But again, that is where the conventional force of the police comes in, to back up Brown as part of an overall containment operation.

However, Brown’s involvement in the destabilization of the gang itself, which acted on the estate and which the conventional force could not initially counter, is the operator who builds an inroad of which the conventional force can make use. The small force actor pressurized the situation; the conventional force shut it down.

Admittedly this is imperfect–Brown’s actions weren’t really acknowledged by the police force, and were only marginally sanctioned in Hicock’s nod that Brown was doing them a favor. And likely had the police force not been involved in quelling the riots, Brown would not have known about Sid’s influence over the gang through his nephew Noel, thus opening the door for the gang to return with new membership. Furthermore, the film describes state actors on criminal citizens, where those citizens are not bent on an overthrow of the state but merely thwarting its control.

But nonetheless I think this film has merit for its depiction of small actors against unconventional enemies, working in tandem with conventional state actors. “Harry Brown” is a microcosm of this strategy, all the more interesting because it takes place in such a limited setting, with very few characters, stripped from the traditional images of warfare.


10 Responses

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  1. Mike Few said, on 9 July 2010 at 03:49


    I’m enjoying your and the Cummings brother’s reviews.


  2. Karaka said, on 9 July 2010 at 10:09

    Thanks! Though they’re both mine, I’m just guesting at On Violence. :)

  3. onparkstreet said, on 9 July 2010 at 16:34

    I adore Michael Caine. That is Michael Caine in the pic, isn’t it? Hey, didn’t Abu M have a post about Michael Caine a while back?

    Karaka – did you ever see the movie Educating Rita?

    Most people pay attention to the class differences aspect of the film, but what always fascinated me was that it’s a film about the intellectual life and development of a woman. Not exactly standard fare for Hollywood or whatever. Don’t bother with the YouTube trailer – it makes the film seem like an insipid rom-com.

    No, no, no: it’s a perfect example of early 80s fashion, another glorious Michael Caine performance, and, well, the education of someone named Rita. Perfect.

    Sorry for the digression. Enjoying the posts here and at On Violence. Interesting experiment.

    – Madhu

  4. onparkstreet said, on 9 July 2010 at 16:38

    Oh, I forgot to mention that Rita is played by the wonderful Julie Walters, and the film tends to get a bad rap because it’s viewed as a cheap version of Pygmalian.

    I beg to differ….

    Again, sorry for the digression, but you know what? That’s the fun of the internet, you know?

    – Madhu

  5. onparkstreet said, on 9 July 2010 at 17:03

    Never mind. You explicitly said it’s Michael Caine in the post. Sigh. Missed it, somehow.

    – Madhu

  6. Karaka said, on 9 July 2010 at 18:50

    I saw Educating Rita ages and ages ago; it’s one that’s been on my list for a rewatch for a little while now, but perhaps I will step it up in my queue. :) I too love Michael Caine, and he is a tour de force in “Harry Brown.”

  7. Eric C said, on 10 July 2010 at 13:09

    Again, this points to the need to view modern small war armies from a police, gov. perspective, not a Soldier on the battlefield.

    Getting this across, though, may be impossible.

  8. Harry Brown | Never Felt Better said, on 11 July 2010 at 02:44

    […] a related note, Permissable Arms has an excellent write-up on the movie (more spoilery then this one) analyzing it in the context of small force action. That […]

  9. […] Karaka at Permissible Arms has a review of Harry Brown. In the comments section, we both agree that Michael Caine is amazing. […]

  10. CMrok93 said, on 1 September 2010 at 08:04

    In the hands of a lesser actor, this would feel just as clichéd as it sounds. But Caine brings his smarts as well as his baggage to the character, making him more than another mad-as-hell guy with a gun. Nice Review!

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