Sunday, July 23, 2017

John Carpenter Revisited: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)

Art by Christopher Shy (www.artofronin.com)
After THE FOG, John Carpenter went to work on the second film in a two-film deal with Avco-Embassy.  His original plan was to write a film based on a 1979 book called The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility, based on an urban legend about a WWII Navy destroyer that disappeared into a mysterious fog near a Philadelphia shipyard and magically reappeared, seconds later, in a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia—about 300 miles away.  The director was intrigued by the story setup, but couldn’t figure out the 3rd act payoff.  In 1999, he told interviewer Erik Bauer that his failure to make the story work “spooked” him on writing for a while.  As a result, he went back to a script he’d written years earlier, and hired his friend Nick Castle to help tune it up.  That script was a dystopian thriller called ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Carpenter says he wrote the original draft of ESCAPE in 1974, and that it was inspired by the films DEATH WISH (1974) and DIRTY HARRY (1971), as well as Harry Harrison’s pulp sci-fi novel Deathworld (1960).  (In a 2010 appearance at The Egyptian theater in Los Angeles, he explained the Deathworld influence: “This guy has been sent to this planet and it’s the most evil place in the universe.  So who do you get to go in?  The most evil guy.”) The finished film also pays homage to the filmmaker’s favorite genre.  In my book The Quick, The Dead and the Revived, I contextualize ESCAPE as a hybrid urban western and futuristic western—sort of a missing link between FORT APACHE: THE BRONX (1981) and THE TERMINATOR (1984).  All I’m trying to say with these comparisons is that ESCAPE is an exceptionally eclectic film.


I first saw ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on VHS, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it because I’d never seen anything quite like it before.  It was an action movie, sure, but it was also a science-fiction movie.  And not the usual kind of science-fiction movie that’s built around projections about the future, especially future technology.  No, this was a science-fiction movie that seemed to be about regression rather than progression—about a “deathworld” where idealists can only dream backwards.  Such films had been made before, but mostly in the early 70s before the science-fiction genre was usurped by feel-good blockbusters like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and STAR WARS (both 1977).   MAD MAX (1979) is the only exception I can think of at the moment.  Mostly I’m thinking of earlier films.

In particular, SOYLENT GREEN comes to mind—and that’s a fitting comparison to Carpenter’s film, because it was based on a novel written by Harry Harrison.  Harrison’s novel (Make Room! Make Room!) and SOYLENT GREEN are both about a fatigued world where natural resources have nearly been exhausted by the burgeoning human population.  Harrison’s 1966 novel is set in 1999, when the projected world population is 7 billion.  (Today, the world population is roughly 7.5 billion—but those of us who live in a first-world country don’t have the problems that the people in the novel have.)  If you’ve seen SOYLENT GREEN—or if you’re a SIMPSONS fan—you know what the most provocative solution to those problems is: future world leaders have secretly adopted Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal.”  The film is pretty grim, lacking even the satirical humor of Swift’s essay.


ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is equally grim, but it’s also fun and funny.  A dour introductory voiceover tells us that the domestic crime rate has risen 400%, prompting authorities to turn the island of Manhattan into a fortress prison with only one rule: “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”  In real-life 1997 America, this seemed pretty silly.  Violent crime got plenty of attention in the news media in the 1990s, but crime stats overall were way down during the Clinton presidency.  Teenagers like me didn’t know much about the contrasting reality of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when President Nixon was elected and then re-elected on a campaign promise to solve America’s urban crime crisis. 

It was within that cultural context that DIRTY HARRY and DEATH WISH were made.   The violent crime rate didn’t start declining significantly until the early 1990s, but incarceration numbers rose significantly during the Reagan years—so Carpenter’s story idea remained timely when the film was made.  In 2017, I guess it’s timely again… now that we have another president who campaigned hard on “war against crime” rhetoric.  (Nevermind that crime rates in America are still very low, compared to the 60s and 70s.  Trump lives in his own fantasy world….) 

Regardless, I’d argue that the dystopian vision of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK isn’t what made the film resonate for viewers in 1982, or what makes it resonate for viewers today.  What makes Carpenter’s film endure, I believe, is the humorous irreverence embodied in the central character.  I’d be very curious to know how much Snake Plissken evolved in John Carpenter’s imagination from 1974 to 1982.  Was the humor always there or did much of the humor come from actor Kurt Russell? 

Today, it’s impossible to think of anyone other than Kurt Russell in the role of Snake Plissken—but apparently, the suits at Avco-Embassy initially wanted Charles Bronson.  It’s not hard to understand their reasoning: In 1981, Charles Bronson had a lot more marquee value than Kurt Russell.  Carpenter couldn’t have been completely averse to the possibility of casting Bronson, since he did after all write ESCAPE as a personal response to the Bronson vehicle DEATH WISH.  In the end, he fought for Kurt Russell, but imagine this….

Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH
A version of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK made with old-timey westerners.  Charles Bronson as Snake Plissken, Lee Van Cleef as Hauk, Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, Warren Oates as Brain, maybe Jack Palance or Lee Marvin as the Duke of New York, Raquel Welch as Maggie….  In 1974, such a film might have been possible.  After HEAVEN’S GATE drove the final nail in the western genre’s coffin, not so much.  What we got instead of a 70s anti-western featuring western icons was an alternately romantic and anti-romantic 80s action movie featuring a growing stable of John Carpenter players.

The director fought for Kurt Russell partly, he says, because he was intimidated by Bronson, and partly because he knew Russell was a pro.  (They director and actor had worked together previously on the underrated 1979 TV movie ELVIS.)  Carpenter then filled out the supporting cast with other actors he knew and trusted.  He made exceptions for Van Cleef (because he was a big fan of Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) and Borgnine, and Oates was almost cast as Brain (according to C. Courtney Joyner’s book The Westerners), but the rest of the cast belongs firmly to Carpenter’s world. 

Donald Pleasence, of course, had already turned in a career-reviving performance in HALLOWEEN.  Carpenter claims he subsequently cast Pleasence in ESCAPE because of his turn as an unlikely victim in Roman Polanski’s CUL DE SAC, but it’s worth noting that Pleasence also had some western movie cred.  In fact, one year after working with Polanski, he played one of the nastiest western movie villains I can think of—opposite SOYLENT GREEN star Charlton Heston, in the 1967 movie WILL PENNY.  


That’s the movie that I decided to pair with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK when I re-watched it this week.  It would have been just as relevant to program TRUE GRIT (the inspiration for Snake Plissken’s eye patch), BIG JAKE (another late-era John Wayne vehicle, and the inspiration for the recurring “I heard you were dead” gag in ESCAPE), or A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Kurt Russell is obviously doing a blatant Man With No Name impression in ESCAPE, mimicking what Clint Eastwood reportedly referred to as his “Marilyn Monroe voice.”)  WILL PENNY was made around the same time as all of these films, when traditional westerns were on life support and the “American nightmare” was seeping into pretty much all genre films.

For the first two acts of the film, WILL PENNY is an old-fashioned romantic western about an upright hero in conflict.  The third act changes everything.  For a while, the story is completely dominated by Donald Pleasence’s savage lunatic preacher.  I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it, so let me just say that in some ways the film never recovers from the savagery that Pleasence brings to the fore.  In that respect, WILL PENNY is indicative of the increasing brutality and nihilism of 70s westerns (or, rather, anti-westerns).  This film is part of a little-celebrated subgenre of westerns that I think of as horror westerns.  I wrote about this group of films at length in my book, so I’m not going to rehash it all here.  Suffice it to say that these are films where the classical romance of the western genre gives way to the culture of fear.

To bring the trail back to Carpenter: In a May 1997 article, the filmmaker reflected on his love for the comparatively old-fashioned TRUE GRIT, saying, “[My films were] part of a darker movement but I kind of had a foot in this lighter age.  I miss that.  It’s a difficult time right now.”  Although it was made two years before TRUE GRIT, WILL PENNY belongs to the darker age.  It’s no coincidence that Charlton Heston followed up with an unofficial trilogy of apocalyptic science fiction movies (PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN and SOYLENT GREEN).  America was undergoing a profound transformation during those years—and there was no going back.  A supporting character in SOYLENT GREEN, living in the squalor of 2022, wistfully remembers the bygone world of his youth: “People were always rotten, but the world was beautiful.”

Set photography by Kim Gottlieb-Walker (www.lenswoman.com)
You might wonder if Snake Plissken remembers that beautiful world.  I think he does.  I think that’s where all of the character’s rage—and all of his power—comes from.  In the end of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, he damns the already-bleak future in the same way that others (including Donald Pleasance’s jackass president) have damned the past.  It’s poetic justice. 

That’s right, Snake Plissken is a fucking romantic poet. 

One final thought: While re-watching ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK this week, I couldn’t help thinking about thematic similarities to George Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD.  Fittingly, there’s a supporting character in ESCAPE (played by Frank Doubleday) named “Romero,” a tribute to Carpenter’s fellow master of horror. Like Snake Plissken—and most of the other major characters in the film—Romero a character who, instead of being driven to despair by a crazy world, embraces craziness and draws power from it.  In the end, I think that’s what makes the films of John Carpenter (and the films of George Romero) both pensive and exhilarating.