Escape from New York: John Carpenter’s cult sci-fi classic transformed Kurt Russell from a Disney Kid into one of the greatest action icons of all time

Escape from New York(1981), directed by John Carpenter is a superbly realized futuristic action thriller set in a dystopian New York of 1997. The film is most famous today for giving star, Kurt Russell, his breakout and most iconic role of Snake Plissken .

Except for Elizabeth Taylor, few actors have had such a long and successful career as Kurt Russell: starting out as child star and then progressing into youth, middle age and old age, even while retaining his iconic status. Though Russell never achieved the superstardom of Ms. Taylor, or his contemporaries like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, but today, he’s considered as much (or an even) greater cinematic icon than any of them; it’s thanks mainly to a string of films he made in the 1980s and 90s that were utter flops or just fairly successful during their time, but their appeal and cool quotient had managed to withstand time and have attained cult classic status today, amassing a rabid fan following. Kurt started acting at the age of 12, with the television series, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters. He then became Disney’s top star in the 1970s with films like  The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970) and The Barefoot Executive (1971). His first full-fledged, acclaimed, adult role was ‘Elvis Presley’ in the made-for-television film Elvis(1978), for which he won an Emmy nomination. The film was directed by an up and coming director named John Carpenter, who had just tasted success with his horror film Halloween. The team-up proved to be fateful, as they would end up collaborating for 5 films in total, and its basically this partnership that would lead to Russell’s iconic status in pop culture. Of the 5 films they made together, two of them: Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China are the most popular, with the characters that Kurt played in these films, Snake Plissken and Jack Burton respectively, turning out to be the most iconic. What’s rather interesting about these characters is that in these two films Kurt spoofed, or rather, channeled, two of the greatest American movie icons of all times: Clint Eastwood in the former and John Wayne in the latter. John Carpenter is a big fan of Westerns, but he never made a full-fledged Western in his career, even though all his films have Western roots. “Big Trouble” was originally intended to be a Western, but was rewritten to be a contemporary story because it was so weird, and making it a Western made it even weirder. Escape from New York, which Carpenter originally conceived n 1974, and was released in 1981, is actually a Western set in the future. Kurt’s character, Snake, belongs in the same pantheon of anti-heroes from which Clint Eastwood’s amoral, self-preservationist, ‘Man with no Name‘ comes from. Snake is very much the archetypal Western hero, who goes into a lawless town, survive the odds, and comes out triumphant. The futuristic wasteland of New York city makes a good stand in for the American Western wilderness. For additional Western influence, there’s Lee Van Cleef, Clint’s co-star from the last two ‘Man with no Name’ movies, playing the Police commissioner.

Set in the then future of 1997, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York presents the violent city of New York, which was at the height of the crime wave at the time, as a dumping ground for criminals; a giant fifty-foot wall has been built along the borders of New Jersey and Brooklyn, fencing in the entire island and its surrounding waterways. In other words, Manhattan is now a maximum security prison, where criminals from all parts of the country are condemned to life sentences. But there are no guards, no prison blocks or cells; the decayed city as a whole acts as the prison, with the inmates left to fend for themselves. Rape, murder and cannibalism are rampant, but the authorities don’t care. These are criminals after all, and whatever happens to them is none of their concern. But soon enough, it does become their concern, when the President of the United States, John Harker, who was on a peace summit to Hartford, Connecticut, goes missing in the middle of Manhattan. His plane was hijacked by terrorists, and he makes an emergency exit via an escape pod. To his misfortune, he lands smack in the middle of Manhattan, and is immediately taken prisoner by the overall crime boss, who goes by the name of The Duke of New York. It’s up to Police Commissioner, Bob Hauk, to rescue the president; and to make things worse, the president’s presence at the peace summit is absolutely necessary, and that too in 24 hours. Hauk personally leads a rescue mission into Manhattan, but his efforts are thwarted by Romero, Duke’s right-hand man, who warns that the president will be killed if they attempt any rescue operations. Hauk has no other option, but to withdraw.

When it appears that Hauk has run out of all options to tackle the issue, enter our patch-eyed anti-hero, Snake Plissken. Plissken was busted while robbing a bank, and now he’s about to be dropped into the middle of the Manhattan prison. But before they do that, Hauk confronts him and offers him a deal: lead a one-man mission into Manhattan to save the president, if he returns successfully with the president in 24 hrs., he will be pardoned. Snake used to be a soldier in the US army, but, at some point, he rebelled and quit the service. Since then he has been leading a life of an outlaw with no patriotic or soldierly feelings. Hence, it would have been very easy for him to reject Hauk’s offer, but here he has no choice; and to make sure that Snake goes through with the mission with full commitment, Hauk has him injected with micro-explosives that will sever his carotid arteries in 22 hours. If Snake returns with the president within the deadline , then Hauk will neutralize the explosives. Now left with no other option, Snake accepts the deal and prepares for his mission.

