Growing up in apartheid South Africa like I did, it was easy for
one to spot the inherent danger and sheer subversiveness in John
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
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
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 . . .
excerpts from John Carpenter - Prince of Darkness
The Prince of Darkness
by Gilles Boulenger
296 pages, 6x9, B&W photos, plus 24-page color section
(distributed by SCB Distributors)
Pub. date August 2003