Western Month – The Non-Western Westerns of John Carpenter

Hot take incoming: John Carpenter directs horror movies. I mean, not exclusively so, but that is what the legendary filmmaker is best known for. Halloween, The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness… Even his Twitter handle is @TheHorrorMaster. But according to Carpenter himself, horror isn’t the genre that drew him to filmmaking. No, that would be the Western. Carpenter has a particular affection for Howard Hawks, and Hawks’ Rio Bravo is a continual point of reference for him. So it’s strange that, during the course of over four decades of feature filmmaking, Carpenter has never made a Western.

Well, not a “pure” Western anyway. Carpenter has never made a movie featuring cowboys. He’s never set a film any earlier than the year 1966 (The Ward), much less in the Old West. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s filmography, whether the individual film be horror or action or science fiction, is positively drenched in Western influence. Let’s take a look, starting from near the beginning.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

This film was Carpenter’s first film to be conceived as a feature,1 and perhaps because of that, Carpenter’s desire to make Westerns is more overt than usual. Based on Carpenter’s original screenplay The Anderson Alamo, the film draws heavily on Night of the Living Dead and—drumroll please—Rio Bravo.

Set in Anderson, a crime-ridden ghetto of then-contemporary Los Angeles, Assault centers around a police precinct house that comes under attack by a coalition of local gangs. They’ve come for a man who has taken shelter there, having killed a gang leader in retribution for the (shockingly brutal) murder of his young daughter. The skeleton crew of the soon-to-be-shuttered precinct, along with a handful of prisoners, hunker down for the siege.

Beyond the siege premise, which gives the film a Western vibe on its own, the Western influence is really felt with the trio of central characters. First we have Austin Stoker as Lt. Ethan Bishop, the stoic and idealistic lawman, given the unenviable job of protecting the isolated precinct. Then we have Laurie Zimmer as Leigh, the station secretary. Her character comes across as an urban version of a tough-as-nails frontier woman, sometimes with a hint of film noir. An odd combination perhaps, but understandable given the influence Howard Hawks has had on Carpenter’s work.

Then we have Darwin Joston as the mysterious and apparently murderous convict, Napoleon Wilson. The outlaw anti-hero is a staple of the Western genre, and Joston plays the role with just the right amount of drawl and swagger, where he’s recognizable as that Western archetype without seeming entirely anachronistic. What’s more, Napoleon Wilson is the first example of what would eventually be called “the Carpenter anti-hero,” funny name and all.

Which brings us to our next film.

Escape From New York (1981)

After his 1978 surprise smash hit Halloween put both him and the American slasher genre on the map, Carpenter turned to television for an Elvis bio-pic with Kurt Russell in the title role. This was the first of many collaborations between the two men. After a return to big-screen horror with 1980’s The Fog, Carpenter turned to a new genre—science-fiction action— and brought his new friend Russell along with him.

Set in the far future year of 1997, Escape From New York shows a Manhattan that has been converted by the authoritarian government into an island prison—utterly lawless within its walls and populated by warring gangs and all around insanity. When terrorists crash Air Force One into Manhattan, a rescue mission must be mounted for the oddly British-sounding President (Donald Pleasance, working with Carpenter for a second time after Halloween).

Commissioner Bob Hauk (spaghetti Western legend Lee Van Cleef) enlists newly-caught legendary outlaw Snake Plisskin (Russell) to find POTUS, with the promise of a presidential pardon. And the promise of death, courtesy of explosive implants that will kill Plisskin if he doesn’t succeed at his mission.

On paper, this movie doesn’t sound much like a Western, but the character of Snake Plisskin, nearly the definition of the Carpenter anti-hero, makes it so. Clearly pulling more from the films of Sergio Leone than those of Howard Hawks, Snake is a ruthless and taciturn criminal, tattooed and eyepatched. His perhaps inevitable “heart of gold” turn ends up motivated more by spite and general defiance than any kind of do-good intentions.

Snake is the Man With No Name analogue, motivated by self-interest to amble through a savage and violent landscape in search of loot. That the loot is the President and that he arrives there by crash-landing a high-tech glider on top of the World Trade Center doesn’t change that.

