Escape From New York

Escape From New York is a deeply cynical film. Its cynicism is borne out of governmental failures that occurred at what looked like a very dark time for the United States.  John Carpenter was thinking about Watergate, Viet Nam and, I assume, the Cold War when he wrote the initial draft for the film.

It is a story built on societal rot. It was filmed in East St. Louis, a city destroyed by massive fire, but also by institutional decay. It was a city allowed to fester, to decay because the residents were poor.  It stands in for a nightmare vision of New York that did not seem that far fetched in the 1980s. 

Carpenter mixes futuristic technology with good old fashioned crumbling brick and mortar to show the dichotomy of a world of extreme income inequality. The rich and powerful (and most especially the military) have access to technological wonders, while the poor are lucky to have bread.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie (I am having trouble imagining the person who could be visiting the website but has never seen Escape From New York, but maybe you exist) it takes place in the remote future year of 1997. Crime is out of control and the island of Manhattan has been turned into a giant maximum security prison.  The United States and the USSR are at war in Europe and the world is on the brink of nuclear destruction. The President (Donald Pleasance) is en route  to a peace summit where he is meant to deliver the plans for free energy or somesuch as a peace offering. His plane is taken over by domestic terrorists and crashed into the city. The President is taken hostage by a crime boss known as The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

Enter Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Snake is former special forces. He was convicted of attempting to rob the federal reserve and is set to spend the rest of his life in New York. Snake if offered a deal. Go into the prison and rescue the president along with the tape containing the secret plans to earn a full pardon.  To keep him on track they inject an explosive device into his neck with a timer. He has to return with the president to have the device defused before it blows him up.

Snake teams up with Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) and hunts for the president.  Cabbie takes Snake to Brain (Harry Dean Stanton being very Harry Dean Stanton), who is an advisor to the duke. Brain and Snake know each other. He reveals that the duke has a plan to use the president as a shield during a mass escape across the Queensborough bridge. 

A lot of crazy stuff happens. Snake fights in a pro-wrestling style deathmatch; there’s car chases; land mines; fist fights; double crosses; just a lot.

Snake gets the President out. At the end, when the film makes it final argument we see the President thank Snake and offer him anything he wants. Snake wants to know what the Prez feels about the people who dies to keep him safe. All the politician has to offer is some empty lip service. That is really all they ever offer. While the poor fight in their wars, they offer lip service. While children die of preventable disease due to lack of proper medical care, they offer lip service. While the planet burns, they offer lip service (about planting a trillion trees).  While the rich strengthen their grip on the nation, they give lip service.

John carpenter looked at the country in the 1970s and 1980s and saw that it wasn’t just that the people in charge were corrupt; it was that the system was corrupt.  He reacted, much as Johnathan Swift had before him, with rage. That rage was embodied by Snake Plissken, and Snake doesn’t “give a fuck about your war or your president”. 
Carpenter would return to these themes a few years later with the sublime They Live, and we will discuss it in depth at a later time.

Russell here was starting his incredible run of work with John Carpenter. Together they would make this film; the perfect The Thing; Big Trouble in Little China; Elvis and the eventual sequel, Escape From L.A.

It Is very interesting to note that at the time Carpenter cast Russell, the studio didn’t want him for the part. He was seen as a lightweight who did Disney movies (like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). Carpenter had to fight for him and in doing so created an action star.


This is John Carpenter Month at Couch Thing. Stay tuned for more John Carpenter themed content.