The Criminal Heroes Of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK And THE WARRIORS
The jeweled lights of the Wonder Wheel and its passenger cars twinkling against overwhelming darkness, the gliding white-heat of the subway. Snake Plissken’s face silhouetted by red, illuminated by the green glow of the Gullfire’s cockpit. These images usher us into the nighttime worlds of Walter Hill’s The Warriors and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York in sequences reminiscent of the Star Gate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, pathways into different dimensions, though these dimensions bear an uncanny resemblance to ours. Roger Ebert described The Warriors as “at arm’s length from realism,” and both films present familiar visions of the future, of a New York City not founded in reality but perhaps as seen in dreams. The Warriors and Escape from New York challenge the gritty, ugly realism of early 1970s films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Death Wish (1974) and their open contempt of the oppressed and impoverished, narratives where criminals and “punks” must be exterminated. By the time The Warriors (1979) and Escape from New York (1981) were released, criminals were the only ones capable of saving the world.
John Carpenter wrote Escape from New York in 1974 as a response to Watergate, inspired partly by Death Wish’s “sense of New York as a kind of jungle,” although he “didn’t agree with the philosophy of it, taking the law into one’s own hands.” Both The Warriors and Escape from New York were born of the real New York City of the 1970s. There was widespread corruption in the NYPD in the early 1970s, and the New York City subway had a crime rate higher than any other mass transit system in the world. With NYC on the brink of bankruptcy in 1975, President Ford refused to bail out the city, comparing its spending to an “insidious disease.” Then came Son of Sam, a 25-hour power outage that led to looting and arson, overstuffed prisons, what Jimmy Carter called the nation’s “crisis of confidence.” Coney Island was not a place for tourists then, with its empty boardwalk, closed concessions, and shutdown rides. James Remar spent time alone there to prepare for his role as Ajax — Remar asked a ball-toss stand operator what kind of people hang around Coney Island, and the man responded “the worst kind.”
Though relocated to a futuristic, hyperreal New York City, Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel The Warriors was inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis, the story of the Ten Thousand, a Greek mercenary army who accompanied Cyrus the Younger on his campaign to take the Persian throne from his brother in 401 BC. Cyrus is killed in battle, and with no more reason to fight, they battled their way home to the sea through enemy troops. In Walter Hill’s The Warriors, Cyrus is the leader of a gang called the Gramercy Riffs, and he seeks to unite every gang in the city at a gathering in the Bronx. Cyrus is “the one and only,” who proclaims that representatives of every gang all in one place is a “miracle,” that “miracles is the way things ought to be,” and they could own the city if the man hadn't turned them against each other. But Cyrus is assassinated and the Warriors are framed for his death by the Rogues. They must find their way home to Coney Island through enemy turf, pursued by cops and gangs alike. After the death of their messiah, the Warriors are each other’s only hope, and the “miracle” will be their survival.
David Shaber’s and Walter Hill’s script declares at its beginning: “This is a story of that army’s forced march. This is a story of courage. This is a story of War.” The Warriors aren’t antiheroes, they’re classical heroes, like modern-day knights. They defend the city, they defend each other, they survive. Pauline Kael wrote that, “with Walter Hill’s The Warriors, movies are back to their socially conscious role of expressing the anger of the dispossessed.” But more than the dispossessed’s anger, The Warriors expresses their valor.
Walter Hill explained that “the movie sees gangs as a defensive alignment in order to help you survive in a harsh atmosphere.” With their Warlord Cleon’s death, Swan (Michael Beck) becomes War Chief, entrusted with the Warriors’ safe return to Coney Island. Swan proves his heroism by protecting the Warriors, and his affection for Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) redeems him. The Warriors’ salvation, their only hope surviving the city, lies in connection, in loyalty, in helping each other.
Luther’s assassination of Cyrus is the only act in the film that feels truly criminal. Luther leads the Rogues, one of few gangs with all-white members who wear Nazi iconography. Luther himself wears a sheriff’s star and kills Cyrus with a cop’s gun, the only gun death in the movie. He represents not authority itself, but authority’s — or humanity’s — darker impulse to control by creating chaos. It’s the kind of impulse that created COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal FBI program aimed at discrediting anyone or anything that might subvert the status quo, like the Civil Rights Movement or the Black Panther Party. This impulse defines leaders who perceive unity and peace as a threat to their power.
