escape.jpg (11948 bytes)Growing up in apartheid South Africa like I did, it was easy for one to spot the inherent danger and sheer subversiveness in John Carpenter’s films.

A character such as Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell in Escape from New York) disrespected and distrusted authority figures. His “looking out for number one” morality was clearly in violation of what was expected of a White teenager growing up in White South Africa in the early 1980s. (In one infamous scene Snake witnesses a rape in progress - unlike most movie heroes he doesn’t intervene.)

The struggle against apartheid was at its height and White men (or rather boys) were expected to do two years’ military service after finishing high school. Naturally this wasn’t expected of Blacks – having a lot of armed Blacks with military training running around wasn’t exactly what the powers that be had in mind . . .

Back then, military service meant either “riot control” in the Black townships or involvement in propping up the minority White regime in South West Africa (Namibia today) by invading neighboring Angola. By that stage Angola has been in a state of full scale civil war for more than a decade. It would continue for more than decade.

Ah, the Cold War in full swing as Russians/Cubans backed the Marxist Angolan government while South Africa/the CIA backed the “rebels”. (Of course, the “rebels” served as vehicle for one man’s political ambitious. When the rebel movement’s leader was finally killed a few years back, peace finally came to this devastated country – after three decades’ of almost uninterrupted war!)

Back then you didn’t have to be an adolescent teenage anarchist to notice the appealing antiauthoritarian tendencies in Carpenter’s films. It was an incredibly conformist time. Throughout one’s entire high school career White males were forced to undergo so-called “cadets” – or rather a form of military training in which one were made to wear quasi-military khaki uniforms, exercise military marching, sharp shooter training and undergo “anti-communist” (anyone opposed to apartheid were communists) indoctrination.

Sci-fi movies offered an escape from this bleak oppressive environment. John Carpenter movies offered escapism and subversion.

Exaggeration? Explicit social commentary in They Live aside and despite the anti-hero stance of some of his heroes, note how Carpenter breaks several modern movie conventions and rules. There are, amongst others, a hero dying by the end of the movie (Village of the Damned), shockingly a child being killed for sport (Assault on Precinct 13), violence against a pet dog (The Thing), and a hero who consciously plunges the entire world into anarchy out of spite (Escape from L.A.) . . .

Although Carpenter says that They Live isn’t Marxist, it definitely comes close. It is probably the only anti-capitalist action movie starring a WWF wrestler as its hero. (It’s probably the only movie with a ten minutes long fist fight too.) Its most famous line is most often wrongly attributed to the Duke Nukem 3-D game. (“I’m here to chew gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of gum . . .”)

Packing a visceral thrill, these films also offered a hint of rebellion in a time in which conformity was valued above all else. Reading in Gilles Boulenger’s book about his childhood in a very racist and conformist small-town one knows exactly where is Carpenter is coming from . . .


Next: Exclusive excerpts from John Carpenter - Prince of Darkness

John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness
by Gilles Boulenger
$19.95 paper  
296 pages, 6x9, B&W photos, plus 24-page color section
ISBN: 1-879505-67-3

Silman-James Press
(distributed by SCB Distributors)
Pub. date August 2003




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