John Carpenter is undoubtedly one of the most influential directors of all time who is not afraid to speak out for or against something he feels extremely passionate about. Be it the dark, parasitic side of human nature (The Thing), racial stereotype and extreme Americanism (Big Trouble In Little China) intimate suburban nightmares (Halloween) and the danger of unchecked capitalism (They Live), the director has always found a fantastic way to not only make his voice heard but in an accessible way. Not only does Carpenter build these worlds, he populates them with relatable if not likable characters as the audience’s human anchor because at heart, Carpenter is a humanist and understands that in order to tell any human-centric story, one must have humans within.
In the case of Escape From New York (and by extension, Escape From L.A despite it’s satirical leanings), S.D. Bob ‘Snake’ Plissken is an individual who is not by design supposed to be immediately liked as a person, but nevertheless is presented as the character who the audience is to invest in, thanks in no small part to Kurt Russell’s monumental performance. It may be easy to scoff at now, but prior to working with maverick Carpenter, most of Russell’s career had mainly been family-orientated fare, so when the man was cast as one of the finest anti-heroes committed to film, it must have come as a shock to some people to see the bright-eyed, handsome actor take on a dark and antithetical role with ease.
So, what exactly do I love about Snake? Well, I firmly believe it is due to the reasons you may have, but since I still have your attention this far, I will indulge.
When in pursuit of the President McGuffin (Donald Pleasence) of the United States in order to ensure a peace summit goes ahead between the US, China and the Soviet Union, Snake witnesses a nameless woman being assaulted in a squalid apartment building by two men. Although the act is not shown as particularly explicit, Snake’s reaction, or rather, lack thereof to the situation cements to the audience that he is not a hero. Rather than leap into action and take the thugs head on to defend the unknown damsel’s honor, he simply watches for a few moments before continuing on his way because nothing of what he is seeing is remarkable or worthwhile to intervene in.
This sort of behavior isn’t exactly what you would regard as particularly heroic, is it?
However it was never supposed to be as Carpenter had already set up the character’s reputation prior to this incident. Snake is a criminal, somebody who obviously doesn’t have much regard for law, having been responsible for countless robberies, civil disruption and loss of life. Notorious and notable, his capture was an accident rather than any intention Snake had in order to attain an advantage. The catch, of course, as it is revealed, that Snake at one point was a soldier who fought for the interest of the US, a decorated war veteran who made the oath to lay down his life in the interest of his country and millions of men, women and children he had not and would never meet. At some point, he was a tool to be used by a faceless machine for that machine to be feared on an international basis. As time went on, Snake managed to wake up from this conditioning he had become a part of and broke from it in a justly violent, almost eye-for-an-eye (no pun intended) fashion.
Snake The Anarchist
Snake Plissken, if I had to apply one socially-based label to him, is an individualistic anarchist. Now, I implore you not to believe I advocate for anarchy; despite how attractive it may be on the surface, I do not think it is a beneficial practice. As with any ideas about how to form, govern and live within a proposed social system, as soon as you introduce the human element, things become a great deal more complicated, one of these issues being fundamentalism, hence the notion as ‘too much of a good thing’. According to American anarchist historian Eunice Minette Schuster, American individualist anarchism “stresses the isolation of the individual – his right to his own tools, his mind, his body, and to the products of his labor.” Snake embodies this variety of anarchy one hundred percent. Everything he does, he does in his own interests because he recognises his own agency above anybody else’s. He is a loner, somebody who by personal virtue does not approach any situation without first thinking about his primary interests, a mercenary who places his priorities before everybody else’s. It is because of this hardened, take no moral prisoner attitude which makes him perfect for the task he is forced into by Bob Hauk, and by extension, the US government. Effectively, they send an individualistic anarchist into an insurrectional anarchistic society, epitomized by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) because they deem him not only a tool to be exploited once again, but also he is comparatively the less of two evils, one of which they control by placing direct jeopardy on his life in the form of the explosive microchip they insert into his body. Because of this, Snake is being forced to play by the rules of the authority he actively despises.
(Just as a note, insurrectional anarchism is broadly classed as the anarchist movement which emphasizes the theme of insurrection within anarchist practice as well as typical anarchist activity, opposing formal organizations such as labor unions and federations. By rule of thumb, insurrectionary anarchism supports informal organization and small affinity group based organisation. Insurrectionary anarchists place value in attack, permanent class conflict and a refusal to negotiate or compromise with class enemies, generally if you have the might, you are exclusively entitled to the right. Although there are several other classes of anarchy one can easily apply to the Duke of New York and his empire, I chose one just to keep things brief.)
After his dispatch in New York, Snake is briefly left aimless after finding the President’s escape pod from Air Force One empty without hide or hair of his whereabouts. As he sits down on a not particularly stable deck chair, he contemplates what moves to make because he knows he needs to come up with something because he’s on a time limit. It is only the appearance of the affable taxi driver, Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine, coming off as a total cinnamon roll) that presents Snake with a second opportunity and from there, he meets an old ‘friend’, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who had previous betrayed Plissken, and Brain’s squeeze Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau). From that point on, Snake is once again not offered too much of an option other than to work alongside other people despite his notions they are all liabilities. However, over the course of the story, he begins to warm up a little to his allies which brings us to…
The Reluctant Humanitarian
While Snake has no emotional breakdown throughout the narrative, toward the conclusion, Cabbie, Brain and Maggie sacrifice themselves in favor of Snake and by extension, the President during the scene on the Queensboro Bridge involving lots of gunfire, angry New Yorkers and landmines. After having built up a modicum of trust with each of his travel companions, their selfless actions make a surprising impression on him. Upon completing his mission and escaping the prison after a tense pursuit from the Duke, and thus escaping death by microchip explosion by a hair, Snake approaches the President personally and requests a simple favor. Snake asks the President to give thanks to his deceased rescuers due to the fact they willingly gave their lives to ensure his survival. The President appears to agree to terms only to go back on his word and doesn’t even offer a shred of recompense.