The police in The Warriors are the Keystone Cops compared to the sinister police force depicted in Escape from New York, rendered anonymous by black reflective face shields and led by the real villain of the film, New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef). Hauk is a sadist, and he controls Manhattan Island, now a maximum-security prison where “once you go in, you don’t come out.” The Statue of Liberty, which once welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has become a processing center for inmates where they can choose to enter the prison or be “terminated.”
Hauk introduces Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to us as an “American, lieutenant, special forces unit Black Light. Two Purple Hearts: Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to be decorated by the President.” And Hauk reveals Snake’s crime: robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. In the fascist police state of America, this is an act of heroism. His status as war hero is devalued by police and criminals alike — inmates are shocked he’s alive, and Hauk wants “to kick [his] ass out of the world.” John Carpenter said Snake Plissken “just doesn’t care,” but Snake once believed in America enough to go to war for it, and he didn’t half-ass it: he earned two Purple Hearts. At some point he decided America deserves to lose, that this world was no longer worth defending.
The President of the United States is nothing more than a gutless prop, played like the love-child of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher by Donald Pleasance. With Air Force One under attack at the film’s beginning, the President escapes in his pod, leaving everyone else on board to die, offering weakly, “God save me and watch over you all.” Even the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the prisoners’ leader, has more style, more personality, more fight in him than the real President. The President offers to give Snake anything he wants, and Snake only asks him how he feels about all the people who died in the process of saving him. The President answers while he gazes into a very small mirror: “I want to thank them. This nation appreciates their sacrifice.” But he’s more concerned that he’ll be on the air in two and a half minutes.
Snake Plissken insists Hauk call him “Snake” when they first meet, preferring informality — by the end of the film, Hauk finally does call him Snake, and Snake fires back, “the name’s Plissken,” distancing himself further from a system that disgusts him. His mission was to retrieve a cassette tape with crucial information about nuclear fusion that could end the war. The novelization of the script explains that the tape contains information about “radiation-free thermonuclear bombs” that the President intends to use on his enemies if they don’t surrender immediately. Snake shreds the tape, deeming America, and perhaps humanity, irredeemable.
Snake Plissken is the dark-hearted antihero of a spaghetti western — but he does have a heart. As despicable as we might perceive Snake, he’s rendered helpless by explosives injected into his neck, constrained by the system to worry only about his own survival. He puts on a John Wayne tough-guy act, but his eyes betray desperation. He’s the walking wounded. He can’t save the girl in Chock Full O’Nuts or Brain or Maggie, he can only keep fighting, continuing to obey authority so that he can live. The girl in Chock Full O’Nuts (Season Hubley) tells Snake, “I thought you were dead,” and he responds, “I am.” The true war hero Snake once was has died, and in the course of the film he’s reborn as an antihero, the only kind of hero who can take on a system like this, who can exist in spite of it.
In the early 1970s, crime is blamed for the city’s woes. By the late 1970s, after people understood the full extent of Watergate, the realization set in that corruption within the system is at fault. In the universe of The Warriors and Escape from New York where criminals are heroes and villains are corrupt authority figures, heroes do not unite against villains — villains pit heroes against each other. The Warriors follows the traditional hero’s journey, it seeks to find what can be saved. This version of reality is a comic book, it presents gangs with the purity of children, and the city is a playground. Escape from New York is the story of an antihero, the city a literal prison, where survival is a heroic act and the world’s only hope is to destroy it and start anew.
John Carpenter asserted that Snake Plissken’s world is one where very few good guys remain: “There’s a lot of oppression and brutality, and the man who shines and carries out the mission and is the most dependable and the most courageous of all is the most despicable, toughest criminal.” The Warriors and Escape from New York reveal that men like Dirty Harry’s Harry Callahan and Death Wish’s Paul Kersey are the true villains. They can’t save the blighted city, but maybe the Warriors or Snake Plissken could. Anyone inside a corrupt system is inherently dirty. Only outsiders, those deemed criminals, can be its saviors.