A Rebel’s Lens: John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

Escape From New York poster

John Carpenter’s scathing dystopian classic was closer to reality than you may have imagined


Snake Plissken is one of the great American antiheroes. Everything about the character screams iconic, from his pirate eyepatch and cowboy snarl to his sneering distrust of all things authoritarian. Snake — who would become the inspiration for the first truly cinematic video game in Metal Gear Solid — is an amalgamation of heroic archetypes, a caricature who appeals to our basest fantasies, who approaches his valiance with an outward unwilling that speaks to our cynicism towards authority, questioning the very definition of heroism in a political context. Snake, written with Clint Eastwood in mind while Carpenter was still a student at USC, would sit in the boot of the budding director’s car for close to a decade along with a script titled Escape From New York. It was during this time that Carpenter began to iron-out the template for his own particular brand of reluctant hero.

“There are several characters that I have done in movies that are based on the same kind of guy,” Carpenter would say“Snake Plissken in ‘Escape’, Napoleon Wilson in ‘Assault’, Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars. All of these guys have certain basic things in common, and they’re based on a real guy that I knew. I grew up with him in high school, he was my best friend. A combination of this feller and my own alter ego. Parts of my personality. Really not giving a shit about anything… Essentially, depending on the situation, this character is very basic because he has one thing in mind, and that’s survival. He has a singleness of purpose, which is a definition, which I guess goes back to Homer, of a hero. And his heroic quality is to survive. He doesn’t want to hurt you. He doesn’t want to help you. He just wants to move on and survive. [He will do] whatever it takes.

The part of Snake would go to Kurt Russell, who was something of a silver screen veteran by 1981 with 15 movies to his name, but it was his collaborations with Carpenter that made him a cult favourite in the minds of a generation. The actor, who would go on to star in some of the filmmaker’s most fondly remembered movies in 1982‘s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), would cite Plissken, who he had a huge hand in refining both aesthetically and in terms of personality, as his most iconic character at a Q&A screening of Escape from New York at 2013’s CapeTown Film Fest, also revealing that he wasn’t first choice to play the role. If it were not for the fact that Carpenter fought tooth and nail for his lead, the two may never have forged a decades-long friendship that is still going strong today. “Working with Kurt is always a dream,” Carpenter would say. “We worked together on Elvis for the first time, and we just love working with each other. We have a great time. We have a very similar brain in terms of movie-making. Politically and every other way we’re very separate people, but in terms of moviemaking we have the same approach.”

Producer Debra Hill, who was around the two collaborators for long stretches of time, would make similar comparisons between not only Carpenter and Russell, but Carpenter and Russell in regards to Snake. “In many ways, Kurt Russell is Snake Plissken as much as John Carpenter is Snake Plissken. I mean, there are two sides of Snake Plissken, and that’s John and Kurt. And they’re very, very connected… We needed to do a publicity shoot for Snake Plissken before we’d really designed his outfit and everything. We actually had him in army fatigues and he looked kind of like, you know, ‘Join the army now!” And he wasn’t the antihero that we really wanted him to be. And [Kurt] put these clothes on and went, ‘Not! This isn’t how Snake Plissken would dress!’ And so a lot of who Snake Plissken is, and what he looks like in the film, is because he was invented by Kurt and John, from the eye patch to the tight-fitting shirt to the combat pants and boots, and who he was. ”

Escape From New York Carpenter

Just a few years prior, Carpenter would have lacked the stroke to fulfil such strong and ultimately inspired convictions, but by 1981 he was one of the most sought-after indie filmmakers in the business, thanks in large part to a low-budget revelation that would become the pinnacle of the slasher genre. Halloween, another feature buoyed by an emblematic figure, would generate such a hefty return from its meagre outlay that producers were bound to sit up and take notice. The film was followed by atmospheric supernatural horror The Fog, another low-key affair produced by long-time collaborator Hill. That particular movie’s success (an estimated $21,300,000 on a budget of approximately $1,000,000) would convince distributors AVCO Embassy Pictures to come aboard as co-producers for Carpenter’s next movie, a high-concept dystopian vehicle that, much like his racially unifying urban western Assault on Precinct 13, was driven by the innovative filmmaker’s sociopolitical responses. With an increased budget of $6,000,000 — six times what Carpenter had worked with previously — the possibilities were mouth-watering for a director renown for his resourcefulness and ability to work miracles on small budgets.

It’s the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don’t give a shit about.

