Snake Plissken Isn’t Dead: Why ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK Endures
Legend has it that Walt Disney’s last words were “Kurt Russell.”
In truth, the actor’s name was among the final things Disney wrote on a memo about upcoming projects just before his death in December of 1966. Russell, then 15, was appearing in the Disney film Follow Me, Boys and would go on to sign a long-term contract with the studio after its founder’s passing. For more than a decade, he was the fresh face of Walt Disney Productions in live-action films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and with good reason: Kurt Russell had the blessing of Uncle Walt.
And then Escape From New York happened. On July 10, 1981 – the same day Disney’s The Fox And The Hound hit theaters with Russell as the voice of an animated dog – the 30-year-old actor blew his family-friendly persona to bits. His performance as brooding antihero Snake Plissken shocked audiences and critics, and helped make writer/director John Carpenter’s dystopian thriller one of the most successful and enduring cult movies of the era. And that was the end of Kurt Russell’s reign as the prince of wholesome entertainment.
Looking at Russell’s body of work since, this evolution was clearly for the best. In a sense, he matured alongside his young audience. Kids who grew up on the sugar-glazed Disney confections of the 1970s were teenagers by the time Escape From New York became a cable and VHS staple in the 1980s. And, for many of us, watching it on weekends and spouting quotes in school became a badge of adolescent honor. (“I thought you were dead,” the movie’s most memorable catchphrase, was actually an homage to the 1971 John Wayne film Big Jake.)
For today’s younger viewers who’ve never seen Escape (gasp), think 24 meets Suicide Squad with some classic Western and noir seasoning. In the far-off future of 1997, the United States of America is an unrecognizable police state, mired in foreign conflicts, domestic terrorism, and hateful fascism. When Air Force One is hijacked en route to a peace summit, the president (Donald Pleasence) is forced to flee to the island of Manhattan in an escape pod. But Carpenter’s New York is not the glittering tourist mecca of today, it’s an island prison, surrounded by walls, water, and land-mined bridges. But hey, at least the apartments are affordable.
Enter “Snake” Plissken, a former Special Forces operative and war hero who has just botched a robbery of the Federal Reserve (a sequence cut from the final film). When Snake arrives at the prisoner processing center – based at the Statue of Liberty, a nice bit of social commentary – the warden (Lee Van Cleef) offers him a deal: rescue the commander in chief and receive a full pardon. It’s an offer Plissken can’t refuse, especially after he learns he’s been injected with micro-explosives that will kill him in 24 hours.
After infiltrating the island, Snake discovers that the president has been abducted by sadistic gang members who’ve transformed New York into an urban Lord Of The Flies. With the help of the city’s last surviving cab driver (Ernest Borgnine), he tracks down his former partner-in-crime Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his “squeeze” Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). They promise to lead Snake to the president and help him escape the city safely, but first they have to get past The Duke (Isaac Hayes), the “A-number-one” gang lord who plans to barter the commander in chief for the freedom of every prisoner in New York City.
With his leather jacket, tattoo, and bad attitude, Russell is an action hero for the ages. But unlike a lot of genre films of the era, Escape From New York is a true ensemble effort. Spaghetti Western legend Van Cleef makes a perfect antagonist for Russell, bickering with Snake for much of the mission via a giant 1980s cell phone. Borgnine, the Oscar-winning star of Marty and countless other classics, gives the film some much needed heart with his portrayal of the good-natured Cabbie. Stanton’s bravura and Barbeau’s butt-kicking are delightful. And Pleasence’s cowardly POTUS is unforgettable, especially in the movie’s final sequence.
Made for $5 million by Avco Embassy Pictures, Escape From New York is a triumph of economical filmmaking. Carpenter shot many of the New York street scenes in St. Louis, where a fire years earlier had left the city’s waterfront a burned-out ruin. Thanks to cinematographer Dean Cundey (who also shot Carpenter’s The Fog and Halloween), production designer Joe Alves (an Oscar nominee for Close Encounters), and costumer Stephen Loomis, the film’s modest budget is disguised by a mash-up of retro and futuristic style that would inspire copycats for years to come. You want space pods alongside gladiatorial battles with clubs? This is your movie.
So why has Escape From New York endured while so many other post-apocalyptic “message” films of the era feel dated and inert? Carpenter was still at the white-hot dawn of a creative winning streak that would continue until the late 1980s, and his personal world view informs every frame. The writer/director/composer – he also scored Escape – has said that he wrote it as response to both Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis, and it’s clear how he feels about authority of all forms. This is an extraordinarily cynical film, but it also has a perverse wit. A movie can’t really have its villain drive a Cadillac with chandeliers for headlights down a ruined Broadway and not have a sense of humor. Thankfully, Escape doesn’t succumb to the relentless wisecracking that would soon overtake action movies and make them feel like sitcoms with explosions.
Part of the credit for tone also has to go to Russell, who never winks at the audience, even during the film’s most outlandish moments. As the hired gun caught between good guys and bad, Snake Plissken is on one side: his own. Carpenter called Russell “the only man for the job,” and, though his performance clearly evokes self-preservational Western heroes like Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Russell makes the character his own. If the actor was truly on a re-boot mission, it worked.
And we helped. For those of us who grew up watching the film on an endless loop, Escape From New York came at the perfect time. In the same way today’s kids embrace disruptive delivery methods like streaming, VHS was our Netflix. In the early ‘80s, new platforms like cable TV and home video provided access to content that was largely unavailable just a few years earlier. You can debate whether we should have watched some of the stuff we did, but this technology was new, it was exciting, and it was ours. Filmmakers like Carpenter now had a direct route to impressionable viewers for whom watching movies like Escape From New York felt like an act of protest. In Carpenter, a generation of independent-minded, film-obsessed kids found a voice, and in Russell’s Snake Plissken, we found an icon.
Ironically, Walt Disney himself summed it up best in his final filmed appearance: an introduction to Follow Me, Boys.
“You’re about to meet a 15-year-old boy for whom I predict a great acting future,” Disney said, seven weeks before his death. “His name is Kurt Russell.”
Escape From New York airs February 24 at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT and 11:15pm ET/8:15 pm PT, February 26 at 5:40 pm ET/2:40 pm PT, February 28 at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT, and March 1 at 1:35 am ET/10:35 pm PT.
And don’t miss Kurt Russell in the 1976 Western series The Quest Saturdays at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.