In the Line of Fire and the Gun as a Symbol of Change

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2017, Volume 16, Issue 1


Andrew Howe
La Sierra University

Throughout the corpus of films that Clint Eastwood either starred in or directed, the gun stands out as a consistent and overpowering symbol. In Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” character demonstrates proficiency with both rifle and sidearm in surviving the murderous edge of a rugged frontier. In the Dirty Harry series (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact, and The Dead Pool), Detective Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum metes out frontier-style justice in 1970s San Francisco. In such films, the gun serves a narrative function – whether it be a symbol of domination or demonstration of skill or enforcement of justice – that signifies the protagonist’s relationship with society. The same is true for Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993). Although unlike just about any other Eastwood film, the gun here is a conflicted symbol, perhaps indicating a late twentieth century anxiety surrounding the role of firearms in American society, one that has only gained greater currency with accelerating levels of gun violence and the media’s focus upon mass shootings and domestic terror attacks on soft targets.

A unique gun exists at the center of In the Line of Fire. It is not the gun held by the film’s protagonist, Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), but instead the symbol of a terrifying new world in which the Secret Service agent finds himself living. Rogue government-trained assassin Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) has constructed a composite, double barrel sidearm that cannot be discovered through traditional metal detection and can be broken down into pieces that look innocuous even to the trained eye, allowing him to sneak it past the highest levels of security. Leary plans to use this weapon to assassinate the President of the United States. The composite gun only appears in several scenes, but its importance not only to the narrative but also to the film’s commentary upon the post-Vietnam War era cannot be underappreciated. Its importance as a metaphor is highlighted by the contrasts evident with the other guns that appear with frequency throughout the narrative. By the early 1990s and the film’s release, Eastwood’s years as a western icon were long behind him, although he did redefine his image in the genre with Unforgiven (1992), his film immediately prior. Perhaps due to the fact that it came right on the heels of this critically acclaimed revisionist western–which won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards – In the Line of Fire has received scant critical attention.

Despite largely having moved away from his roots in the western genre, Eastwood continued to play rugged individualists who were often at odds with the institutional frameworks within which they operated. Leary’s composite gun and the threat that it introduces into Horrigan’s life is symbolic of his fear of societal, even generational change. The Secret Service agent will need to be courageous and selfless, as the advancement of age has robbed him of the strength, speed, and other attributes that Eastwood’s characters had previously employed to combat well-armed, well-motivated antagonists. This article performs a close reading of the gun as a complex symbol of change for Frank Horrigan and for a nation having recently witnessed the end of the Cold War.
In the Line of Fire
is obsessed with firearms from the very beginning. Indeed, the film’s title suggests as much, and as is quickly revealed, Agent Horrigan is the one who stands in the line of fire, both literally in his job as a Secret Service agent and figuratively in his inability to adjust to a society with new problems. After a brief montage of the various architectural wonders of Washington D.C., which serves to establish a patriotic backdrop to the proceedings, Horrigan and his partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) attempt to purchase counterfeit bills from a contact named Mendoza. It is at this point that the film highlights its first gun during a crucial plot development. Mendoza has somehow divined that D’Andrea is an undercover agent and allows Horrigan to demonstrate his loyalty by shooting D’Andrea with a gun he provides. Horrigan holds the proffered gun in his hand speculatively, pointing it at D’Andrea and pulling the trigger, only to find the chamber empty. Having proven himself to the villains, Horrigan pulls his own gun and quickly uses it to kill two of the criminals and take Mendoza into custody.