Bob Hauk

According to an interview with Carpenter taken from the Director’s Special Edition VHS tape, the screenplay for Escape from New York was written during Nixon’s Watergate scandal, a time when a post-Vietnam America began to view politicians in a much more cynical light and actually set about running their president out of office. In the movie, Snake is a former soldier at odds with his nation’s government, a fact punctuated by a deleted scene that sees our antihero captured following an attempted robbery, a transgression that ultimately leads him to the role of reluctant saviour. The scene was eventually cut because it painted Snake in a more sympathetic light, the character forced to choose between a friend and capture, but Carpenter wanted a pure antihero utterly free of sentiment, an ice-cold warrior shrouded in mystique. Snake is opposed to his nation’s police state incarnation and feels he is owed for his sacrifices, the same that have left him on the run and eking out a living on the periphery of modern society. Ultimately, he is a man without country.

This was all very timely, but the fallout from the war and a plethora of damning Vietnam movies had seen America openly criticised by loyal patriots in a manner that was unprecedented, the movie’s premise a touchy subject for Hollywood producers back in the mid-1970s. “No studio wanted to make it,” Carpenter would explain, their message to him being, “‘Well, you know: we’ve beaten up on the president enough. We can’t have this kind of dark view.'” In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the movie was banished to development purgatory with the violence surrounding the civil rights movement and social upheaval still fresh in the memory. Capitalism was deeply wounded by society’s decades-long struggle for racial liberation and the sense of injustice and togetherness it inspired, so much that corporate America made a concerted effort to significantly reduce democracy, leading to underfunded public schools, joblessness, and the kind of gross financial disparity that now sees more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth owned by the richest 1 percent.

Escape From New York president

By the time old wounds had healed and Escape From New York was finally ready to go into production at the turn of the 80s, another political scandal was on the horizon, one that influenced the entire premise of the movie, particularly the role of Donald Pleasence’s self-serving president. 1979 marked the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, a three-year diplomatic stand-off between Iran and the US which saw fifty-two American diplomats and citizens held hostage, their eventual release coinciding with that of the movie, as well as former movie star Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. This kind of political anarchy is at the core of Escape From New York. The movie’s villains are less the evil miscreants society has them pegged for, more a savage rabble forced to subsist by any means necessary. In fact, parallels can be drawn between Manhattan’s ruling class and that of the so-called free society existing beyond the island’s prison walls. Both take by force and rule through fear, with a military-controlled hierarchy that crushes the little man for the sake of personal prosperity.

More presciently, the film arrived during America’s prison construction boom, which in turn coincided with the fallout from America’s ‘crack epidemic’ and the US government’s deeply hypocritical ‘War on Drugs’. While Reagan’s administration turned a blind eye to cocaine importation during the highly controversial Iran-Contra affair, they set about demonising low-income minorities, many of whom had become addicted to the relatively cheap crack cocaine. Meanwhile, laws were loosened on the possession of powder cocaine, an affluent drug exclusive to the wealthy elite. “All of a sudden, this became a world of a whole lot of greed, and the streets became dangerous once again,” Carpenter would explain.

The War on Drugs was sold on the promise of protecting the young and underprivileged, but actually targeted lower income families by imposing strict laws on minor possession. Rather than understanding addiction, the number or ethnic minorities sentenced to jail skyrocketed, leading to broken homes and soaring crime rates. In short, the more minorities sentenced to obscenely harsh mandatory prison sentences, the higher the profit margins; post Civil Rights African-Americans were now being viewed as commodity. As bold and ambitious as Carpenter’s dystopian imaginings were, Escape From New York‘s prison system was not too far detached from reality.

Escape From New York Snake 2

Escape from New York has one of the simplest and most intriguing set-ups of the entire genre, one that is arguably more relevant than ever. It’s 1997, and crime has risen by four-hundred percent. The once great city of New York has become a maximum-security prison for the entire country and escape is impossible. On the eve of delivering a speech that will prevent all-out war, the US government’s imperialist president (Donald Pleasance) crash-lands on the lawless prison state of Manhattan Island after his plane is hijacked by radicalists fighting for basic human freedoms, and with such a short window to retrieve him, not even the army can help.

That’s where Snake comes in, a former war-hero-turned-crook who’s promised total immunity if he can pull off the job, though our protagonist is understandably dubious while led through a military stronghold like a man heading for the punitive hot seat. Snake is a fabled figure, looked upon with quiet awe as he’s taken to meet the distinctly authoritarian Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), a cunning government lackey tasked with convincing Snake to acquiesce. Hauk is aware of Snake’s reputation, and he knows recruiting him is an impossible task. The first chance Snakes gets he will abandon the mission and set about escaping.

God save me, and watch over you all.

President

As a deterrent, the government secretly inject Snake with a microscopic explosive that will puncture his main artery if he fails to return with the president within twenty-four hours. This is another kick in the guts for our sceptical antihero, and yet another reason to distrust the powers that be. In that moment Snake represents the common man — downtrodden, lied to and cheated, overcome by a sense of frustration that is quickly subdued by design. Here he’s tasked with sacrificing himself for the privileged when only a few hours earlier he was deemed unfit for society. It’s those double standards that have transformed him into the sneering ogre of ambivalence we see before us, a distrusting product of society’s inherent dangers.