Snake journeys into Manhattan on a stealth glider, and lands on top of World trade center. He slowly maneuvers through the hellish streets of the city, and has encounters with various weird and colorful characters. There are weirdos crawling out from every corner of the city, from the darkness of the streets to the underground; at a derelict theater, Snake meets “Cabbie” who drives an armored taxi. Cabbie is the only link between the old and present New York. He has been driving a taxi for almost 30 years. Cabbie takes Snake to “Brain” who lives with his girl, Maggie, in the New York public library. Brain was once Snake’s associate, and true to his name, he’s now Duke’s brains; Brain is a brilliant engineer and has established an oil well and a small refinery, fueling the city’s remaining cars- the most extravagant one- a customized Cadillac with chandeliers and all- carries the Duke around the streets of New York. Snake forces Brain and Maggie to take him to Grand central station, which is Duke’s lair now. There, he manages to locate the President, who’s been tortured by Duke and his cronies. But before he could escape with the president, he’s caught by Duke’s men and forced to engage in a gladiatorial fight-to-death with the hulky “Slag“. Snake manages to kill slag, but by then, Brain has betrayed him, and has sneaked off with the president with Maggie in tow to the top of the World trade center. But their attempts to use the glider to escape is thwarted when a bunch of inmates pushes the glider off the building, thereby destroying it. By this time Snake has joined them, and they are helped by Cabbie in escaping from Duke and his goons.

Cabbie has in his possession a cassette tape taken from President’s briefcase, which contains information about nuclear fusion, intended to be an international peace offering and to be presented at the peace conference by the president. That’s why the President’s presence is so important at the conference. Snake claims the cassette despite the president’s objections, even as they are racing towards the containment wall, with Duke in hot pursuit. The entire area is mined, and the cabbie falls first victim to the mines. Brain is the second one to die, hit by a mine. Maggie refuses to proceed further after Brain’s death, and decides to take on Duke all by herself, but is quickly run down by Duke’s Cadillac. Snake and the President reach the containment wall, and guards hoist the President up. The Duke opens fire, killing the guards before Snake subdues him; he attempts to shoot Snake as he is being lifted up by the rope, but the President opens fire on the Duke with a dead guard’s assault rifle, violently killing him, before the President finishes lifting Snake. Snake asks the President how he feels about the people who died saving him. The President offers only half-hearted regret and lip service for their sacrifice; Snake walks away in disgust, realizing that the president is as, or even more, decadent and crooked than the Duke of New York. As Snake has completed his mission successfully, Hauk has the micro-explosive neutralized from Snake’s body. Not only that, Hauk offers him a job as his deputy in the police force, but Snake simply walks away, dispassionately watching the president being readied for his television appearance. Since there is no time left for President to fly to the Connecticut, he decides to deliver a televised speech to the leaders at the summit meeting. But when the president plays the cassette tape, which was to be his big gift for world peace, it plays Cabbie’s song “Bandstand Boogie”, thus, severely embarrassing the president. On another part of town, we see Snake taking out the real cassette and tearing up the magnetic tape, as he coolly lights up a cigarette and walks away into darkness.

Escape from New York is a perfect example of a B movie done really well. Right from its basic premise- which is what I’d call a great idea for a silly and entertaining movie, to its low-budget look and feel, it’s a prototype for a certain kind of unapologetic cinema geared towards only entertaining the audiences that flourished during that period. It’s not high art, nor does it have any artistic pretensions. It’s very much an ‘on the surface’ movie, even though if we scratch that surface, we will find some strong socio-political commentary, which is very intelligently integrated into the film’s structure without distracting or boring us to death; which is what a lot of todays big budget B movies do, with their ‘agenda’ ahead of entertainment motto. Though the film could very easily be construed as a hardcore macho 80s action picture (and god help me, i love those kinds of films to death), the film is basically a dark comedy, which conveys its humor through hidden visual cues rather than extended comic routines. The images of American flags that’s visible all through the film; the American president who’s an Englishman; the anti-hero who speaks in hoarse whispers; the recreation of future New York as a city of criminals- a city that got so overtaken by crime that instead of sending criminals to prison, they thought it better to convert the city itself into a prison, are all indicators to this. New York of 1997 has the inmates recreating Broadway style shows as bawdy parodies and Madison Square Garden boxing matches as old gladiatorial contests with baseball bats stuffed with nails as weapons. The film itself seem to be John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek take on what Fyodor Dostoevsky said about the treatment of criminals in a civilized society: “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.” So basically, what Carpenter seems to be saying is that the civilized society of the time has itself become as depraved and decadent as the criminals we see inside the Manhattan prison; a reflection of which can be found in the President himself. The film’s nihilistic, anti-authoritarian, anti-military, paranoid-thriller feel is directly a reflection of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam war era in which the film was conceived.