This initial scene establishes several important things, firstly that Horrigan is skilled. He is able to tell from the weight that the gun was unloaded and takes on three villains simultaneously. Secondly, that a man of such skill would be relegated to the counterfeiting arm of the Secret Service uncovers questions about this character’s past. As is revealed in short order, for several decades Horrigan has been marginalized within the Secret Service. He does not dispute those who view him as a “borderline burnout with questionable social skills,” and does not flinch when his boss affably refers to him as a dinosaur.1 Clearly, his abrasive personality and risk taking have not made him a lot of friends. Horrigan jokes with D’Andrea that he thought the gun was empty but that “there might have been one bullet.” This statement, which upon first viewing appears to be a throwaway line, actually serves as a metaphor for the entire film: Frank Horrigan leads an empty life, but he has the skill and the courage for one more adventure. Given the right circumstances, he may have one bullet left in his gun after all. At this point in the narrative, we wonder whether or not he can be made to care.
The duality between emptiness and potential is evident in a post-mortem of the operation that Horrigan and D’Andrea share at a local bar. Often a place of conflict and competing masculinity in the classic western, in this film bars are a place of solitude for Horrigan although they become increasingly invaded by others: first his partner, then his boss, later a female agent with whom he becomes involved romantically, and finally Leary himself, albeit via telephone. In this particular scene, the two partners discuss duty and honor. D’Andrea is clearly rattled, but resolute in adhering to expectations placed upon him by his job. Horrigan is less optimistic, questioning D’Andrea: “The idea of throwing yourself in front of a gun, hoping like hell the bullet hits you instead of the guy you’re protecting. You find that appealing?” Horrigan is an alcoholic with no direction in his life, divorced years earlier, not in contact with his daughter. He merely goes through the motions, a shell of his former self. As Harry Pearson argues, however, these features make him realistic as a character:

Eastwood’s agent is aging, not in top physical condition, and, it would seem, living a life without much meaning. Eastwood projects a frail vulnerability, and, at moments, a kind of crinkly unassuming charm unlike anything you’ve seen out of him before. And so his heroism here becomes the ordinary man’s heroism, not what we’re used to, the superhero who has only special effects to overcome. (Pearson 330)

Although he dispatches the counterfeiters with aplomb, Horrigan lacks the passion to pursue work on the more glamorous and risky side of the Secret Service: the presidential protection detail. It will take the intervention of another empty person, the assassin Leary, for Horrigan to begin the process of personal and professional rehabilitation.
Leary fixates upon Horrigan after the agent checks out his apartment following a routine complaint, setting up a grand scenario whereby a failed Secret Service agent who was present at John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination is given the opportunity to thwart a criminal mastermind and find redemption in the process. Unlike most of the enemies present in Eastwood’s films, Leary’s antagonism is largely from a distance and advanced through a series of telephone conversations. Due to his inability to protect Kennedy and co-exist well with others, Horrigan is a disgraced cowboy figure within the Secret Service, unable or at least unwilling to play politics within this organization. His preferred method of handling a problem is face to face in the middle of the street, much as it was for Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Man With No Name characters. Combatting an enemy with words is not his forte, and he is further set adrift in a world of technological manipulation when the CIA-trained Leary is able to manipulate the telephone system. Indeed, Leary is defined as the enemy not based upon an initial confrontation or even through Horrigan’s detective abilities, but instead by a set of fingerprints the assassin accidentally leaves behind and the computer recognition software that identifies those fingerprints. Horrigan is a lawman during a time when technology is used to do most of the legwork, leaving him plenty of time to spar verbally with Leary.
In the first half of the film, Leary is hard at work making his undetectable gun, although other firearms continue to illuminate Horrigan’s journey. In one scene, a SWAT team storms a residence where they suspect Leary is hiding only to discover that he has a device that scrambles their phone tracing abilities. In this scene, law enforcement is well armed but not well equipped during an era when information is the far more critical weapon. In a few other scenes, guns are linked specifically to sexuality. At a state dinner for the visiting French President, Horrigan glances at fellow agent Lilly Raines licentiously and wonders where she hides her firearm. In a later scene, the two shed handcuffs, guns, and other accouterments of the job on their way to bed, only to be called back to work suddenly. These two scenes indicate Horrigan’s passion for life; his desire for Lilly is symptomatic of his renewed zest for his job. Formerly empty and directionless, Leary’s challenge to Horrigan has given the latter the drive to re-enter society, to begin employing his full range of talents despite an unfamiliar landscape. However, despite being cocked and ready as a character, Horrigan is not quite prepared to take on Leary, as yet another critical scene establishes. Suffering from a cold during a campaign stop in Chicago, Horrigan mistakes a balloon popping for a gunshot, causing an embarrassing scene where the President is frantically whisked off stage. Leary, who is a master of disguise, was the one who popped the balloon. Whether he is testing Horrigan or attempting to toughen him up for what lies ahead is unclear although it does constitute a setback for the agent in that he is banned from further protection duties.
Emotionally vulnerable due to his mistake and convinced that this mistake gives Leary the upper hand, Horrigan shares with Lilly his feelings about how this situation relates to the Kennedy assassination, including the blame he places upon himself for failing to act during that critical moment in American history. He implies that his failure to protect the president impacted the nation’s development.

