Like many great horror directors before him, John Carpenter has long infused his societal observations, cultural beliefs and political opinions into his work. In They Live he tackled the rampant consumerism and inflated capitalism of the 80s. In Halloween we see a percolating suburban nightmare unleashed. And with The Thing he transformed recurring cultural paranoia into a timeless (and all too relevant) tale of humans turning on each other while fighting a challenging foe. While each film uniquely and effectively exhibits Carpenter’s complex view of the world, perhaps his greatest trick lies in his uncanny ability to create and foster iconic characters. Today, in celebration of End of Days Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, let’s take a look at one of Carpenter’s coolest, politically drenched dystopian creations; Escape from New York and its iconic antihero, Snake Plissken.
Released in 1981, Escape from New York fell at a pivotal time in Carpenter’s career, Kurt Russell’s career as well as culturally for American society. For Russell, the character was an opportunity to step away from the nice-guy, former Disney star image he was known for. For Carpenter, the film was a step up in both financial backing and scale. A young director on the rise thanks to 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog, Carpenter was finally able to secure a real, sizable budget for Escape from New York. With $6 million bucks to play around with, this giant leap forward in funds gave Carpenter a larger canvas on which to paint. And paint he did. Not surprisingly, Carpenter had a lot to say about the world around him in the early 1980s and he most certainly was not alone.
For American society in the late 70s, serious cultural shifts in perception were occurring. Still processing and reeling from the impacts of Vietnam, the release of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 and Watergate in 1972, American citizens were becoming increasingly disillusioned with its leaders. Add in a dash of sky-high inflation, increasing crime rates and rising unemployment and filmmakers had a creative cornucopia of sentiment from which to draw from. For the first real time in recent history (but most certainly not the last), the nostalgic idea of the American Dream was beginning to look like nothing more than dusty old photograph. Yet here, in this bleak stagnation and increasing cultural cynicism lies the brilliance of Snake Plissken.
“For American society in the late 70s, serious cultural shifts in perception were occurring. […] American citizens were becoming increasingly disillusioned with its leaders.”
The set-up for Snake‘s world is simple enough. Crime has risen 400% and the island of Manhattan has been turned into a secluded prison compound. Externally monitored and enforced by a militaristic police force, the prisoners inside are left to regulate themselves and live by ‘the rules they have made.’ Years later in 1997, the current nameless President (Donald Pleasence) finds his airplane hijacked by an antigovernmental terrorist group on the way to a proposed peace summit. Forced to evacuate the plane, this nameless embodiment of government crash lands with extremely valuable information right smack in the middle of Manhattan prison. Soon captured by understandably opportunistic prisoners inside, a rescue mission is in order, but not just any rescue team will do. Due to the nature of the situation, a covert plan is hatched thanks to the timely capture of a very certain prisoner with a very specialized set of skills.
When we first become officially introduced to S.D. Bob ‘Snake’ Plissken, he is in the middle of being processed as the Penitentiary’s latest prisoner. Stone-faced and reserved, Plissken exudes a quiet, rugged attitude from his iconic eye-patch down to his knee-high leather boots. Although convicted of robbing a federal reserve bank, we soon learn Plissken is in fact ex-military. Having previously served in a U.S. Army Special Forces Unit, Plissken earned two Purple Hearts and became the youngest man to get decorated by a U.S. President for bravery during fictional World War III campaigns. Famous both inside and outside the prison walls, Police Force Commissioner Hauk (appropriately played by Western star Lee Van Cleef) initially attempts to gain Plissken‘s willing assistance in exchange for a full pardon of his crimes. Striving to appeal to the patriotic hero that once resided within Plissken, Hauk soon discovers that this particular version of Plissken has long since vacated the premises.
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Although originally concepted by John Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle, Snake Plissken was largely brought to life by Kurt Russell himself. Everything from Plissken‘s wardrobe, mannerisms, backstory, intonation and infamous bad-ass attitude were influenced by Russell’s personal conceptualization of who this character really was. Supporting and playing with the iconic American Western movie framework that’s cleverly embedded within Escape From New York‘s DNA, Russell effortlessly and efficiently turned Plissken into a grimly futuristic, conservatively articulate Old West hired hand. Despite the high stakes that surround the President’s safe return, Plissken is no longer motivated by duty, honor or patriotism. Beautifully vague, the massive chip that Plissken has on his shoulder towards his former employer holds more symbolic weight than just a simple cinematic nod to the stoic bad-asses that came before him.