Ironically, except for a day’s shooting done at the Liberty island, this film about the future of New York was hardly shot in the city. Much of the future New York was recreated on location in East St. Louis; Carpenter lucked out, as he and production designer managed to locate a whole part of the city burnt out in a fire that fit in perfectly with their decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City. This helped them save a lot of money, which was a big boon for a film that was made for a low $6 million budget. Carpenter, with help of his cinematographer, Dean Cundey, choose to set the film mainly at night and mostly in darkness, so they don’t have to spend much time or money in dressing up the sets. Carpenter’s horror movie expertise comes in handy in shooting these scenes, with people crawling in and out of the frames from nowhere, and giving the film its eerie feeling. Carpenter’s inbuilt B movie sensibilities are both a boon and curse for the movie. It ensured that Carpenter could make a film like this on such a small budget and schedule, but he settles for too little. The basic premise had a lot of potential for visually and thematically deepening the film, but Carpenter does not go into those and is happy to keep things moving on a surface level. A futuristic city made up fully of criminals provide great opportunities for world building and developing lots of interesting characters, but, Carpenter does not show interest there. I don’t know whether it was the limited budget or his own limited skills as a filmmaker that prevented Carpenter from doing this; on the basis of the film’s big-budget sequel, Escape from L.A., released a decade and a half later, one could say it’s the latter. Escape from L.A was a very insipid and silly film, with much better production values though, but that one brought the dark humor of the original onto the surface, and hence played more like a silly comedy. It’s not that Carpenter does not have a good enough visual sense, he certainly has, but it’s not on the level of a Ridley Scott, James Cameron or even an Alex Proyas, who brilliantly recreated a futuristic city on a limited budget in Dark City(1998). All this to say that the Carpenter’s Sci-fi action thriller, Escape from New York, is contend to coast on its action and thriller quotient rather in exploring the Sci-fi element.

The actors are all superb though, from the ever dependable Lee Van Cleef, who scorches the screen as usual with his powerful voice and towering build; to Ernest Borgnine, who adds another over the top colorful character to his roster; and Donald Pleasence as John Harker, the slimy, British-accented President; as well as the surprise casting of singer-turned-actor, Isaac Hayes as ‘The Duke’. The wives of both Carpenter and Russell had roles in the film, while the latter’s then wife played a cameo as an underworld dweller who suddenly pops out into Snake’s presence, the former’s then wife, Adrienne Barbeau, plays the main female character of Maggie. Obviously, Kurt Russell is the main engine that fires this film. I can only imagine how surprised the audience of the time would have been to see the former Disney kid in this new avatar. Carpenter had to fight the studio to get Russell cast in the part; they were asking for Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones, but Carpenter knew that Russell was the guy for the role. Russell prepared for 4 months, lifting weights and running long distances, to build himself up for the role. It paid off: Snake Plissken is undoubtedly one of the most iconic action characters of all time. Russell has an effortless acting style, and with this film, he also proved that he has the ability to project a cool machismo laced with dark humor. Apart from modelling himself after Clint Eastwood, he also borrowed the eye-patch from John Wayne in True Grit(1969). Another John Wayne reference is borrowed from Big Jake(1971), where every character who meets the hero addresses him with the line “I thought you were dead“. Even the final image of the film, with Snake walking away into darkness leaving the civilization behind, seems to echo Wayne’s exit in John Ford’s The Searchers(1956). Carpenter has stuffed the film with all kinds of Western iconography, both traditional and revisionist. Apart from the ‘Western’ influences, Carpenter also takes inspiration from the depiction of New York as an urban hellhole in the great crime dramas of the 1970s, like The French Connection and Taxi Driver; and he takes it to its logical extreme by portraying the city the way he does in the film. He (collaborating with Sound designer Alan Howarth) also contributed a pulsating electronic score, which does sound like a typical 80s score and feels rather dated today, but works very well to add to the film’s atmosphere. By the way, one of the guys who worked on the special effects of the film was James Cameron, who was then employed with B-Movie king, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Carpenter had turned to Corman to create the effects cheaply, as he could not afford the expensive hi-tech effects. Cameron not only rendered some of the film’s matte paintings pertaining to the New York city sky line, but also worked as one of the directors of photography on the film. The visual style of Cameron’s breakthrough Sci-Fi hit, The Terminator(1984) does look heavily influenced by the eerie, nocturnal images of this film.


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