Snake Plissken & the Emergence of American Cynicism in Film

Throughout the history of American cinema in the 20th Century film narratives served as a decent reflection of where the general public consensus stood in regard to America’s domestic or foreign affairs.  Westerns in particular played a vital role in being able to encapsulate the nation’s mood, and broaden it by promoting a nostalgic wanting for the country’s simpler, if largely mythical, frontier past. 

Although the initial tone of this cultural molding was done in favor of the American ideal by the likes of John Ford and Michael Curtiz, the impact of Vietnam, the collapse of President Johnson’s Great Society, and the near universal betrayal felt by the nation through the Watergate scandal, all worked together to gradually shift the tone in the public consciousness, and as a result, the movie narrative right along with it.  John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York is the culminating product of this trend, set in a dystopian American in the not too distant future (1997), the once heralded ideals of lawfulness, respect and responsibility in governance has vanished, leaving less than a handful of individuals who still embody the true rugged sense of American virtue.

Escape from New York |

The film begins by introducing the audience to the events that have led up to the dire world America has found itself in.  In 1988, the crime rate has risen by 400% (no doubt an allusion to the growing crime rate seen in American urban centers in the 1970s), and Manhattan island, of the once great city of New York, has been turned into a maximum security prison to keep the dangerous forces of society at bay.  Left to roam on their own in the streets of Manhattan, the thugs, murderers, and crazies, forge a Hobbesean social order in their own image, which while confined, is ultimately without constraints. 

The central plot of the movie is a symbolic parallel of the disillusionment Americans have been experiencing towards their government for the better part of the preceding decades, and what happens when the authorities responsible for creating such an environment find themselves at the receding side of the contempt they have created. 

In the film, the President of the United States is forced to crash land in the Manhattan prison-state after his plane is hijacked by the anti-government terrorist group National Liberation Front, from which point on he is left at the mercy of the criminals running the area (primarily the self-appointed Duke of New York).  Both of these casual events are brought about from the policies the President himself either enacted or was associated with through the system that helped foster it.  Therefore, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for the man, a message Carpenter may have intended on the grounds that he opted to keep the character nameless throughout the plot, leaving him to be the ideal bureaucratic representation of any and every administrative and legislative figure of the 1960s and 1970s.  Instead, the protagonist is the rogue fugitive Snake Plissken, whose role in trying to save the President is one of staunch reluctance brought on through outright entrapment by the state authorities; a strong nod to the fuming Vietnam draft generation.

Here are the changes planned for the Escape from New York remake - Blastr

Whereas in the past the heroes of cinema, in particular Westerns, fully displayed a sense of idealist fervor towards protecting and living up to the quasi-mythical notion of what America is and ought to be, Plissken shows no such romantic illusions.  The sub-plot of having to rescue the President in time for him to attend a summit with the USSR and China to divulge information on nuclear fusion, vaguely explained as vital for “the survival of the human race,” is treated with utter disinterest by Plissken who sees his own personal survival as being of far greater importance than the political quarreling between despots. 

This general mood is a clear indication of the cynicism the American public had been feeling about its government, and the breakdown of the American myth in cinema signaled an end to “the sanctioning of ‘cowboy’ or vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to ‘to do what a man’s gotta do.’”[1]  However, rather than disappear completely, the envoy of the American spirit was simply transferred from the national scale to the disgruntled individual, which is what Plissken’s character is meant to signify.  He was a war hero, turned criminal in a country that is probably unrecognizable to him from the one he once fought for, and possibly once believed in.  Hence, the old nostalgia characteristic of the Western is still present, but the prospect for hope in the future has been extinguished.

Snake Plissken is easily recognized by every character he happens to run into on his rescue mission in New York, often being met with the bemused statement, “I heard you were dead.”  To which he once tellingly responds, “I am.”  If Plissken is meant to be the stand-in for the American public at large in the midst of a corrupt, disengaged social order, than as the remaining glow of what was once the shining light of American values, the aforementioned greeting takes on a highly pessimistic overtone.  “In a healthy society the political and cultural leaders are able to repair and renew that myth by articulating new ideas, initiating strong action in response to crisis, or merely projecting an image of heroic leadership.”[2] 

But in the dystopian society Escape from New York depicts, the political leadership is not so much portrayed as too tyrannical to project a heroic image, but too impotent to even attempt it.  The President is easily kidnapped, and his life is held at the will of the lowest sectors of society, and even with all the vast resources of the nation unable to do anything about it; this is not an image of a power that has over-asserted its might, but the measly shadow of a tamed and defanged creature.  The fate of the country and the world is at stake and the people (or person, in Plissken’s case) are too disillusioned to give a damn. 

