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.