“A Little Human Compassion”: Fascism and Freedom in ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Escape from New York’

By K.E. Roberts / September 12, 2016EFNY Snake FlagJohn Carpenter wrote the original script for Escape from New York (1981) in 1974, inspired by Death Wish, Michael Winner’s film from the same year—specifically its seedy portrayal of New York “as a kind of jungle.” Both Death Wish and Escape from New York did extremely well commercially and launched their respective genres—the citizen vigilante film and the dystopian actioner. Both are also regularly cited, along with Midnight Cowboy (1969), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Warriors (1979), as representative visions of late 20th century New York as a contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah, the show biz glamor and neon lights of Broadway tarred and snuffed by carnivalesque decadence and sweeping material decay. Despite this conflation, and despite Carpenter’s repeated claims that Escape from New York has no political attitude, the films are sure ideological enemies: Winner’s starkly violent world is the product of rampant criminal evil that is innate and therefore irredeemable, while Carpenter’s hangs on “the man”: a belligerent, fascist American police state.

“This Goddamn City”

Death Wish tells the story of a liberal, pacifist architect, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), who turns to vigilantism after his wife (Hope Lange) is killed, and his daughter (Kathleen Tolan) raped, by street thugs. Though Kersey says little during the course of the film—we’re to understand that his gun is his voice—we find out what we need to know very early on. Kersey has just returned to New York’s Upper West Side after vacationing in Maui, the gridlock, grime, and bluster of the former set against the latter’s breezy paradise of noble savages untroubled by the strictures of urban civilization. On his first day back to work, Kersey’s colleague Sam (William Redfield) immediately hits him with an account of violent crimes committed during his absence: “there were 15 murders the first week, and 21 last week in this goddamn city.” Sam laments that “decent people” are going to have to move away, and Kersey chastises him, noting that not everyone is wealthy enough to escape to greener pastures. Then comes the following exchange:

Sam: Christ, you are such a bleeding-heart liberal, Paul.
Paul: My heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged, yeah.
Sam: The underprivileged are beating our goddamn brains out! You know what I say? Stick ’em in concentration camps. That’s what I say.

Though the suggestion is as contemptible as it is ludicrous, it’s exactly what we must come to accept, on some level, for the logic of Death Wish to work, and it’s exactly this absurd what-if that Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle exploit in Escape from New York. Carpenter’s film opens in 1997, nine years after the U.S. crime rate jumped 400% and “the once great city of New York” became “the one maximum security prison”—a concentration camp, if you will—“for the entire country.” The United States Police Force (USPF) surrounds Manhattan Island Prison, but there are no guards or soldiers inside. Airborne suppression of escape attempts, as well as the occasional food drop, are as close as the authorities get to the prisoners.

death-wish-title-sequenceThat the New York of Death Wish could inspire a science fiction or fantasy film is not as counter-intuitive as it sounds. In Winner’s hands, the city resembles a paranoid phantasm, close in flavor to the stalking scene from Jacques Tourneur’s horror classic Cat People (1942): the streets are nearly derelict after dark, save for prowlers and ominously costumed revelers swinging balloon bouquets; the shadows are all-consuming abysses; the cops turn their backs on obvious criminals about to commit bodily harm; and the “underprivileged” are everywhere—murderous vermin scuttling from gutter to gutter when they’re not attempting to maul the one man foolhardy enough to challenge them. The atmosphere is so unreal, in fact, that Roger Ebert makes the connection to a future dystopia in his positive review of Winner’s film, which

gives us a New York in the grip of a reign of terror; this doesn’t look like 1974, but like one of those bloody future cities in science-fiction novels about anarchy in the twenty-first century.

Escape from New York simply follows through on Winner’s glorification of frontier justice. The lone vigilante becomes the autocratic USPF, and Manhattan, bereft of any controlling authority, becomes an anarchic state controlled by rival gangs. We see the same shadows, the same empty streets, the same sprawling rust and graffiti, feel the same imminent peril, only more exaggerated: overturned cars, burned out buildings and crumbled masonry, severed heads mounted on parking meters, all passingly lit by the blaze of rubbish fires. It’s not so much the “ordinary” prisoners of Manhattan who resemble the villains of Death Wish, but the “crazies,” mindless cannibals who emerge from the sewers after dark to feed.

