John Carpenter’s inspired urban western is a true buddy innovator
For budding filmmakers looking to break into the industry, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was something of a landmark picture. Shot in black and white on a budget of $114,000, the director would use a soon-to-be-demolished setting, a cast of little known actors and a few cleverly calculated narrative quirks that took the film into seminal territory. Recouping a whopping $30,000,000, Romero’s picture became the template for a generation of aspiring filmmakers, who realised there was serious money to be made outside of major studios, so much that when those studios inevitably came calling, Romero shunned their advances in favour of a series of indie pictures that bore his inimitable personality.
Ten years later, director John Carpenter would use a similar template for his low-budget classic Halloween, which with a cumulative worldwide gross of $70,000,000 proved even more successful, sparking a whole slew of imitators looking to cash-in on the low-risk phenomenon that would become known as the slasher. Slashers were cheap to make, relatively simple to shoot, and didn’t require known talent in order to bring in the punters. They were rough and ready productions which catered mainly to the home video market, a burgeoning media that opened yet another commercial avenue for young creatives who, like Carpenter before them, simply set out to make movies.
By 1974, Carpenter already had a feature directing credit under his belt in the Dan O’Bannon penned Dark Star, a low-key, sci-fi comedy that would later receive a re-release following the success of Halloween and another O’Bannon project Alien, but it was Carpenter’s next movie that would put him firmly on the map. Assault On Precinct 13 has all the hallmarks of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: an isolated setting, a cast of fated characters showing their true colours, both figuratively and literally, in a life and death situation, and an unending siege from a group of nameless agitators whose numbers seem boundless, who stalk their prey with an almost supernatural sense of ubiquity. Shot in a mere 20 days, it also has all the hallmarks of Carpenter: an emblematic figure daubed in the anti-heroic guise of male fantasy, iconic dialogue, a smidgen of social commentary and an uncanny knack for visuals, all of it emboldened by the director’s inimitable synth catalogue, the driving force behind his very best movies.
Romero’s influence on Carpenter’s shoestring salvo may be obvious to any watching horror fan, but Assault on Precinct 13 is more reminiscent of another of Carpenter’s favourite genres. The story of a soon-to-be-relocated police precinct that comes under fire from a street gang hellbent on retribution, this is very much cowboys at dawn, an urban western which blurs the genre’s usual delineations by teaming crooks with cops, men with women, and, in the ultimate nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, black with white.
Carpenter was approached by producer J. Stein Kaplan to make a low-budget exploitation movie with the promise that he would have absolute creative control, and he delivers anti-establishment filmmaking that recalls the likes of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the director even going on record as saying that Assault on Precinct 13‘s steady, staccato theme was influenced by Lalo Schifrin’s emblematic ‘Dirty Harry’ score. Carpenter’s compositional talents are key to the film’s effectiveness, something that would become a trend following a series of similarly iconic themes that included Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York. Even those critics who panned Carpenter’s exploitation vehicle had nothing but praise for his musical contributions, which add a mounting sense of dread and ceaseless tension to proceedings.
[Offering Bishop coffee]
Leigh : Black?
Bishop : For over thirty years.
Carpenter originally set out to make a western in the Howard Hawks mode, ultimately adapting the basic Rio Bravo scenario for a late-20th century setting after budgetary restraints curbed his original ambitions, but the ever-resourceful filmmaker has always worked best with his back against the the wall. In order to cut costs, he would recruit similarly hungry and inexperienced upstarts, such as fellow USC student and cinematographer Douglas Knapp, as he set out on a similarly outlaw production.
As future Halloween: Season of the Witch director Tommy Lee Wallace, the film’s rookie art director, would explain, “I hardly knew what the job required, but [Carpenter] believed in me, and, of course my price was right. It was typical of John during those lean days. He made the very best of whatever talent and facilities he had around him.” According to Carpenter’s audio commentary, his philosophy to making the movie was to shoot minimal footage and extend scenes for as long as he could using what he had, a process that he believes can be applied to any low-budget endeavour.
Casting the film was a similarly humble process. Carpenter would add experience while maintaining an authentic and anonymous vibe by casting knowledgeable, yet relatively unknown actors, the film’s central roles going to blaxploitation star Austin Stoker, who had starred alongside Pam Grier in Sheba, Baby a year prior, and the even lesser known Darwin Joston, a TV regular who just happened to be in the right place at the right time (Joston was actually Carpenter’s real-life neighbour). The two would combine to form one of the earliest, most iconic biracial buddy partnerships in action cinema, long before Hollywood turned black and white into a calculated demographic trope. Unlike the deluge of like-for-like pairings that would follow, Stoker was not presented as the servile sidekick reduced to second billing. He and Joston were very much on an even keel.
Assault on Precinct 13 essentially has two leads. The first of those, Stoker’s Ethan Bishop, is both conventional and unconventional — conventional in the sense that he is something of a by-the-book lawman and unconventional due to the colour of his skin and the position he holds. Like Night of the Living Dead‘s Ben (Duane Jones), Bishop is a black character leading a white-dominated environment, only this time his rank is official, at least until the precinct comes under attack, plunging the natural order into jeopardy. Carpenter gives us black and white characters on both sides of the law, placing them in a situation where survival is based on cooperation, regardless of society’s superficial preoccupations. In Bishop we’re presented with a character whose very presence demands respect, a man of conviction who has risen to police lieutenant based on merit, who shrugs off the thinly-veiled insubordination of the precinct’s racist desk officer with an impermeable grace.
The second of those characters is more your archetypal antihero, a less animated version of Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken, and the director’s first truly emblematic lead. Joston’s deadpan portrayal of the ostentatiously mysterious Napoleon Wilson was inspired by Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Sergio Leoni’s epic Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West. When confronted about the motives behind their actions, both characters reply, “Only at the point of dyin’.” Wilson also speaks of a preacher who once told him, “Son, there is something strange about you. You got something to do with death,” echoing a line from Leoni’s classic spoken by Jason Robards’ character Cheyenne.
Wilson is a modern-day urban outlaw shrouded in wild west mystique, a character who is endearingly impervious for a man on death row. He’s under no illusion as to where his future lies, accepting the consequences of his actions with a wry grin and a degree of casualty that belies the hopelessness of his predicament, one beautifully embellished by his equally futile pursuit of a cigarette, an insistence that will sow the seeds for one of cinema’s most unlikely and rewarding relationships.
Wilson pursues a smoke with mechanical impudence, and each request is met with the same resistance, either from cons who are closed-off from the idea of giving or authority figures who revel in the chance to shoot him down. It may be just a running gag inspired by Hawks, but it possesses a deeper narrative purpose. When Wilson asks the warden for a smoke it is nothing more than a show of insolence. When he later requests one from Bishop having been temporarily holed up in Precinct 13 following the unexpected illness of a fellow inmate, the lieutenant offers a similar reply, but he also offers an apology, and right away Wilson understands the kind of man he’s dealing with.
Wilson : What do you want?
Starker : Do I have to want something?
Wilson : You’re a cop. You’re either curious about me, or you wanna give me some shit.
Starker : I don’t understand you, Wilson.
Wilson : Curious.
Most cons would immediately take advantage of such decency, exploiting it as weakness, and you have to believe that Wilson’s intelligent hard-ass could have escaped if he so desired, or at the very least stamped his authority over the situation, but a mutual respect develops between two characters who on the surface seem to inhabit opposite ends of the ethical spectrum. When the precinct comes under fire, Bishop is smart enough to realise that he’ll need all the help he can get; not only from Wilson, but from the self-serving, yet ultimately decent Wells (Tony Burton), and on the other side of the law, bad ass female protagonist Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), an unfortunate female employee whose smouldering attraction to a man like Wilson tells you all you need to know about her inner mettle and refusal to bow to convention.
Leigh’s polar opposite comes in the form of the irrational, self-centred Julie (Nancy Kyes). Her immediate solution is to sacrifice the semi-catatonic Lawson (Martin West), whose vengeful act against the brutal murder of his picture perfect daughter led the gang to their precinct in the first place. Julie is quickly killed by a stray bullet for her show of cowardice, while Leigh gets busy with a firearm of her own, braving the legions of killers piling through the back door to free the temporarily incarcerated prisoners and barely flinching as she takes a bullet in the shoulder. Leigh does for women what Bishop does for African-Americans. They transcend society’s pigeonholing to become heroes against the odds. They call on a heroic spirit typically reserved for privileged white males as the violent retribution comes thick and fast.
