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Dystopian Cowboy: 'Escape from New York' and the futuristic western

John Carpenter, the horror master who created some of the most memorable classics of the genre during the late 1970s and 1980s, really loves the western. His 1981 dystopian science fiction thriller, Escape from New York, carries several western tropes and integrates them into a dangerous futuristic landscape. A lone warrior protagonist, a barren landscape, the warrior sent on a perilous mission to rescue a person of interest—all of these and more are classic western archetypes that Carpenter proudly embraces by incorporating them into his storytelling.

I’ve always been a fan of John Carpenter and Escape from New York. Thanks to the home-video platform, I was able to discover the film when I was in high school. I immediately fell in love with its combination of science fiction and western elements, its great protagonist in the form of Snake Plissken, and the confident and tight filmmaking. With the most recent re-release of the film (courtesy of a great Scream Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray packed with tons of bonus features), I decided to revisit Carpenter’s classic. From the opening on, I was reminded of how many of the film’s western elements are clearly on display:

The big western analogue in Escape is obviously the classic lone western protagonist, represented in the form of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in one of his most iconic roles). Carpenter and Russell are obviously big fans of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and Snake is clearly their response to Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. He only speaks when he needs to; he is a man interested in himself, and has a strict code that he adheres to. Eastwood’s Blondie has his poncho; Russell’s Snake has his eye patch. They’re both distrusting of authority and do things for their own good; at the end of the day, there’s a dryly sarcastic sense of humor that both of them share as a character trait. Both of them are antiheroes above all else.

Similarly inspired by classic Leone westerns is the perfect casting of Lee Van Cleef as Bob Hauk, the man who gives Snake the task of rescuing the president. Van Cleef, known for his work in a myriad of classic westerns—including his seminal role as Angel Eyes in Leone’s Dollars Trilogyserves as the film’s sheriff-like figure in many ways. Obviously, he’s a lot more morally ambiguous (that’s a given, since Carpenter is known for not being a huge fan of authority and governmental organizations) than most sheriffs. But he’s the one who sets Snake on this path, and is clearly the film’s most imposing and towering figure of authority.

One could argue that Bob Hauk is also very much like a warden of the prison that is Manhattan; he’s responsible for protecting the outside from the dangerous criminals inside. What Carpenter does is a great subversion of Lee Van Cleef and his western roles: More often than not, he was a villain on the wrong side of the law. Thus, you could argue that he’s a questionable authority figure on the right side of the law. Regardless of how you choose to look at Bob Hauk, one thing is for sure: Lee Van Cleef’s casting is a great nod to his career in westerns, and one that adds to Escape from New York‘s overall western tone.

A lot of westerns incorporate the screenwriting device of the “ticking clock”—time is running out, and our protagonist must reach the destination in time. One example of this is 3:10 to Yuma, in which Dan Evans must get Ben Wade to the train on time. This trope that Carpenter and his co-writer, Nick Castle (who actually played Michael Myers in Halloween), use creates incredible momentum for Snake’s actions. His character is informed through action, and in many ways, the ticking clock device is used to propel the story further and to show what Snake can do through his actions.

Westerns are known for featuring saloons where characters go out to have a drink, maybe get in a fight, and relax from the occasional gun showdown. While there is no identifiable gun duel between Snake and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), there is actually a saloon-like scene during the film. When Snake first arrives in New York, he stumbles upon an abandoned building in which a lot of individuals are watching a drag-show musical number. The scene is presented very much like a vaudeville number, but it also has shades of saloon numbers that frequently occur in westerns.

Finally, there is the character of the Duke. Isaac Hayes is remarkable for portraying a menacing criminal who runs New York; his character feels very much pulled out of a classic western. A criminal who takes control of the town and has his own army of followers that will do his bidding, he’s like a future version of a western crime lord. Even the way that he’s dressed (cowboy hat and a Civil War–type army jacket, futuristic clothing), plus the fact that his car is adorned with chandeliers (it very much looks like a stagecoach from an old western), are nods to that genre. The Duke represents the great classic western villain, but filtered through Carpenter’s crazy, dystopian, flashy style.

Carpenter’s film takes a lot of inspiration from these classical western tropes, but applies them into a futuristic science fiction film, with a lone warrior character at the center of it. It twists these tropes to create something truly original. The film wastes none of its 100 minutes, and as a whole, remains thoroughly entertaining and one of Carpenter’s finest.

P.S. Carpenter is known for scoring the majority of his films, but his soundtrack to Escape (in association with Alan Howarth) remains one of his best. Ominous, adventurous, and appropriately futuristic, it is a gloriously synthesizer-heavy score.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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