Though both films are rooted in fantasy—Carpenter’s explicitly, Winner’s surreptitiously—the soaring violence in urban America at the time was a reality, the “biggest single jump in crime occurring in 1974,” the year Death Wish came out. Violent crime in the U.S. “increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970, and by 64 percent between 1970 and 1980,” according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Not quite 400%, but still pretty grisly. The brutality would metastasize in the cities between 1984 and 1991—the historical peak year, with 10 violent offenses reported out of every 1000 residents—largely because of the crack cocaine epidemic. New York City itself was so close to bankruptcy in 1975 that police officers were poised to serve the papers on the city’s banks. To avert catastrophe, public services were cut drastically: the Department of Health budget was slashed by 20%, while the Police Department “lost 20% of its workforce, eliminated the youth unit and the organized crime squad, and cut the narcotics squad by 33%.” (Cops were pulled off of subway duty to cover the streets, making the only means of transportation for most residents particularly dangerous.) Meanwhile, unemployment was at an all-time high, with unemployment among 16- to 24-year-old males peaking at a staggering 84%.

DW Newsweek

It’s into this gutted, lawless town that Paul Kersey rides, the mad as hell “ordinary” guy who would single-handedly exterminate the Big Apple’s rotten inner core. A week into his rampage, muggings go down by half, a fact that cannot be made public, and the humiliated District Attorney (Fred Scollay) and Police Commissioner (Stephen Elliott) tell the Police Inspector (Vincent Gardenia) not to arrest Kersey (“I don’t want a martyr on my hands,” says the DA), but to “scare him off”: a city full of vigilantes, and the presumptive lack of non-vigilante-related crime to follow, would put both of them out of office. Audiences, their fears and frustrations pinned squarely to the malignant faces of the underclass, were understandably giddy at Kersey’s exploits, reportedly cheering in the theaters every time a bad guy got a taste of his own medicine.

If Winner’s metropolis rots from the inside out and the bottom up, then Carpenter’s poison moves in the other direction. It’s not necessarily power that corrupts, but power without intelligence or compassion. Part of the thrill of Escape from New York is watching the unholy global establishment get the Biblical comeuppance it deserves. Apart from a total reboot, the proverbial “flood of waters upon the earth,” how else can the human species begin again, free of the original sins of the past? And if the ruinous landscape of Escape from New York looks a little too apocalyptic, that’s because most of the film was shot for cheap in a section of downtown St. Louis that had been ravaged by fire in 1976, a section so devastated by urban blight to begin with—amidst the general decline of the Rust Belt, St. Louis lost nearly 30% of its residents between 1970 and 1980—that the city never bothered to clean it up. So, in effect, a film about the endgame of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, collapsing inner city America owes its existence to collapsing inner city America. As bad as the prisoners of 1997 have it, at least they’re not beholden to slumlords and gerrymandering, and they’re essentially as free as they can be (no one who lives in Manhattan wants to go to the Bronx or Queens, anyway). All they have to do is stay alive in “the worlds they have made.”

“President of What?”

As Escape from New York begins, terrorists have hijacked Air Force One en route to a “peace summit” with China and Russia. They announce that the President “will perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison” before crashing the plane into Downtown Manhattan (an uncomfortable scene in 1981, shortly after the Iran hostage crisis ended; an eerily chilling sequence now). The President (Donald Pleasance) ejects in an escape pod seconds before the crash, but is taken hostage by the prison’s most powerful gang, the Gypsies. The Police Commissioner (do they ever get a fair shake on film?), Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), offers new arrival Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a legendary criminal and former war hero who has been arrested after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve Depository, a full pardon in exchange for finding and rescuing the President, who has a tape recording in his possession vital to the “survival of the human race.” Plissken agrees because he’s going into New York “one way or the other,” and stays motivated when things go sour because he’s been injected with two microscopic capsules rigged to explode unless he’s back on Liberty Island—with the President, the tape recording, or both—in less than 24 hours.