In response to the President’s boorish arrogance, Snake sabotages the President’s address in a defiant yet also surprisingly affectionate way; after having pocketed a cassette (ask your parents) recording by the President to be used during the summit, the ersatz replacement Snake gives to the unknowing President features a track of one of Cabbie’s most beloved music pieces. As ruthless as Snake can be, that does not mean he possesses no emotion or gratitude towards those who endear themselves to him through action rather than mere words, in fact, he is willing to find it in himself to champion them. After all, given he once fought in war, he understands the value of skill, trust and living up to expectation in dire straits, even if it is coerced.
While relations at best remain tenuous between three global superpowers, at least justice for the little person is served, however minimal in contrast.
Snake The Snake
While Snake is willing to use treachery in the interest of self-preservation as per the figurative use of the term ‘snake’ , I do think the serpentine moniker applies itself to the man more than a moral descriptor. Although various cultures and religions from aspects of life in Ancient Egypt to comparatively modern Christianity, the characterization of the serpent as a harbinger if not a direct perpetrator of evil has also been applied to positive aspects, namely that of protection, adaptability and healing.
In ancient Mesopotamia, Nirah, the messenger god of Ištaran, was represented as a serpent who appeared prominently on stones which behaved as markers of boundaries throughout the Mesopotamian world which undoubtedly owed to the fact such lands were sanctified under the watchful eyes of the gods.
Meanwhile, the horned viper was favored in Kassite and Neo-Assyrian culture and explicitly mentioned in Assyrian texts as a magical protective entity one may conjure if done correctly. A dragon-like creature with horns, the body and neck of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind-legs of a bird appears in Mesopotamian art from the Akkadian Period until the Hellenistic Period. Known in Akkadian as the mušḫuššu, meaning ‘furious serpent, was utilized as a symbol for particular deities and also as a general emblem of protection and security against harm.
Modern India to this day is often regarded as the land of snakes and is steeped in tradition regarding them, especially when it comes to religion. The cobra is highly favored in India and is typically seen around the neck of the prime deities of Shiva and Vishnu, both of which have also been depicted sleeping quite contentedly on a seven-headed snake or within the coils of a gigantic serpent. There are also several temples in India solely preserved for the breeding and dwelling of cobras as they represent fertility for men and women.
In medicine, the image of the serpent is prevalent in Wiccan and neo-Pagan circles crediting the image of the snake with wisdom and knowledge. In Ancient Greece. the champion and god of medicine Asclepius bears two snakes twined around his staff (you may have seen the symbol on ambulances). Meanwhile in Judaism, Nehushtan, also known as the Snake of Brass functions as a symbol of healing, namely being saved from imminent death including snake bites! In the expanding realm of modern health, various types of snake venoms are being used for research as potential treatments, hemostatics and preventatives for pain, cancers, arthritis, stroke, heart disease, hemophilia, and hypertension to name but a few maladies.
Despite his incredibly dangerous, mercurial nature and short span tolerance for bullshit, there is no denying Snake Plissken is a formidable protector who is not afraid to bear his fangs when threatened, be precise in his strikes and unafraid to adapt to any situation he may find himself in (a shedding of skin, you could say). Hell, even his bicep-baring leather singlet is made from smooth, shimmering leather as well as Russell’s raspy tones inspired by Clint Eastwood down to the pronunciation of his own name subconsciously reminds the viewer of the character’s namesake no small degree.
Snake Is Us
We all like to believe that we can stand up for ourselves deep down, despite our milder natures. Being perceived as capable, intelligent and desirable are all traits humans find desirable in each other and in themselves. Depending on how you were raised, where you live and what values you keep close to your chest, there is the hopeful fantasy that if pushed by an opposing force, we can push back in such a way that opposing force will never vex us again. This is not always the case due to countless reasons, not the least of which being the perpetuation of social norms, but because of these norms, I feel we all have the capacity to be like Snake by modifying our behaviours in order to deal with our issues within these constraints. While Snake is prepared to be improvisational and violent, it’s only because the situation offers no other alternative, but ordinarily when faced with adversity, it speaks to the strength of Snake’s character that he is willing to plan first before jumping. Although most of his schemes have a tendency to go pear-shaped at the best of times, Snake practices prudence because he knows if he does not, he will die.
In our case, while are is incalculable stacks of evidence which point to the human willingness to use violence if tooth comes to nail, more often than not, we try to find other avenues of overcoming the obstacles which stand in our path. Additionally, and this does come from a combination of exposure and experience, the wiser we become, the easier we find it to defend ourselves in the face of adversity by forming our own opinions and sticking firmly to our convictions, although whether or not they are actually correct is a different story. Nevertheless, Snake also personifies resilience in the face of impossible and ridiculous odds and for every mishap he is met with, he manages to bounce back, stronger in his resolve by expressing intellect rather than solely primal survival measures.
So, there ya have it. This is why Snake Plissken is one of those characters I simply adore.
What do you love about him? Leave your reasons below!