Horrigan:  That was different. He was different.
Raines:  Maybe you were different.
Horrigan:  I was different. The whole damn country was different. Everything would be different right now too if I was half as paranoid as I am today.

Horrigan’s words are revealing; his difficulty in adapting to the times is not merely a fear of the future and the unfamiliarity it might bring, but instead a fear that the failures of the past have been magnified over time. Drucilla Cornell and Stanley Kauffmann view Horrigan’s guilt over Kennedy’s death to be metaphoric for a national masochistic guilt over the Vietnam War (Cornell 73; Kauffmann 28-29). Made in the early 1990s, In the Line of Fire existed within the cultural shadow of Vietnam. The subtext in Horrigan’s statement is that a lot of the ills effecting society today would have never come to pass had JFK survived and perhaps governed for two full terms. As Edward Gallafent notes: “As a rogue CIA officer, trained to kill by the American government, Leary...represents some minimal acknowledgement of American guilt for the covert operations of the post-Vietnam period” (Gallafent 229). Leary represents the excesses of American foreign policy come home to roost, a sort of Freudian return of the repressed whereby the sins of the past threaten to erupt into the consciousness of the present.
Horrigan’s setback is drawn against Leary’s rise as the assassin finishes perfecting his weapon. His skill with this gun is established when he takes it out for a test, killing two hunters because they saw him practicing with it. A few scenes later, Leary’s facility with firearms is brought devastatingly close to home for Horrigan during a shootout. During a particularly heated telephone exchange, Leary apparently forgets that the Secret Service is tracking his phone call and stays on the line a bit too long. His address is discovered, and Horrigan finds himself chasing Leary across a rooftop. Leary makes a jump that Horrigan cannot and, in a nod to Vertigo, Horrigan is left dangling from the side of a tall building, holding on for dear life. Leary appears menacingly above Horrigan, but quickly makes it clear he wishes to save the agent in order to continue their game. In reaction, Horrigan pulls out his gun and points it at Leary’s head although to pull the trigger would mean falling to his own death. Leary sums up the situation: “The only way to save the president is to shoot me. Are you willing to do that to trade your life for his? Or is life too precious?” In order to ensure that Horrigan cannot miss – and in the single most iconic shot from the film – Leary wraps his mouth around the end of the gun.2 Despite having the drop on the assassin, Horrigan privileges his own well-being and is unable to pull the trigger, literally or figuratively. Leary throws Horrigan to safety before fatally shooting D’Andrea, who arrives late at the scene.
There is something monstrous about Leary in this scene, from the way he takes the gun in his mouth to his flat emotional mien when shooting D’Andrea in the head a second time after the agent is already dead. In a rare show of anger and emotion, Leary even acknowledges his identity as a monster during one of his telephone calls, although he blames the United States government and by implication its policies of foreign intervention.

Leary:  Do you have any idea what I’ve done for God and country?
Some pretty f------ horrible things. I don’t even remember who I
was before they sunk their claws into me.
Horrigan:  They made you into a real monster, right?
Leary:  That’s right. And now they want to destroy me because we
can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside, now can we?

Leary refers to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which employed assassination as a political tool during the Cold War, most famously with the Phoenix Program at the height of the Vietnam conflict (McCoy). If we are to understand that the film is set concurrently with the time of its release in the early 1990s, Leary would be about the right age to have been active during Vietnam and thus a potential participant in the Phoenix Program. In this scene, it is interesting to note the anxiety under which Leary operates, as in many ways it mirrors Horrigan’s feelings about having lived too long and entered a world where the symbols are unfamiliar. Like Horrigan, Leary is a creature of the Cold War, and as such his existence would have changed forever during the 1980s with the arrival of glastnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this manner, both characters are linked to the cinematic legacy of the great westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.