Like many real life military veterans, Plissken did not escape his years of service unscathed. On top of likely witnessing unfathomable violence and high-stress scenarios that unquestionably impacted his psyche, Plissken also became irrevocably wounded. Prominently, but casually conveyed through his iconic black eye patch, this literal in-your-face piece of wardrobe speaks to the physical and emotional baggage that many veterans returned home with following Vietnam. Much like familiar characters like Paul Kersey in Death Wish or John Rambo in First Blood, Snake Plissken similarly bled for his country only to have it fail him in some crucial way once he returned home. While this failure ultimately embittered Plissken and turned him toward a life of crime, it also embodied the growing American distrust of their own government as well as the thousands of Vietnam veterans that lacked proper support once their tours had ended.
This interesting juxtaposition of criminal and patriot found within Plissken makes him not only a perfect antihero, but a character that exists outside the world in which he inhabits. Blackmailed into cooperation, Plissken‘s assistance has nothing to do with honor and everything to do with self-preservation. Despite desperately needing his help, he is looked down upon and manipulated by the very institutions he once fought for. Once inside the prison walls, this same reputation precedes him, giving him a celebrity-like status that similarly sets him apart from his fellow criminals. Unable to really fit into either world, Plissken‘s detached interactions and smug outlook begin to make more sense. Although giving off severe nihilist vibes with his own special brand of arrogant cool, Plissken‘s reticent cooperation signals he’s perhaps not as ready to throw in the towel as he might like everyone to think.
As the minutes fly by on Plissken‘s fancy future death clock watch he begins to attract a certain level of attention. Soon, he assembles a merry band of misfits similarly motivated to help ‘rescue’ the President to save their own skins. Regardless of whether these relationships are happenstance new friends (like Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie), distrustful old foes (like Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain) or manufactured leaders (like Isaac Hayes’ Duke of New York), the same phrase gets uttered to Plissken time and time again—’I thought you were dead.‘ Like Plissken himself, this simple line of dialogue is loaded with layers of complex meaning.
On the surface, this particular phrase further supports the Western film skeleton that Escape from New York was built upon. Made famous in George Sherman’s 1971 film Big Jake, the phrase is a cinephile callback to John Wayne’s character continually being mistaken for dead. While most certainly yet another nod to this classic and influential genre of cinema, it further emphasizes Plissken‘s place in this fictional world and the growing cultural cynicism outside it. As scandals, struggling foreign relationships, misinformation and internal national discord continued to chip away at the foundational American ideology, this simple 5 word turn of phrase acts as a bleak real-world foreshadowing device. Left unchecked and unaddressed, Carpenter and Castle hint at a future where America as we know it, dream and all, are long gone and accepted as dead.
Lest one thinks that Snake Plissken is all gloom and doom, there are small glimpses of hope hidden within the character. For one, he’s a character who is able to put aside his individualistic nature and work with others toward a common goal. Along with Brain, Cabbie and Adrienne Barbeau’s Maggie, Plissken is able to rescue the President, stop the high tech micro-bomb from bursting his veins open and seemingly saves the day. However, the loss of life that it took to get to that point doesn’t sit well with Plissken and he addresses the issue with the President.
“[…] Snake Plissken was largely brought to life by Kurt Russell himself. […] Russell effortlessly and efficiently turned Plissken into a grimly futuristic, conservatively articulate Old West hired hand.”
After receiving a half-assed response to his extremely serious question, Plissken once again settles into his anti-authority worldview. In a final act of protest, Plissken switches the high-value cassette tape of information with one of Cabbie‘s music tapes. Calmly riding off into the figurative sunset, Plissken deliberately and coolly destroys the tape and all its contents while the President looks like a fool on a national stage. Harsh yes, perhaps even bleak, but this act of protest speaks to the enduring idea that sometimes true change comes at the hands of bold moves. The future is indeed unwritten and through Plissken, Carpenter and Castle suggest that there are simply some systems not worth saving. Sometimes, you have to burn a forest to the ground to clear the dead brush and start anew.
Despite these layers and layers of hidden meanings, nods and enduringly prescient cultural relativisms embedded in the character of Snake Plissken, there’s just no denying the main appeal is his quintessential cool. At the end of the day, Snake Plissken is a cinematic bad-ass for the ages with attitude and swagger in spades. Frequently named by Kurt Russell himself as his favorite character to have played, it’s easy to see why. A transformative role for Russell, rarely has an antihero been as evidently antagonistic and retained such universal adoration. On paper, we absolutely should not be cheering for this arrogant, selfish and snarky character. And yet…The world is a rough place and its easy to feel disillusioned at demoralized at times. Because of that, perhaps now more than ever, we could all use a little Snake Plissken in our lives.
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