The Thing (1982)

Imagine a movie. It stars a bearded Kurt Russell along with an ensemble of mismatched characters, all trapped in a snowy and isolated situation, with at least someone not being who they seem. As paranoia kicks in and people start turning against each other, the film builds up to a spectacularly bloody climax. Also, the score is by Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

I am, of course, talking about Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 Western, The Hateful Eight.

Meanwhile, we have John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remarkably similar film from decades earlier that features a shape-shifting alien infesting an Antarctic base, rather than an 19th century American inn. Yes, Carpenter’s film is a body and cosmic horror film at its core, but Tarantino knows his movies. I have no doubt The Thing was an influence on The Hateful Eight, especially as the latter actually uses unused Morricone tracks from the former!

In The Thing, we have yet another Carpenter anti-hero in R.J. MacReady (Russell), although perhaps one less flamboyant than previous incarnations. Mac is a weary and bitter loner, the one inhabitant of an American Army outpost who sleeps in a separate building from his compatriots. He’s an alcoholic and, I suspect, a Vietnam vet, a parallel to the Civil War veteran status of many Western characters.

In the end, The Thing ends up just as much a siege film as Assault on Precinct 13, albeit inverted. The characters are hemmed in not by the malevolent threat but by the hostile, antarctic environment (“First goddamn week of winter…”), while the earthling-imitating alien itself is internal. Because of said threat, the gruff, ruthless and impulsive MacCready finds himself thrust into a leadership role. However, his final act against the titular Thing, much like Snake Plisskin before him, is motivated as much by simple defiance as it is by a desire to save a world that drove him out into the middle of nowhere. “Yeah, fuck you, too!” he yells. Like many characters in our Western myths, MacCready ventured out into the frontier in search of freedom, except he found something else entirely.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

You wouldn’t expect a movie with the word “China” in the title to have anything to do with the Western genre, but, well, here we are. Stick with me. First of all, let’s consider the origins of this movie. The original screenplay was set in the 1880s, with the character of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell again!) being a cowboy rather than a trucker, and riding a horse into the San Francisco of that period. Yes! Big Trouble in Little China was originally intended to be a “Weird Western” rather than a straight up American take on Chinese martial arts films. The studio balked at that concept for creative and budgetary reasons and ended up hiring The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai director W. D. Richter to rework the script and bring it into a modern 1980s setting.

Despite those extensive rewrites, the film’s Western origins are still detectable. In certain ways, Big Trouble in Little China plays like a subversion of Escape From New York. We have Kurt Russell yet again playing an anti-hero, enlisting in a rescue mission in a bizarre landscape (this time underneath San Francisco’s Chinatown) for selfish reasons. However, Jack Burton thinks he’s more of a Carpenter anti-hero than he actually is. He’s a doofus who plays second-fiddle to his actually competent co-stars for most of the film, even as he displays a John Wayne-style swagger and self-confidence all throughout. He spends half of the film’s big action climax unconscious on the ground after accidentally knocking himself out.

Beyond that subversion of the Western hero, there’s another element that attracted Carpenter to the project: the rapid fire banter between the characters, which reminded him of  films like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Both of those are Howard Hawks films, even if they’re not Westerns. His influences run deep.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

After the tragic box office flop of Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter returned to lower budgets and the horror genre. To be honest, there’s not much of the Western genre to be found in his second film in his unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy.2 It’s cosmic horror through and through, but it is a return to one of his favorite things: the siege scenario. In this case, the heroes are holed up in a church that hides an inter-dimensional and/or supernatural secret, and they are surrounded by a horde of mentally ill homeless people (led by Alice Cooper!) who have come under the influence of a satanic entity. That siege scenario is not on its own enough to merit a direct tie to the Western genre. If nothing else, it owes a debt to George Romero’s Dead films. However, I think Carpenter’s continued interest in sieges in general does speak to those early influences.

Also, the ensemble cast of physicists does have a Hawks vibe at times, being reminiscent of The Thing From Another World in particular.