When it comes to narratives that involve outliving one’s usefulness, John Ford was particularly effective as a director. In its focus upon warriors who cannot adapt to a changing world, In the Line of Fire can trace its heritage back to, among other films, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). In the former, much as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Scar (Henry Brandon) are ill-suited for a frontier increasingly impacted by greater technologies of transportation (railroad) and communication (telegraph), so too are Horrigan and Leary ill-equipped for integration into a society that does not share their values or approaches to conflict resolution. The anxiety that attended the closing of the frontier in John Ford’s iconic westerns is mirrored in the anxiety invested in the close of the Cold War, although the latter frontier is ideological instead of physical, although the threat of nuclear war did carry with it a distinct fear of physical annihilation.3 Critics have long noted the correlation between the decline of the western and the losses experienced in Vietnam, losses both military and political in nature, as well as the loss of patriotic fervor (Cawelti 117-118). Instead, the western went underground and its anxieties were sublimated into other genres. Given the predominance of prior Eastwood iconography within popular culture and the structural similarities between this genre and the cop/detective film, audiences would have at least made some associations between In the Line of Fire and the western genre’s focus upon a rapidly vanishing frontier.
In another structural similarity to the western, Horrigan is the rugged individualist constantly on the outs with the power structure whose survival he will eventually end up ensuring. It is ironic that, during the film’s penultimate scene, Horrigan is denied access to the President while Leary is given a front-row seat at a fundraising dinner. Using the pseudonym James Carney and the front of a successful software company, Leary has made a series of generous contributions to the President’s re-election campaign. Thus, when the president visits California, Leary is able to procure a prime seat during the campaign dinner. Although both are dinosaurs that no longer belong in this world, Leary has realized something that Horrigan has not. The new world is one of big business where dollars and pieces of information will replace bullets and other weapons of war. In a post-Citizens United landscape in which there are very few barriers keeping large donations from equating to political power (see Bai), there is something ironic in this film’s linkage of campaign donations to imminent danger. Leary uses his financial resources, which he presumably accrued through for-hire assassination, as ammunition in advancing his goal of destroying the President. Despite this deception, in true climactic fashion Horrigan crashes the dinner to throw himself in front of the President just as Leary fires.

In a departure from the formula often observed in Eastwood’s films, where the star demonstrates a superiority of physical skill, mental skill, or moral authority in outgunning the villain, Horrigan merely throws himself in front of the gun, serving a function both narrative and symbolic. Eastwood’s films and the characters he has portrayed have on occasion involved sacrifice, including Unforgiven’s (1992) William Munny taking up the gun to look after his family’s financial needs after swearing off of that lifestyle. In no other film, however, is Eastwood’s character completely passive, as he is in the final confrontation. His passivity, however, should not be confused with inaction. Unlike Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, Horrigan does not experience the metaphoric door of society being slammed in his face because he has finally managed to adapt to this new world, in doing so embracing his mission of nurture and protection. Although Horrigan has not exactly beaten his gun into a ploughshare, it makes no appearance at the end of the film. Instead, after his sacrificial act, the frustrated assassin takes him into an elevator and holds him hostage. Horrigan prevails not with a gun but instead an earpiece and hidden microphone, instructing the snipers he knows are waiting outside to shoot indiscriminately into the darkened container with the only admonition to “aim high.” Horrigan has taken a bullet and is willing to take others and, furthermore, defeats Leary not through force of arms but through cleverly using information and a technological advantage. It is his force of will and ability to adapt, not his speed or strength, that win the day. Horrigan crouches in the corner of the elevator not out of cowardice or even submission, but in acceptance of a different world in which he will attempt to fit in, even if he has to leave behind his traditional role of violent pro-action. The ending also diverges from the more traditional dictates of genre, where the rugged, individualistic lawman brings the evildoers to justice either single-handedly or with minimal help. In this film, Horrigan’s tendencies towards solitary investigation and his proficiency with firearms only get him so far; he must become a team player in order to finally defeat Leary.
In the Line of Fire is an unusual film within the Clint Eastwood canon. Frank Horrigan exhibits as much bravery as perhaps any other character played by Eastwood. Whereas Harry Callahan and the Man With No Name operate within their comfort levels, the Secret Service agent must part with the familiar in order to take a leap of faith. It is fitting that in letting go of the past he is able to redeem the mistakes in which he was complicit, not only in his own life but also symbolically for a country still nursing deep wounds from the devastating loss in Vietnam. Leary may be the gatekeeper for this process, but it is ultimately his untraceable gun that provides the narrative anchor for Horrigan and this passage. Ironically, in a film that plumbs the most complex depths of the firearm, Horrigan does not even bring one to the final confrontation. He is a new hero for a new era, armed solely with bravery and a spirit of sacrifice.



