Posted March 26, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York

Escape From New York

Escape From New York gave birth to one of cinema’s greatest ever anti-heroes: Snake Plissken. Brought to life by the amazing Kurt Russell, Plissken is a former military fugitive and all around badass who takes no shit from anyone, anywhere. Rarely has there been a character that walks such a thin line between the sublime and the ridiculous. His outrageous name is matched only by his outlandish attire topped off with the evil eye patch. Anyone who comes into contact with this film goes to sleep wishing they could wake up as Snake Plissken.

The film is set in 1997 (the future – it was made in 1981) and Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum security prison. All the bridges are mined and a wall has been built to keep the worst of the worst locked inside. A radical terrorist attacks Air Force One forcing the president to flee in an escape pod which lands within the Manhattan prison walls. Security forces immediately devise a one-man rescue mission which is offered to convicted criminal Plissken, in return for full immunity. Oh, and to make sure he doesn’t just run off, Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) has also injected Snake with microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries after 24 hours is up. After landing on the roof of the Twin Towers via a glider, Plissken moves through the burnt out wreckage of New York City in pursuit of the President who’s being held by local warlord, The Duke (Isaac Hayes). He’s planning a mass escape across one of the mined bridges, using the President as a human shield. Plissken is captured but manages to survive a cage death match by killing a man with a nail studded baseball bat before rescuing the President and escaping across the 59th Street Bridge.

Cult classic is a term designed for a film like Escape From New York. The cast itself is jam packed with epic cult names such as Ernest Borgnine, Tom Atkins, Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau. Kurt Russell was made for the role of Snake Plissken, capturing its almost comic book essence without being corny or stupid. His relationship with Carpenter began on the Elvis TV movie two years previously and would carry on for another three movies, including the sequel to New York, Escape from LA.

The effects created for the film on what was a moderate budget were more than passable. The film was shot on location in New York with the production having use of a ten block radius that was put into blackout for 7 hours from 10pm to 5am every night. This allows for a level of authenticity that would not have been achieved any other way. Coupled with the fantastic sets that include the burnt out theatre, the lair of the Duke and the final chase sequence across the 59th Street Bridge are brilliantly achieved. 

The 1970’s gave birth to anti-heroes such as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Harry Callaghan (Dirty Harry) and Paul Benjamin (Death Wish) to name but three. Snake Plissken belongs among this illustrious roll of characters who embody the utter contempt for authority that the Watergate era resulted in.  As Snake walks away at the end of the film into uncertainty, it points to how America itself had felt for the past 10 ten years given the machinations at the top of the US Government. The President (Pleasence) stands for the slimy worm that was Nixon who’s primary instinct is his own survival above and beyond all others.

 Thirty years on and Escape From New York simply gets better and better with every viewing. John Carpenter is responsible for a body of work from 1976 through to 1983 that can sit alongside any other director of the era. His contribution to the world of fantasy cinema is now immeasurable having created classics in both the Horror and Sci-Fi genres that remain as brilliant today as when they were on release. For any fan of the genre seeing this classic for the first time, I challenge you to not turn to someone afterwards and say “Call me Snake.” Genius.

Aled Jones