VHS Revival explores the social relevance of Carpenter’s dystopian classic
Snake Plissken is one of the great American antiheroes.
Everything about Kurt Russel’s most memorable 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.
By 1981, John Carpenter had exploded from obscurity thanks to a low-budget movie 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 movie would be followed by atmospheric supernatural horror The Fog, another relatively low-key affair, but with the budget to push his work further, Carpenter would go high-concept with his next picture, a dystopian vehicle that, much like Assault on Precinct 13 before it, was based on the innovative filmmaker’s sociopolitical responses.
According to an interview with Carpenter taken from the Director’s Special Edition VHS tape, the screenplay for Escape from New York was written in the mid-70s during Nixon’s Watergate scandal, a time when a post-Vietnam America would begin to see their politicians in a much more cynical light, and actually set about running their president out of office. 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, which ultimately leads him to the role of reluctant saviour. From what we can gather, Snake is opposed to the future police state incarnation of his country and feels he is owed for his sacrifices, the same which have left him on the run and eking out an existence on the periphery of modern society.
Bob Hauk: It’s the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don’t give a shit about.
But the fallout from the war and a plethora of damning Vietnam movies had seen America openly criticised by its loyal patriots for the first time in decades, and the movie’s premise was a touchy subject for Hollywood producers back in the mid-70s as Carpenter himself would go on to explain. “No studio wanted to make it,” he said, 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 commercial purgatory with the violence surrounding the civil rights movement and social upheaval still fresh in the memory.
Escape from New York has one of the simplest and most intriguing set-ups of the entire genre. 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 giving a speech that will prevent all-out war, the US government’s imperialist president (Donald Pleasance) crash-lands in 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, not even the army can help him.
That’s where Snake comes in, a former war hero turned crook who is promised total immunity if he can pull off the job. Snake is a fabled figure, looked upon with quiet awe as he is taken to meet Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), a cunning government lackey tasked with convincing Snake to acquiesce. He knows this is an impossible task; the first chance Snake gets he will abandon the mission and set about escaping, which is why the government secretly inject him with a microscopic explosive that will puncture his main artery if he is unable to return with the president within twenty-four hours.
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, and in particular 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 Robert Reagan’s first term in the presidential hot seat.
President: God save me, and watch over you all.
As unions crumbled and globalisation soared along with the rise of the yuppie Wall Street generation, the class divide grew ever larger and street crime inevitably rose. This was punctuated by the US government’s continued ‘War on Drugs’, begun under Nixon and emphasised by Reagan’s return to American values, leading to a campaign that was sold on the promise of protecting the young and underprivileged, but which actually targeted those lower income families by tightening the laws on minor drug possession and putting more poor and ethnic fathers in prison, a move which lead to broken homes, a lack of parenting and education, and ultimately crime—this, while laws on powder cocaine possession, a drug exclusive to the wealthy elite in 1980s America, were loosened. On the subject of American society under the Reagan administration, Carpenter explained, “All of a sudden, this became a world of a whole lot of greed, and the streets became dangerous once again.”
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.
Bob Hauk: Remember, once you’re inside you’re on your own.
Snake Plissken: Oh, you mean I can’t count on you?
Bob Hauk: No.
Snake Plissken: Good!
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 an almost Dickensian grotesquery as sleazy, late-night cabarets entertain the city’s endless rabble of street dwellers and severed heads adorn pikes on the violent scrapheap that is Broadway. Carpenter may have been nearing mainstream popularity at the peak of his powers, but he never sacrificed his rebellious nature.
Still, the wealth of talent on show is a testament to Carpenter’s growing influence, but a relatively small budget of $6,000,000 dollars would prove something of a challenge for creating the kind of epic landscape 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. As Carpenter himself would explain, “When we went to make Escape from New York, we only had about six-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.”
Quite the quandary, but Carpenter is nothing if not resourceful, and movie’s such as cultural phenomenon Halloween have proven that the director works best with his back to 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 pulp, comic book unreality of the movie’s aesthetics. 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 all the way over 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.”
The Duke: 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!
All of this paints American politics in a rather unfavourable light, giving us a land of great financial disparity which isn’t frightened to throw citizens in jail, and though his vision isn’t far detached from Reagan’s conservative America, the movie is a commentary on elite conservatism as a whole. In fact, actor Donald Pleasence actually wrote an unused backstory for his character based on the Margret Thatcher conservatism of Great Britain, who would form strong ties with their US allies as globalisation kicked into gear, creating loopholes for deregulated capitalism that have left us facing a very real global warming crisis.
This is all very serious, real-life discourse, but Escape From New York is a landscape brimming with colourful 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 make his very best movies so special, as slick shadows stalk 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 musician 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 static synth classic that syncs with the plot’s beautiful pacing, often chiming with a downbeat, almost reluctant heroism that complements our protagonist perfectly.
But in the end, this is Snake’s movie. From his ‘man with no name’ snarl to the James Bond Gadgets, he is the illustrative driving force of a movie chocked with 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 left to do it.