The final conversation Plissken has with the President after rescuing him is the most revealing, as Plissken asks him, “We did get you out.  A lot of people died in the process.  How do you feel about that?”  Coming from Plissken this sort of curiosity is interesting, because it shows that behind the cynicism and lost hope there is still at least a memory of a former ideal, when such things may have seemed to matter.  Of course, the President’s response of mindless political rhetoric only works to further cement the disgust Plissken has for the public figures running the country.  A sentiment many Americans in 1981 would have easily identified with.

In contrast to similar movies like Deathwish, which explore the widespread cynicism prevalent in America in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York leaves the viewer with no foreseeable remedy for the decadent situation.  In fact, judging by the act of sabotage by Plissken against the President’s urgent message to the other superpowers of the world, the message Carpenter appears to be trying to convey is that although things are bad now, things will get worse, with no prospect of recapturing the optimism of a bygone era.  No doubt resonating fears in the audience of an imminent last man scenario, where the cherished ideals of yesterday are not just fading away, but ultimately not worth fighting for. 

[1] Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation, p. 651.

[2] Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, p.626.

Remembering the Alamo: the Power of Myth in Cinema

Jeff Arnold's West: The Alamo (United Artists, 1960)

The other day I got a chance to revisit John Wayne’s epic war film The Alamo.  As one can assume from the title, the film depicts the events surrounding the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, whose legacy served to inspire popular support for the ongoing independence movement led by the white American colonists living in what was then Mexican territory.  It would be an understatement to say that the film does not strive for historical accuracy.  Rather it focuses more on the mythical nostalgia that has developed among the white Texan population since the battle (and persists to this day); fervently espousing a message of freedom and republicanism over tyrannical oppression as a likely allegory to the Cold War struggle taking place during the film’s release in 1960.

In Gunfighter Nation, historian Richard Slotkin defines myths as “stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness” (p. 5).  Within the history of Western expansionism, the Alamo stands as a hallmark of American fortitude, where the legacy of the event has all but displaced any concern for veracity by its admirers.  This is the sentiment on which John Wayne builds his tale of The Alamo, occurring chiefly within the framework of the Western genre that his own quasi-mythical persona helped create in American culture.  The message that Wayne is adamant to reverberate throughout the film is the idea of nostalgia.  As evident by how the plot begins and mounts its climax with Sam Houston prophetically commenting on the need for future generations to remember and uphold what is being done in 1836, to keep it in their hearts as the life of Texas.

Although the film’s setting is in Texas, depicting a Texan struggle for freedom from oppression, John Wayne’s constant reminiscing about republicanism—a clear attempt to mimic his perceived Jeffersonian ideal of democracy—transforms the entire narrative into a classic tale of American virtue relatable to all red-blooded patriots.  It doesn’t take much to realize that Wayne’s Davy Crockett is not meant to be an accurate representation of his historical namesake, but an emblematic stand-in for Wayne’s personal principles (as seen by the dialogues his Crockett gives, where the lines often closely match Wayne’s 1977 patriotic oration America: Why I Love Her).

This is best seen in the first exchange between Colonel William Travis and Davy Crockett, where Crockett proclaims, “Republic, I like the sound of that word.  It means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.  Some words give you a feeling.  Republic is one of those words that make me tight in the throat.”  Of course, the irony that Texas is being freed by slaveholding Americans is absent from Wayne’s proclamation.  Instead, he focuses on the myth that Americans (in particular white Southerners) heralded the true spirit of the Texan cause: freedom.  This is vital in establishing the message that we are viewing a battle between right and wrong, and since an independent Texas is presented as the land of opportunity, hope, and future, all who stand against it can only be on the side of despair and tyranny.  The essential myth Wayne accomplishes here is the substitution of frontier Texas into contemporary America’s struggle against the evils of the world.

THE ALAMO 1960 film - YouTube

The film itself acknowledges its affirmation of myth over fact in a telling scene in which Crockett reads out a forged letter he had written under Santa Anna’s name, urging the American men to leave Texas at once.  The pompous tone of the letter causes Crockett’s men to see it as a clear attempt of intimidation, and as men they are obligated to respond harshly to such antics.  Crockett does immediately admit that he in fact wrote the letter, but justified it on the basis that its contents were in line with what Santa Anna might have written.  Nevertheless, the men are so agitated at the possibility of Santa Anna addressing them so self-righteously that they readily take up the Texan cause for freedom and independence as their own.  Never mind that the letter was a fake, created and existing solely in Crockett’s imagination.  Moreover, no man present bothers to question how Crockett, a native of Tennessee, whose knowledge of Santa Anna stems solely from hearsay, could possibly know what sort of message Santa Anna would give to these Americans.  And no one cares, because the reasoning behind established myth “is metaphorical and suggestive rather than logical and analytical” (Slotkin, p. 6).