1. The majority of the analysis dedicated to this film derives from two sources: movie reviews and Eastwood biographies. The former have a tendency to be fairly narrow in their focus. Although most such reviews acknowledge the chemistry between Eastwood and Malkovich, the primary focus is upon the inability of Horrigan to interface with the modern world. The word “dinosaur” is worked into nearly every such review, often in preposterous ways (e.g. the title of Richard Corliss’ review for Time, “Clintosaurus rex”). These reviews tend to focus upon Eastwood’s reinvention in Hollywood, viewing Horrigan as a thinly veiled metaphor for the aging star.

2. According to Richard Schickel, it was not in the script for Leary to do this, and Malkovich did so with no warning whatsoever (Schickel 477). In an interview for Esquire, Eastwood discussed the incident although did not give a clear indication as to what it might mean: “My character is crazed and he pulls out a gun and sticks it into John’s face, and John puts his mouth over the end of the gun. Now, I don’t know what kind of crazy symbol that was. We certainly didn’t rehearse anything like that. I’m sure he didn’t think about it while we were practicing it. It was just there. Like Sir Edmund Hillary talking about why you do anything: Because it’s there. That’s why you climb Everest.” (Fussman 73). Some critics, such as Neal King, find sexual imagery in this scene (King 134-135). Others, including Howard Hughes, note the doubling effect in this film, with these two characters existing as doppelgangers, both trained by the United States government, one to kill and the other to protect (Hughes 81). Still others focus upon the scene’s chemistry, with Eastwood and Malkovich representing two different schools of acting, yet nevertheless teaming up to provide gripping drama.

3. Schickel views Eastwood’s roles as compatible with Richard Slotkin’s theories on westerns and the Cold War as put forward in the latter’s Gunfighter Nation. Specifically, Schickel notes how roles such as Eastwood’s in In the Line of Fire reflect the twin discourses of power and vulnerability that permeated many Cold War westerns, where protagonists simultaneously project machismo and fragility (Schickel 111).

Works Cited

A Fistful of Dollars. Directed by Sergio Leone, United Artists, 1964.

Bai, Matt. “How Much Has Citizens United Changed the Political Game?” The New York Times, 17 July 2012,

Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. Bowling Green UP, 1999.

Corliss, Richard. “Clintosaurus rex.” Time, 12 July 1993, p. 58.

Cornell, Drucilla. Clint Eastwood & Issues of American Masculinity. Fordham UP, 2009.

The Dead Pool. Directed by Buddy Van Horn, Warner Bros., 1988.

Dirty Harry. Directed by Don Siegel, Warner Bros., 1971.

The Enforcer. Directed by James Fargo, Warner Bros., 1976.

For a Few Dollars More
. Directed by Sergio Leone, United Artists, 1965.

Fussman, Cal. “Clint Eastwood.” Esquire, January 2009, pp. 72-75.

Gallafent, Edward. Clint Eastwood: Filmmaker and Star. Continuum, 1994.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Directed by Sergio Leone, United Artists, 1966.

Hughes, Howard. Aim for the Heart. Tauris, 2009.

In the Line of Fire. Directed by Wolfgang Peterse, Columbia Pictures, 1993.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “National Guard.” New Republic, 13 September 1993, pp. 28-29.

King, Neal. Heroes in Hard Times. Temple UP, 1999.

Magnum Force. Directed by Ted Post, Warner Bros., 1975.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Directed by John Ford, Paramount Pictures, 1962.

McCoy, Alfred W. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Holt, 2006.

Pearson, Harry. “Film Reviews.” Films in Review , October 1993, pp. 329-332.

Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. Vintage, 1996.

The Searchers. Directed by John Ford, Warner Bros., 1956.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century
America. Atheneum, 1992.

Sudden Impact. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 1983.

Unforgiven. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 1992.

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