Escape From New York The Duke

Escape From New York‘s maximum security prison reflects those dangers, the movie’s depiction of Manhattan a dystopian nightmare of poverty, greed, gang colours and graphic violence, a lawless environment ruled by Isaac Hayes’ enigmatic revolutionary The Duke. Visually, the movie is a sprawling, modern incarnation of the wild west, Snake’s ‘man with no name’ wandering the ruthless desolation of a landscape bleeding with danger and depravity. Lurking in the sewers are the prison’s bottom feeders, a parasitic mob reduced to cannibalism in a dog-eat-dog environment, while a decaying Manhattan’s big players, reminiscent of the blaxploitation hoods of the previous decade, operate within a savage political system punctuated by decadence and debauchery, the gang’s leaders cruising the city streets with chandelier-tinted opulence.

Remember, once you’re inside you’re on your own.

Bob Hauk

Snake is chosen for his stealth skills and relative anonymity, but there’s hardly a face that doesn’t recognise him. Whether it’s the charming, yet ultimately self-serving Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), former war buddy from the outside and egocentric abandoner Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) or his immediately enchanted and trusting squeeze Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Plissken is viewed as an almost mythical figure, so elusive and bound to the realms of folklore that most of them imagine him dead — a running joke owing to Carpenter’s legendary wit. With Escape From New York, Carpenter paints a picture of post-Civil War grotesquery as sleazy, late-night cabarets entertain the city’s street dwellers and severed heads adorn pikes on Broadway’s violent scrapheap. Carpenter may have been nearing mainstream popularity at the peak of his powers, but he never sacrificed his rebellious nature.

The movie’s villains are just an enchanting, a theatrical rabble who still manage to err on the side of political skulduggery or battle-hardened urban decay. Van Cleef is suitably ruthless as Hauk, a military viper who eyes Snake with the beady eyes of a geographically advantaged yet tactically outmatched peer. It’s a fantastic physical performance built on sly subtleties and a simmering, almost impotent sense of malice. The typically dependable Pleasance hams it up as the cowardly politician schooled in lies and betrayal, his half-hearted acknowledgement of Snake’s heroics while preparing for his make-or-break speech more than deserving of one of the coolest, most satisfying twists in modern cinema. Hayes is effortlessly larger than life and utterly convincing as the baddest dude trawling the baddest stretch of land in America, the perfect foil for Frank Doubleday’s Shakespearian sidekick Romero, a wraithlike killer who bleeds with macabre theatricality. “I had used Frank Doubleday before as a killer in Assault on Precinct 13,” Carpenter would recall while discussing the actor’s mesmerising performance. “And he did a great job for me as this kind of man who is a gun. I mean, he’s just this remorseless killer. So I offered him the role and he kind of made it his own. He got his hair to stick up in the air and played it just insanely. He did a great job. That’s his own characterisation.”

Given Snake’s outsider status, the animalistic denizens of Carpenter’s lawless Manhattan inevitably set out to test his courage and will for survival once he finds himself temporarily at the mercy of the all-conquering Duke. Snake may have something of a reputation in the eyes of those who’ve heard his legend whispered, but this is an environment like no other, as unforgiving as any military battlefield, especially since he’s flying solo. This results in one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, the moment when Snake’s opponents realise that this guy is much more than mythical hearsay. The scene in question takes place in a makeshift boxing ring in a dilapidated reimagining of New York’s famous Madison Square Garden (actually the abandoned grand hall of St. Louis Union Station several years before the building’s renovation), Snake pitted against real-life pro wrestler Ox Baker, a 340 lb giant who towers over our lone warrior in what is essentially a Roman death match with chained fencing, deadly weapons and hoards of screaming spectators baying for our protagonist’s blood. The fact that, through pure guile, determination and combat smarts, Snake manages to win his tormentors over, is such a satisfying moment, the irony of our unwilling hero soaking up an empire of cheers Carpenter at his drollest. Despite his best efforts, he’s just so damn likeable.

The death match scene, like much of the New York inspired set design, looks fantastic given the film’s budget, which would prove something of a challenge if Carpenter and co were to achieve the kind of Homeric visuals the concept deserved, particularly with the notoriously large taxes and various other fees that come with filming on location at the world’s cultural epicentre. The real New York City was out of the question for the most part, only adding to the difficulties of a production that was easily Carpenter and Hill’s most ambitious and tasking to date. As Carpenter himself would explain, “When we went to make Escape from New York, we only had about five-million bucks. And this was a big, sprawling futuristic world that was inside of a prison. We had to do it very efficiently and we had to do it with a big scale.” “Escape From New York was a very complex movie to shoot,” Hill would add. “First of all, a huge amount of special effects, which required building a model of Manhattan. We had an enormous action shoot, with lots and lots and lots of extras. We needed to find a place that was post-apocalyptic. A place that didn’t exist.”