The Alamo is a film that needs to be analyzed through the time it was made in order to fully grasp its underlying theme.  In 1960, the United States was engaged deep within the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, a conflict which to most Americans stood as the absolute battle between liberty and tyranny.  Of course, in 1960, America had little idea of how the conflict would eventually unfold in the next three decades, thus it became a dire priority to raise American consciousness against the forces of oppression on the other side of the world.  John Wayne, being a staunch anti-Communist, anti-Leftist patriot, creates a historical narrative that serves as a helpful analogy for the American people to grasp how the fight against tyrants is an American virtue that reaches deep into the country’s roots.

For Wayne, promoting such a message could also have been an attempt to atone for his failure to serve in World War II, an inconvenient truth for a man who built his career on portraying brave patriots who answered the call of duty for their country.  In reality, the fact still remains that John Wayne could only live up to his image in make-believe movies, never in real life, which perhaps fostered much of his simplistic dialogue promoting war against perceived tyranny.  The opening scene of The Alamo starts with a harsh condemnation of Santa Anna as a malicious dictator, determined to “crush all who oppose his tyrannical rule.”  Just as the Cold War narrative between the Unites States and Soviet Union was simple, so is the narrative between Santa Anna’s Mexico and the American-Texan forces in 1836–it is simply a fight between right and wrong.

Little background information is given about any of the major characters involved in the fight for Texan independence.  Nor is there much said about why a large population of white Americans are living in Mexico to begin with, or how they are specifically being oppressed by their adopted country.  Crockett and his men are the only white settlers shown actually immigrating to Texas, and the only background on Crockett is that he was in Congress before becoming a raccoon-hat wearing adventurer on the frontier.  Although his time in Congress is portrayed more as a mundane series in his life, rather than having been a worthwhile endeavor on his part (Crockett’s negativity towards policymakers is likely a reflection of Wayne’s own frustration with contemporary politicians who are not doing enough to combat the menace of the Soviet Union).

It also does not take much to see that Santa Anna is meant to be a representation of the archetypal Soviet dictator—though perhaps not so much on par with a Stalinist megalomaniac, as a boorish Khrushchev autocrat.  As a result, John Wayne is attempting to blend the urgent threat of the present with a treacherous (yet, ultimately defeated) enemy of the past; hence, Crockett’s nostalgic musing about the state of his mind right before a noble, though hopeless, battle as “Not thinking; just remembering.” Yes, a battle may be lost, but the final outcome has always been victorious for those who choose the right path; the war will still be won in the end.

John Wayne’s The Alamo heavily orientates around the notion of cultural nostalgia, and how this looking towards the past serves to foster a positive consciousness towards the future.  Wayne does not care to provide a reliable history lesson to his viewers, however.  Instead he provides a needed myth that retells a known story the way he believes it ought to have happened, and ought to be seen.  In that sense, he is foreshadowing the lines that will be uttered in one of his better cinematic works, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir.  When the Legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  The Alamo is the legend, not just to Texas but all freedom loving Republics (i.e. America as a whole), and for John Wayne, if it is to be remembered at all, it better be done the right way–his way.

Civil Disobedience and Populism: An American History

A Tale of Two "Deflationary" Booms – The Gilded Age vs. Today - by Brendan  Brown

The Gilded Age was an age of industrialization, built on the backs of the working masses.  It was a time when a handful of eager individuals rose to prominence through a cutthroat agenda of business management based on the ideals of Social Darwinism, and the inherit superiority it bestowed on them.  This supposition of natural law entitling the wealthy with evolutionary rights established the framework for a system of unprecedented exploitation that sparked a downward spiral in labor-management relations.

Though the concept wasn’t new, the start of its practice in American business can be traced to the mid-19th Century with the closing of the Civil War.  After the Union won the conflict, a number of former war profiteers sought to invest the fortunes they had accumulated during the struggle into promising up-and-coming industries, which subsequently lead to the creation of virtual industrial empires for the tycoons who worked hard to monopolize their domains.  While there are several factors that can be attributed to the vast expansion of industrial giants, at its core it was the railroads that pushed the country towards urbanization, and began sealing the fate of the agrarian existence.  Steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie made his money building bridges for the railroads; J.D. Rockefeller used Railroad Rebates to commandeer railroad support and expand his Oil Empire on a national scale; hence, it was not surprising when banker J.P. Morgan had his sights set on centralizing the railroad system under his personal control.