Snake FlagWe’re told almost nothing about Plissken or his wider world during the course of the film, but the Escape from New York novelization, written by Mike McQuay and based on the script by Carpenter and Castle, fills in the gaps and reveals quite a bit of subtext. We find out that World War III, still being “fought heavily in the West” as the story opens, started with mass chemical warfare, and that the nerve gas, still coursing through the atmosphere, is quickly or slowly making everyone who breathes it violently insane. The soldiers who came home from the war’s first campaign, already demented by the gas, were recruited into the fledgling USPF and deployed to wipe out the escalating poor, “who were going crazy with gas madness” and turning to crime to survive. (“As much as 90 percent of the rise and fall of violent crime” in the U.S. over the last 50 years, goes one theory, may have been caused by emissions from leaded gasoline.) Plissken refers to the USPF as “blackbellies”: “Kevlarred killers, crazies with guns… judge, jury and in more cases than not, executioner,” an obvious allusion to the Blackshirts, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party militia.

The Battle of Leningrad mentioned during Hauk’s interview with Plissken was a nominal rescue mission, but in reality a ruse by U.S. military leadership to confuse Russian intelligence. Plissken lost his squad and his eye in the battle, and was afterwards decorated by “a President who thought he could buy his love and loyalty with a cheap slug of bronze and a bit of colored ribbon”—just one of many parallels to the disillusioned, disenfranchised Vietnam veteran. The betrayal deepens as, back home, Plissken’s parents are taken hostage by crazies. The USPF burns down the family house indiscriminately, killing everyone inside. His mom and dad are buried alongside the criminals in a “paupers’ grave,” their savings appropriated by the state in the name of “restitution.” Plissken’s break with his country and every authority therein—all authority, in fact—is violent and absolute:

The day that Snake Plissken came home, he blew up a state vehicle with a Molotov cocktail. It was the only thing that made him feel any better. He had done something of the like every day since then.

Paul Kersey is also a veteran, having served in a medical unit in the Korean War as a conscientious objector. He “grew up with guns,” however, “all kinds of guns,” his committed pacifism the result of a hunting accident in which his father was killed by another “gunman.” Kersey’s grieving mother—women are portrayed as deeply feeble and enfeebling in the film—asks him to renounce firearms, and he submits. His turning to vigilantism, then—“if the police don’t defend us, maybe we ought to do it ourselves”—is a conversion narrative, told in near religious terms. The epiphany comes during a Wild West gunfight reenactment in Tucson (where, like Hawaii, there is “space for life”) while visiting a gun-enthusiastic client (Stuart Margolin). Kersey says nothing during the scene, but, as the camera zooms in, his face registers the transformative moment: America has always been violent, will always be violent, and, as the narrator concludes at the end of the stunt show, it was the gunslinging lawmen of the Old West who dispensed justice, who ultimately “were to plant the roots that would grow into a nation.”

Death Wish was adapted from the 1972 novel of the same name, written by Brian Garfield. The book is a thoughtful if slow character study of middle-aged accountant Paul Benjamin who, after his wife is murdered and daughter rendered insane by a criminal assault, realizes not only how unhappy and empty he is, but how unhappy and empty he has always been. His attempt to reestablish some emotional connection to the world by gunning down muggers, and his belief that he is a martyr, establishes the conversion format followed in the film, with an important caveat. Said Garfield:

The essential difference, to me, between the book and the movie, is that the book suggests that this kind of thing could happen and that it’s a dangerous possibility. The movie suggests not only that it could happen but that it ought to happen.

“In the novel,” Garfield went on, “Paul was psychotic. In the movie, he becomes a hero.”

“You are the Duke of New York! You’re A-number-one!”

Much of Carpenter’s work concerns the inherent antagonism between freedom and authority, and the moral necessity of responsible expressions of both. The Western genre is famous for exploring this primal territory, and Escape from New York is, in many ways, a noir Western. Carpenter cast Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch) largely because of their influential roles in the genre, and Plissken’s character was modeled after Clint Eastwood’s “the man with no name” from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. (The studio’s first choice for the role of Snake Plissken was Clint Eastwood. The second choice was Charles Bronson, then 59 years old.) Like many Westerns, especially during the revisionist period of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the winners from the losers, and right from wrong.

EFNY President

The President is being held by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the de facto President (“A-number-one, the Big Man”) of Manhattan Prison, and the Duke, we find out, is planning to unite the city’s gangs and lead them across the Queensboro Bridge to freedom, holding the President as insurance. The plan, though no one knows it, is dead on arrival, because the tape recording in the President’s briefcase is not exactly a McGuffin: it contains detailed information on what McQuay’s novel calls a “Super Flash,” a clean nuke that would “zap out the Ruskies and the Chinks and not leave so much as one particle of radiation in the atmosphere.” (When Plissken briefly plays the cassette in Cabbie’s radio, we hear that “the discovery of the tritium creates only one one-millionth of the biological damage of iodine-1…”—presumably iodine-131, a component of nuclear fission.) The President plans to present the tape at the “peace” summit and give his enemies 24 hours to surrender; if they don’t comply, he’ll “turn the entire eastern world into a giant firestorm.” Even though the film doesn’t reveal the President’s plan, we instinctively know he’s a contemptible shit. Such was the effect of Watergate and the still-simmering anti-establishment ethos that came to a boil in the late 1960s. Carpenter’s repeated use of the counterculture phrase “the man”—“Workin’ for the man now, huh?” Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) goads Snake—is a reminder that a thoroughly rotten future is not exactly the stuff of fantasy: it’s just one more brazen power grab away. That’s why, when the President grabs a guard’s gun and frenziedly mows down the Duke at the end of the movie, saving Plissken in the process, we feel a little sorry for the Duke. He may have been cruel in his application of jungle law, but he didn’t grow the jungle—and he’s not a genocidal maniac.

Snake Plissken, the deadly capsules in his bloodstream quickly dissolving, is in the same predicament as the escalating world disorder that spawned him: if he survives, so does the human race—“something you don’t give a shit about,” Hauk chides him during mission prep. The most revealing moment of the film comes when Plissken finds the President’s life-monitor device on a city drunk. He radios Hauk, telling him that he’s abandoning the mission and coming home. Hauk threatens to “burn [him] off the wall” if he shows up without the President. “A little human compassion,” Plissken pleads—crucially, without pressing the talk switch on his radio. Who would listen? During the final escape scene, after the cab hits a mine on Queensboro bridge and Cabbie is killed, Brain, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), the President, and Plissken run for the Liberty Island wall. Brain trips a mine, dying instantly. The President pauses for a heartbeat to register the blast, then keeps running. Maggie, Brain’s girlfriend, stops, heartbroken. With less than five minutes left to live, Plissken stops too, pleads with Maggie to “keep moving.” Maggie defiantly puts her hand out for his last gun: she wants to kill the Duke, who’s pursuing them in his Cadillac. Snake gives it to her, along with a look of admiration, and chases after the President. Inside the “inhuman dungeon,” there is not only compassion, but loyalty.

DW Last ShotAs already mentioned, Winner also makes extensive use of the Western mythos, or at least its Lone Ranger phase, not being overly concerned with moral complexities. Paul Kersey—like the blackbellies, like Hauk, like the President, like the Duke of New York, like the crazies—is beyond the sway of compassion, and he is loyal only to his higher calling, more or less abandoning his only child, who was reduced to a state of catatonia following the assault and eventually institutionalized. Kersey is the only good guy in Death Wish, and there are only two bad guys: the street criminals and the cops. There is no in between. After the cops tell him that there’s little chance of catching the thugs who killed his wife, Kersey never asks them about it again, attempts no private investigation into the matter, and hires no private investigator. He simply prowls the streets and pulls the trigger when a lowlife attacks—and lowlifes always attack. For Kersey, all criminals are the same, and they will never stop being criminals. They are not individuals so much as willing extensions of the substance of evil. And while evil itself is indestructible, its human hosts are not. If he keeps fighting the good fight, he seems to believe, he will eventually lop off the particular malignancies that dealt him personal tragedy.