Quite the quandary, but Carpenter is nothing if not resourceful. Movie’s such as Halloween have proven that the director works best with his back against the wall, a quality which led him to overlook the spectacular, real-life settings of New York City in favour of matte paintings and models depicting the famous Manhattan skyline — the kind that helped create the movie’s epic look. So impressive was the model city featured in Escape From New York that it was repainted and reused a year later for Ridley Scott’s aesthetically groundbreaking Phillip K. Dick adaptation Blade Runner, a movie renown for its towering visuals.

Escape From New York Snake and Brain

The only real shot of New York City is one of the statue of liberty on Liberty Island. For the movie’s more intimate scenes, Carpenter would take advantage of a real-life disaster in St. Louis, Missouri, which succeeded in giving the movie its ramshackle, city-in-dissolution aesthetic. “In 1977 there was a big fire in St. Louis,” Carpenter explained. “It burned out a whole bunch of downtown. So we decided ‘hey, let’s move in there and make that New York… we shot at night, we wet the streets down so it reflected the lights, and the town let us shut off all the electricity for blocks and blocks and blocks. And we lit the city. So basically what you’ve got is this shell, an empty city with a lot of bonfires and rubble in the streets. This was a look, a dangerous, futuristic look that we created.”

They sent in their best man, and when we roll across the 69th Street bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom, we’re going to have their best man leading the way – from the neck up!

The Duke

Escape From New York, propelled by a typically stripped-down Carpenter concept, is a monumental feat of grandiose world-building given its relative financial limitations, its particular brand of speculative dystopia, despite some cute gadgets that would have looked suitably cutting edge back in 1981, more in the retro-futurism mode embraced by the likes of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, films that have as much in common with the past, or the present as past, as they do with the future: Cabbie’s Jazz collection, the Duke’s foraged decorative fancies ― a regression into old traditions in an environment that’s been very much left behind. In 1997’s Manhattan, now the complete antithesis of the affluent island of yore, anything precious is old and rare, symbols of power in an existence with very strict boundaries that’s incapable of looking to the future in the traditional sense. Unless, of course, that future involves escaping to the outside world, an impossible task that seems beyond even the likes of Plissken.

All of this painted American social politics in a rather unfavourable light, presenting a land of great financial disparity that seemed just a little too eager to throw its citizens in jail. In some respects, the movie is a commentary on the values and consequences of elite conservatism. In fact, actor Donald Pleasence wrote an unused backstory for his character based on the Margret Thatcher led conservatism of Great Britain, a prime minister who would form strong ties with US allies as globalisation kicked into gear, creating loopholes for deregulation that have left us facing a very real ecological crisis. It has even been suggested that the notorious ‘Iron Lady’ was more aggressive in necessitating the kind of change that adversely affected the working classes of the late 20th century. If anyone was capable of advocating such a Draconian prison system, it was Thatcher.

Escape From New York Snake 3

This is all very serious, real-life discourse, but Escape From New York is a film brimming with larger-than-life caricatures, taking mainstream cinematic staples such as ‘cowboys at dawn’ and giving us a wholly fantastical picture that still manages to reflect modern society, one of the very reasons why Carpenter’s enduring vision has achieved such dissident cult status in the years since its release. Technically, this is classic Carpenter, with the kind of slow-building tension that makes his very best movies so special, slick shadows stalking our reluctant hero from every darkened crevice, a threat that only we, the audience, are aware of. As is invariably the case with the innovative filmmaker/composer who, along with regular collaborator Alan Howarth, has given us some of cinema’s most memorable themes, all of this is punctuated by a devastatingly minimalist trademark score, a staccato synth classic that syncs with the plot’s beautiful pacing, delivering a downbeat, almost reluctant aura of heroism that complements our protagonist perfectly.

It’s fitting that Carpenter’s theme would capture our protagonist’s essence so well, since this is ultimately Snake’s movie; and the character, more than any other, captures the director’s razor-sharp wit, legendary cool and potent anarchic persuasion. From his Eastwood snarl to his James Bond gadgets, Snake is the illustrative driving force of a film chock-full of colourful characters who are bound to a dull and colourless landscape. Plissken oozes nonchalance in the face of adversity. He is the personification of Carpenter’s own rebellious streak, an unwilling, distinctly mortal superhero who speaks for the little man without ever really speaking at all, who trudges on in spite of himself, and who succeeds in acts of heroism simply because there is no one else capable of doing it.

Escape From New York logo

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter &
Nick Castle
Music: John Carpenter &
Alan Howarth
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Editing: Todd Ramsay

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