Escape From LA (1996)

I’m one of its rare fans, but there’s not much to say about this film that I haven’t already said about Escape From New York. It’s essentially the same narrative as the original but with the details and the tone changed. This time, Snake is forced to rescue the First Daughter (and recover a doomsday device) after she’s been seduced by a political revolutionary and has rushed to be with him on the post-earthquake island of Los Angeles. Apparently authoritarian, puritan America needs two different lawless island prisons. The Western influence on the character of Snake is still very much there, but the film as a whole plays as broad satire. It’s Carpenter’s hate letter to Hollywood. However, it does have this, which is one of the funniest and most overtly Western-influenced moments in Carpenter’s filmography.

Vampires (1998)

Holy crap! Did John Carpenter finally make a Western? Maybe? Eh, sorta. This is a “Weird Western” like Big Trouble in Little China was supposed to be, but modern day and swapping out Chinese mythology and martial arts for werewolves. Wait, vampires. Right. The title. I’ll be honest, as a gigantic John Carpenter fan I was heartbroken when I saw Vampires upon its release. It was the first Carpenter film I saw in theaters and it is godawful. It’s the goriest film Carpenter had made since The Thing (He’s not a particularly gory director, despite his horror reputation.) so the practical effects work was neat, but that’s about all I can say in its favor. It features James Woods, someone who I used to think was really good at playing slime balls but ended up actually just being a slime ball himself, playing the worst of the Carpenter anti-heroes. His Jack Crow is an unlikable dick bag in a way that the inherently charismatic Kurt Russell never was, and the film as a whole is nasty in a way that doesn’t work.

Screw this movie, Western or no.

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

Yet another heartbreaker here. Ghosts of Mars is not a good movie, but it’s also a throwback to some of Carpenter’s earlier work. In a lot of ways it’s another take on Assault on Precinct 13, so it’s a pretty decent way to wrap up a list of Carpenter’s non-Western Westerns. Instead of 70s Los Angeles it’s 22nd Century Mars, and instead of gangs it’s the ghosts of ancient Martians possessing the bodies of human colonists. In an interesting twist, the future human civilization is matriarchal, but it does little with that conceit. All the elements are there for classic Carpenter, but it’s kneecapped by a non-linear narrative told in flashbacks that totally drains the film of any momentum or excitement. We yet again have an outlaw anti-hero in the form of Ice Cube’s Desolation Williams, a role Carpenter originally wanted Jason Statham for. A year before The Transporter, apparently the studio didn’t feel Statham was a big enough star to play the lead, although he is there in a supporting role.

It’s a film that is hampered on its own terms by its (by Carpenter’s traditional narrative standards) experimental structure, but more than that it feels like John Carpenter’s greatest hits. Siege? Check. Action? Check. Horror? Check. Science fiction? Check.  Anti-hero? Check. Clear Western influence? Double check. But it’s inert and fundamentally dull in a way that Carpenter’s greatest work never is. Genre tropes, Western or no, are a hell of a lot of fun to play around with, but this film might be a cautionary tale. That kind of riffing can lead to ruts.

John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker and is undoubtedly a master of genre cinema. The fact that a genre that is such a clear influence on him never lead to a straight ahead Western, while it’s been woven throughout the rest of his filmography, is fascinating to me. Is it due to him being a pigeon-holed as a Master of Horror? It’s hard for me to say that, given that there’s as much science fiction, action and comedy in his work as horror. Hell, he made a wonderful (science fiction) love story in the form of Starman. Perhaps it’s simply never worked out.

But even more interesting to me is the idea of genres existing and even thriving outside of the specific, tangible elements that we usually associate with them. As an example, and this is a controversial position, I’m of the opinion that the “zombie” genre is not defined simply by the external threat being reanimated corpses. How a “zombie” is created, whether it be through reanimation or infection with an insanity-inducing virus, matters less than what effects the zombies have and how the human characters respond to them.

And to a lesser extent I would say the same about the Western. There are frontiers and heroes and anti-heroes to find everywhere. While I would hesitate to call The Thing a Western in any literal sense, it’s interesting to see how infused it is with elements that go beyond cowboy hats and saloons and sheriff’s badges. Though MacCready does have a pretty cool hat.

  1. His previous directorial effort, Dark Star (1974), was a 45 minute student film that was later inflated via reshoots in order to hit a feature runtime.
  2. The first installment being The Thing and the final being 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness.