Escape From New York is 40!
The film that turned Kurt Russell into an action hero
One of the greatest dystopian sci-fi films ever made and an all-time favourite of the INDUSTRIA team, this John Carpenter classic was released 40 years ago today. The Invisible Man director Leigh Whannell is writing a reboot and may also end up directing so if you haven’t seen the original, well, get off Instagram and go rent it right now.
It is 1997 and the US has been at war with Russia and domestic crime is so rampant that Manhattan has been walled off as a maximum security prison island. The President has crash-landed inside the prison’s walls and soldier-turned-outlaw Snake Plissken has been forced into a do or die (literally, he has explosives injected into his neck to deter him from fleeing) rescue mission. Apart from Russell in arguably his most iconic role (which he had to fight to get since he was at the time typecast as a Disney nice guy) the film also features Donald Pleasance – who had already appeared in Carpenter’s Halloween – as a British-accented US President (in his self-penned character backstory Pleasance imagined the US as a returned British colony), Lee Van Cleef (The “Bad” from The Good The Bad And The Ugly) as warder Hauk (he filmed his entire role in one night), Ernest Borgnine as the gleeful pyromaniac Cabbie, funk and soul (plus South Park) legend Isaac Hayes as criminal overlord The Duke and Harry Dean Stanton as former Plissken gang member Brain.
Did You Know?
The movie initially had a whole other opening reel that showed Plissken and his accomplice robbing the Federal Reserve but the ten minute sequence was cut after test audiences found it confusing. You can see it in full above, restored by YouTuber ManticoreEscapee, along with alternate takes and some behind the scenes footage.
Snake’s full name is S.D. Bob “Snake” Plissken and he was named after a real person, a “high school tough guy” who also had a snake tattoo on his abdomen. The film’s novelisation fills in some of the character’s backstory thus: bank robber Plissken is a former U.S. Army First Lieutenant, serving in the Special Forces Unit “Black Light”. He has two Purple Hearts, and was the youngest soldier to be decorated by the U.S. President for bravery during campaigns in Leningrad and Siberia in World War III against the USSR. He turns to a life of crime after being betrayed by the government during the “Leningrad Ruse” (a military campaign where his left eye was damaged by a nerve gas) and when his parents were burned alive in their home by the United States Police Force. N.B. a highly skilled martial artist, pilot and marksman, Plissken also has tremendous hair and enviable designer stubble.
The studio wanted Chuck Norris, Nick Nolte, Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson to play Plissken but were persuaded by Carpenter to take a chance on Russell, fresh from playing Elvis Presley.
Computer game legend Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid is an open homage to Snake Plissken. Creator Hideo Kojima has never tried to hide the film’s influence on his work, and that almost landed him and publisher Konami in court.
There was talk of a third movie in the series (often mentioned by Carpenter and Russell in interviews on the Escape From L.A. press tour). The idea was that Earth was the only place left for Plissken to escape. After Escape From L.A. flopped (it’s sadly really not great) the project never got off the ground. Pun fully intended.
Jamie Lee Curtis (who had starred in Carpenter’s Halloween) has an uncredited cameo as the opening narrator and the computer’s voice in the first prison scene.
Russell’s wife at the time (the excellently named Season Hubley) plays the “Girl in the Chock Full O’ Nuts” store who gets pulled through the floor and eaten by “the crazies”. Carpenter’s then wife meanwhile, Adrienne Barbeau, played the tough-as-nails Maggie.
!!Spoiler alert if you really STILL haven’t seen the film!! A teenage J.J. Abrams was at any early test screening with his father and asked what had happened to Maggie. Barbeau remembers, “I guess he didn’t think it was clear enough that she died when the car hit her. So a short while later, John and I got together with a very small film crew, and we went into our home’s garage and shot that final image of Maggie covered in blood. I got back in my costume and makeup, laid down on the floor of the garage, and they poured blood all around me and shot that last scene of dead Maggie.”
In 2007, It was announced that Gerard Butler would play the role of Snake Plissken in a remake of Escape from New York. Kurt Russell wasn’t hugely impressed, reportedly saying: “I will say that when I was told who was going to play Snake Plissken, my initial reaction was ‘Oh, man!’. I do think that character was quintessentially one thing. And that is, American.” Jason Statham, Tom Hardy and Jeremy Renner were all later considered to don the legendary eye patch. The reboot languished in development hell until the recent news that Leigh Whannell was scripting a reboot.
On hearing of Leigh Whannell’s involvement, idle internet talk naturally turned to the idea of Kurt Russell’s son following in his celluloid footsteps by starring as Plissken. Wyatt Russell (who’ll you’ll know from The Falcon And The Winter Soldier) was quick to shoot the rumours down, saying, “Although that’s very kind, that will not be happening. There will be no Snake reboot from me, that’s like career suicide 101. That’s like what not to do. I don’t know if anybody else could be Snake Plissken. Good luck, go get ‘em, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. I just don’t know how it’s possible. And for me, if I really wanted to get people sending me hate mail, I think that’s what I should do. I will not be ever doing anything like that.”