It’s textbook Romero in John Carpenter’s convention smashing urban Western
For indie filmmakers looking to break into the industry, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is something of a landmark picture. Shot in black and white on a minuscule budget of $114,000, the movie would use a soon-to-be-demolished setting, a cast of nameless extras and a few cleverly calculated, head-turning decisions to makes its mark, and in doing so became one of the most notable horror movies ever committed to celluloid. Four years later, director John Carpenter would use a similar indie template to make 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 such a popular low-budget trend. Suddenly, anyone with access to a Steadicam could go out and make a picture, and with the rise of home video, the potential was limitless.
By 1974, Carpenter already had a feature directing credit under his belt in 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 truly put him on the map. Assault On Precinct 13 has all the hallmarks of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: an isolated setting, a group of people 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. Shot in only 20 days, it also has all the hallmarks of later Carpenter: an emblematic figure daubed in the anti-heroic guise of male fantasy, iconic dialogue, 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.
Though its influence comes from the horror genre, it 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. It is anti-establishment filmmaking that recalls the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and Carpenter has even gone on record as saying that Assault on Precinct 13‘s steady, staccato theme was influenced by Lalo Schifrin’s famous score.
[Offering Bishop coffee]
Leigh : Black?
Bishop : For over thirty years.
Assault on Precinct 13 essentially has two lead characters. The first of those characters, Austin 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. Like Night of the Living Dead‘s Ben (Duane Jones), Bishop is a black character forced to take the lead in a white-dominated situation, but Carpenter’s commentary is more specific than the broad racism suffered by Ben, exploring gang culture and the ethic connotations associated with it during the era of blaxploitation. Carpenter gives us black and white characters on both sides of the law, placing them in a situation where their survival is based on cooperation, regardless of society’s superficial preoccupations. In Bishop we are presented with a character whose very presence demands respect. He is a man of conviction who has risen to the rank of lieutenant based on merit, who shrugs off the thinly-veiled insubordination of the precinct’s desk officer with an impermeable grace. He is a hero worthy of our respect.
The second of those characters is your archetypal antihero, a less caricaturistic version of Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken and the director’s first truly emblematic lead. Darwin 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, and the similitudes are overtly transparent. 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,” which echoes a line in Leoni’s classic spoken by Jason Robards’ character Cheyenne.
Wilson is similarly impervious for a man on death row. He is under no illusions as to where his future lies, accepting the consequences of his actions with a wry grin and degree of causality that belies the hopelessness of his predicament, one punctuated 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 a running joke inspired by the westerns of Howard Hawks, but it is also hugely meaningful. When Wilson asks the warden for a smoke it is nothing more than a show of insolence, an act of self-punishment. 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 knows that he is different.
Most cons would immediately take advantage of such a weakness, and you have to believe that Wilson’s hard ass with brains 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 he will need all the help he can get, not only from Wilson, but from the self-serving but 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.
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.
Her polar opposite comes in the form of the irrational, self-centred Julie (Nancy Kyes), whose immediate solution to their problem is to offer up the semi-catatonic Lawson (Martin West), whose vengeful act against the brutal murder of his picture perfect daughter led the gang to them 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 in through the back door to free the temporarily incarcerated prisoners and barely flinching as she takes a bullet to the shoulder. Leigh does for women what Bishop does for the black community. They transcend society’s pigeonholing to become heroes against the odds. They call on a human spirit that was fictionally reserved for privileged white males, the kind that is alien to the majority of citizens confined to a domesticated bubble.
Another of the movie’s talking points is its use of graphic violence, especially the aforementioned murder of a child, which draws comparisons to 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, and the decision to use adorable Disney child star Kim Richards as his victim was inspired. Kim was a cute as a button, and her character comes across as adorable yet perceptive during a rehearsed discussion with her father involving her grandmother, who she is tasked with convincing to relocate and move in with them following the death of her husband until the urge for an ice cream leads to an explosion of grue that could very well be mistaken for raspberry sauce. Kathy’s assassination is like a brutal fairy tale, dead-eyed in execution yet bathed with a white picket innocence. The contrast is breathtaking.
Such a splurge did not escape the censoring exploits of the MPAA, who threatened to shackle Carpenter’s rebel vision with an “X” rating if the movie was edited with the scene intact. The onscreen killing of a child was rare, and remains so today, but the impact of such an image and its importance to the movie cannot be denied. This proved something of a quandary for a filmmaker of Carpenter’s persuasion, but these were different times, and loopholes were there to be exploited. Only Carpenter’s response wasn’t so much a loophole as it was an act of shear, 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, and it worked a treat. Boy, how times have changed!
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.
Regardless of its once bloodthirsty reputation, the violence is ultimately peripheral, and in spite of the abundance of nameless faces lining up for the slaughter as the titular assault continues to grow, the movie is very much character-driven, or, more precisely, is driven by the various relationships and against-type paradigms contained within the sitting duck precinct that would be the setting for one of Carpenter’s finest achievements. The relationship between Bishop and Wilson is the movie’s centrepiece. 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 based on rank, but on the basis of his intelligence and character in a difficult situation, of the fact that he would have handled the responsibility in much the same way.
Similarly, Bishop doesn’t see a man who is undeserving of basic human rights, he sees a useful person capable of aiding such a predicament, and because of their growing allegiance and the trust he shows, his faith is repaid. For the first time in a long time, Wilson is treated as an equal, something a man of Bishop’s racial persuasion can appreciate. By the end of the movie, the two men have developed a mutual respect, and we as an audience want nothing more than to see him go free. Deep down, it seems that Bishop wants that too, a decision that is beyond his powers and beneath his integrity. But ultimately, the two exit the precinct together as equals, the state’s mauling cop rabble shot down by their black superior in a dismissive manner usually reserved for the warden, a sentiment that allows Wilson to walk with the dignity of a free man for 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.