Looking at all this it becomes quite clear that the railroads are a pivotal component in the Industrial Revolution.  But the change did not only affect the commerce faction of American society.  As the railroad extended its tracks further west, new cities began to be founded (setting off a trend of mass urbanization), giving rise to more metropolitan jobs, which in return contributed to the production of more industrial goods.  The government itself aided in this process by giving hundreds of thousands of acres away in the form of Railroads Land Grants but otherwise refusing to implement much needed regulations on the railroads.  Thus, with not supervision, employers could administer over their corporations and workforce as ruthlessly as they pleased.  With urbanization moving steadfast over the once abundant farmland, many rural workers naturally migrated to the big cities in hope of employment, leaving the agricultural life and entering the callous existence of industrial laborers.

It would be an understatement to claim that conditions for the common workers of the Gilded Age were unfair.  From long hours, low wages, and unsanitary conditions for the city laborers, to shamelessly unethical double standards towards farmers in the fields, the efficiency of the Gilded Age was truly built on the plight of the “have-nots” of the era.  With the government maintaining its laissez-faire policy, industrial workers responded to the injustice by unionization.  Though union groups, such as the American Federation of Labor, showed great determination in their cause through several organized strikes (i.e. the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the Pullman Strike of 1894), employer persistence (and in some cases government involvement) prevented any true success to occur through union efforts.

The farmers, on the other hand, took a different route to settle their problems.  Farm Alliances began to spring up throughout the south, in an effort to combat their exploitation by the capital elites of the nation.  They felt the economic and financial system of the country was in need of much reform.  The banks often swindled the farmers on money loans, thus preventing them from marketing their crops cooperatively.  Railroads weren’t of much help either, as the made it a policy to overprice the short haul used by the farmer, while lowering costs for the long haul used by industrialists.  Not to mention the turmoil caused by the high rates charged by the Warehouses.  As appealing to the government was pointless, these Alliances responded by setting up their own banks to grant loans to farmers, and also worked to provide alternative sources of grain.  Unfortunately, little could be done regarding the railroads.  But even with all this apparent success, the Farm Alliances were unable to form a single national organization to radically transform the corrupt system.  Despite the call for nonpartisanship, Northern farmers voted predominately Republican, and Southern farmers continued to support the Democrats.  This petty strife confirmed that change was also needed on the political settings.

Much like today, the most important issue for politicians of the Gilded Age was to get elected.  Thus, as said before, for the men seated in government positions reforming the corruptions of society was not noteworthy.  With laissez-faire being implemented wholeheartedly as the rule of the land, the government saw no need to interfere on behave of the exploited worker.  Yet, when it came to helping business, exceptions could be made.  An example being the land tax imposed on farmers, while multi-millionaire tycoons were taxed for absolutely nothing.  The policymakers were also not shy to send out troops to aide employers against disorderly workers.  Clearly, favoritism was played by the wealthy caste of politics on behave of their rich contemporaries.  Several groups saw through this and demanded change.  Alas, their cries fell on deaf ears, as all the government did was issue out token reforms that sounded radical but were never seriously implemented.  Many of the have-nots began to realize that if change were to come it would have to be from their own ranks.

With discontent brewing on all sides of the workforce, and the reluctance of both parties to make concessions to their demands, the farmer Alliances set to organize a nationwide campaign to economically and politically reform American society.  Thus, the Populist Party was born.  Strung together from the underdogs of the system (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen), the Populists ran on an unprecedented platform to alleviate the plight of the working masses.  Demanding regulations on railroads, flexible currency, a national income tax, and a subtreasury plan, but more than anything else, they demanded that the government take a stand for the people, and actually govern.  As their battle for the have-nots appeared to gain momentum at first, the Populist Party still failed to garner significant results in the election of 1892.  Even so, the Populists continued working on the sentiment that the other parties were not answering the need of the people.  As the 1896 election approached, the Populists went into battle headfirst, nominating William Jennings Bryan to take on Republican William McKinley.  Having also secured the nomination from the Democrats, Bryan campaigned fervently, preaching a gospel of change, but in the end it proved futile as McKinley won the presidency.  The Populists quickly disappeared from the national scene.

Although they lost the election, populism itself did not fully go away.  More accurately it became absorbed into the other political parties (mostly Democrats, at first, but Republicans utilized it, too, in the latter half of the last century), and eventually the issues compromising their platform developed into the major reforms of the 20th Century, which framed the system being debated over today.