Back in 1976, Assault on Precinct 13 was considered extremely graphic, especially the onscreen murder of a child, which draws comparisons with another groundbreaking Western in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Carpenter sketches a very real and relatable scene between Kathy and her father using very little, the casting of adorable Disney star Kim Richards an inspired play. The cute-as-a-button Kim is tasked with convincing her grandmother to relocate following the death of her grandfather, something she is eager to do until the urge for an ice cream leads to an explosion of blood that could very well be mistaken for raspberry sauce. Kathy’s assassination is like a brutal fairy tale, dead-eyed in execution but bathed in a white picket fence innocence. The contrast is breathtaking.
Carpenter’s graphic splurge did not escape the censoring exploits of the MPAA, who threatened to shackle the filmmaker’s rebel vision with the infamous “X” rating if the movie was edited with that particular scene still intact. The onscreen murder of a child was rare, and remains so today, but the impact of such an image and its importance to such a thinly-sketched, low-budget endeavour cannot be underestimated. The precinct’s invaders may be nameless and for the most part faceless, but such an act lends them an aura that transcends typical villainy. If a child can die, and in such an explicit fashion, then no one is out of bounds.
The MPAA’s demands proved something of a quandary for a filmmaker of Carpenter’s persuasion, but these were different times, and loopholes were there to be exploited. Carpenter’s quick-fix response wasn’t so much a loophole as it was an act of sheer, bald-faced audacity. On the advice of distributor CKK, the director would present the MPAA with a cut version in order to qualify for an “R” rating before simply distributing the uncut version, an insolent stand against executive meddling that we can all be thankful for.
Lt. Ethan Bishop : [shoves cop violently to one side] Get away from him!
Lt. Ethan Bishop : It would be a privilege if you’d walk outside with me.
Napoleon Wilson : [deadpan] I know it would.
Despite Assault on Precinct 13‘s once-bloodthirsty reputation, the violence is ultimately peripheral. There may be an abundance of bodies lining up for the slaughter as the titular assault continues to grow, but the movie is very much character-driven, or, more precisely, driven by the various relationships and against-type paradigms contained within the sitting duck precinct that would prove the setting for one of Carpenter’s finest achievements. Just like Night of the Living Dead, the threat is internal as well as external, the lives of our cast threatened as much by inner dissolution as they are outside forces.
The relationship between Bishop and Wilson is the movie’s centrepiece, the relationship that overcomes self-preservation against all the odds. Stripped of all entitlement, Wilson doesn’t see a black man or even a cop when he looks at Bishop, he sees a fair man bound to the laws of common decency who will never jeopardise his integrity, the kind of person who has been absent from his life for as long as he can recall. He follows him not out of duty or rank, but on the basis of intelligence and character in a difficult situation, motivated by the fact that he would have handled things in much the same way had their roles been reversed.
Similarly, Bishop doesn’t see a man undeserving of basic human rights, he sees a person capable of aiding their predicament, and because of their growing allegiance and the trust Bishop shows, his faith is repaid, as is Wilson’s, who for the first time in a long time is treated as an equal, something a man of Bishop’s racial persuasion can fully appreciate. By the end of the movie, the two have developed a kinship that transcends all notions of common law, and we as an audience want nothing more than to see Wilson go free. Deep down, it seems that Bishop wants that too, a decision that is beyond his powers and beneath his integrity, but the two exit the precinct together as equals, the mauling cop rabble who attempt to handcuff Wilson shot down by their black superior in a dismissive manner usually exclusive to the warden, a sentiment that allows Wilson to walk with the dignity of a free man one last time.
Like all of Carpenter’s finest works, Assault On Precinct 13 is a sparse production stripped of every last morsel of fat. It is simple yet devastatingly effective, underfunded yet astonishingly resourceful, and though the screenplay and characters are steeped in convention, what we end up with is a movie that is unorthodox on a number of levels, one which frames society through a rebel’s lens that is infinitely rewarding in the realms of cult cinema and beyond.