Keeping in line with the ingeniously manipulative narrative, Kersey’s murdered wife is never mentioned in the press, but when Kersey kills his first would-be mugger, a junkie, the next morning’s front page reads, “EX-CON KILLED; MOTIVE UNKNOWN.” Once it’s clear that a vigilante is loose, the entire police force immediately mobilizes, spurred by the Mayor. The newspapers and billboard-advertised magazines are aflutter with vigilante controversy (“Vigilantism: Can It Stop Urban Crime?” a faux Newsweek cover reads). There’s a televised press conference, covered internationally, in which the Police Commissioner asks the vigilante to turn himself in: “Murder is no answer to crime in the city. Crime is a police responsibility.” The beat cop (Robert Kya-Hill) who showed Kersey some compassion at the beginning of the film betrays him, pegging him for the vigilante; the Police Inspector has everyone in the precinct working the case, staking out and routinely harassing Kersey; and, when Kersey is shot at the scene of his last showdown, another beat cop (Christopher Guest) gives Kersey’s gun to the Inspector on the sly, fishing for a professional quid pro quo. The Inspector is more than happy to reciprocate; if the vigilante’s capture is made public, the “underprivileged” would resume their uncontested molestation of taxpaying citizens, and taxpaying citizens would further question the legitimacy of the NYPD. So the law enforcement establishment, when its various officers are not corrupt, craven, or both, are entirely motivated by saving face. They protect and serve only themselves.

* * *

At the end of Death Wish, the cops chase Kersey out of town. He lands in Chicago, and the last shot of the film has him making a gun out of his hand and pointing it at a group of unpoliced (every city is the same) miscreants in the train station. His evangelism, we know, will continue unabated, will escalate even. Plissken, as Escape from New York concludes, destroys the all-important tape recording, likely consigning the human race to what he believes is a well-deserved oblivion. After giving the President a chance to atone for the inhuman America he has fed and nurtured, a chance to show “a little human compassion”—a test the President, smug in his reinstatement, predictably fails—Plissken essentially completes the mission the terrorists began. The difference between Snake and Paul, though, is that Snake knows he’s a sinner no matter what he does, because the moral high ground has been forcibly removed by people like Paul, who thinks he’s God.

Special thanks to the Escape from New York & L.A. Page for many of the research materials used in this article.

UFOs Vallee 1977K.E. Roberts is Editor-in-Chief of We Are the Mutants and a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and the longest cat any of them have ever seen.

9 thoughts on ““A Little Human Compassion”: Fascism and Freedom in ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Escape from New York’

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  3. An interesting adaptation/exploitation of Carpenter’s film is Enzo G. Castellari’s “1990: Bronx Warriors” [1982] which reverses the setting: in the far-flung future of 1990, the super rich have barricaded themselves on Manhattan, and left the outer boroughs to rot. Filmed, like The Wolfen, on location in a dilapidated quarter of the Bronx, the stark realism of the setting is tweaked by the outlandish characters: roller blade ninjas, dirt zombies, a gang of 1930s gangsters led by Fred Williamson. Another gang is comprised of Warriors-esque baseball thugs, while our hero Trash heads up a dirtbag motorcycle gang.

    Eventually, owing to plot developments, the power elite in Manhattan elects to clear out the Bronx and sends in the NYPD’s flamethrower division, led by Vic Morrow in one of his last roles.

    Another Italian answer to Carpenter is “2019: After the Fall of New York” which brings a Continental perspective on fascism to the post-nuke NY setting. I recommend both films heartily as companion pieces!

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