Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Escape From New York (1981)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Escape From New York (1981)

In director John Carpenter's R-rated, dark, sci-fi fantasy-drama, with elements of crime and action-adventure, the year was 1997, at the end of a disastrous WWIII (against China and the Soviet Union) that was still causing long-term health effects due to a nerve gas attack. In a dystopic and decaying New York City (actually, most of the film was shot in a run-down area of East St. Louis, MO following urban fires), the crumbling and dying city of Manhattan had been converted into a maximum-security prison.

The tagline was: "1997. New York City is a walled maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane." Carpenter's film was the American version of director George Miller's Australian dystopian action films at the time: Mad Max (1979) and its sequel Mad Max 2 (1981) (aka The Road Warrior). It also served as a version of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), with its own delineation of post-apocalyptic city-gang identities with a class-based pecking order, including the zombie-like Crazies, Turks, Gypsies, Skulls, and Indians.

Carpenter was able to finance the film due to the success of his earlier horror film Halloween (1978), and his next feature film The Fog (1980). He co-wrote the script with Nick Castle (the actor who portrayed Michael Myers or "The Shape" in the 1978 film) in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the Watergate Scandal (with its feelings of disillusionment and distrust of authoritarian power) that ended with President Nixon's resignation in 1974. On a budget of about $6-7 million, the film was a tremendous box-office summer hit, grossing $25.3 million, and afterwards it became a solid cult-classic favorite. A sequel followed - Carpenter's Escape From L.A. (1996) also starring Kurt Russell.

  • in the film's opening sequence, the narrator (voice of Jamie Lee Curtis) described how the rise in the US crime rate in 1988 was so high that Manhattan Island had been converted into a maximum-security penitentiary for the incarceration of brutal, hard-core criminals and society's misfits; a title screen was read with a voice-over (illustrated with graphics and a model of the NYC skyline): "In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once-great city of New York becomes the one maximum-security prison for the entire country. A 50-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island"
Animated Graphics Depict the Manhattan Prison and the Surrounding Areas
  • the narrator continued to describe the prison where outcast prisoners were held for life sentences: "There are no guards inside the prison: only prisoners and the worlds they have made." The rules of the Manhattan Island Maximum Security Prison on the island were succinctly stated: "The rules are simple. Once you go in, you don't come out"
  • the next sequence, set in the present year of 1997, illustrated how the large and heavily-armed police force was able to easily prevent any attempted prison escapes, from the Liberty Island Security Control base and guard tower [Note: This was the only area that was shot on location in NYC]; a reported escape attempt in the mid-harbor area ended with a helicopter gunship tracking a small raft with two paddlers on it, and blasting it with an explosive; the deaths were confirmed by Chief of Security Captain Rehme (Tom Atkins): "We have a kill in mid-harbor. South of the Battery. Two in the water dead"
  • a bus pulled up to the Liberty Island Security Control parking area (in the Statue of Liberty complex), carrying a bearded, long-haired, leather jacket-wearing, dangerous criminal named "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell) with his left eye patched; the lone new prison inmate was handcuffed with a straight metal bar; he was led to the center's entrance and taken down descending stairs, where he was then escorted down a narrow corridor by the armed guards, following an orange line drawn on the floor; the same female voice announced: "You are now entering the debarkation area. No talking. No smoking. The next scheduled departure to the prison is in two hours. You now have the option to terminate and be cremated on the premises. If you elect this option, notify the duty sergeant in your processing area"; the scowling Plissken seemed unimpressed by the guards and the entire procedure
  • after a fade-out, chief Police Force Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) arrived in an executive limousine, and was brought into the Security Control to be briefed by Captain Rehme about "a small jet in trouble, over restricted air space" (code-named David14) about 7 miles out; in an Air Traffic Control room, the two men were patched into the aircraft - and heard threats from a Rebel voice about a suicide mission: "It's too late, assholes. All your imperialist weapons and lies can't save him now. We're going down. We're going to crash" - the warning was shockingly issued from on-board "Air Force One"!; the female stewardess/hijacker (Nancy Stephens) - a rebel terrorist (a member of the "national liberation front") had taken over the controls and cockpit after killing the pilot and co-pilot

Onboard: President John Harker (Donald Pleasence)

President Inserted Into an Escape Pod In the Rear of Air Force One
  • an agent onboard the plane prepared for the besieged President John Harker (Donald Pleasence) (with a briefcase handcuffed to his right wrist) to be inserted into an indestructible escape pod in the rear of the plane, to protect him as Air Force One crashed into a skyscraper building inside Manhattan City; Hauk and Rehme watched on screens as a locator device pinpointed the red-beeping escape pod containing the surviving President that ended up at "40 degrees, 50 yards from impact"; helicopters led by Hauk were immediately launched from Liberty Island and landed at the crash site; Hauk led swarms of armed police in riot gear who located the pod, but it was empty
  • from the darkness came an unusual laugh from a "weirdo" (later identified as "Romero") who threatened that the President had been captured and taken hostage, and that no rescue attempts were to occur or the President would die: "You touch me, he dies. If you're not in the air in 30 seconds, he dies. You come back in, he dies" - and to prove that he was serious, he removed a package from his shirt with the excised middle-finger of the President (wearing his Presidential seal ring); the helicopters hurriedly returned to Liberty Island
  • Hauk met with the Secretary of State (Charles Cypress) and was connected with the VP by phone to receive permission for an immediate rescue plan; in his office, he privately conferred with the newly-convicted, one-eyed Federal Reserve Depository bank robber S.D. "Snake" Plissken; Plissken had a record as an ex-Commando lieutenant and Special Forces war hero with two Purple Hearts for fighting in Leningrad and Siberia; Hauk offered 'Snake' a full pardon and his freedom if he conducted a successful but very-dangerous 24-hour mission to rescue the absconded President inside New York's Manhattan: ("We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive")
  • Plissken paused but then agreed to the bargain, and was supplied with weapons by Rehme, including a gun, grenades, a flashlight, a Uzi (or MAC-10), and throwing stars, etc.; Rehme also described what 'Snake' would be up against - violent gangs of roving criminals in the streets and underground: "The Crazies live in the subways. Complete control of the underground. They're night raiders"; Snake was also given a tracer to track his own whereabouts on radar, and a homing device to connect with the President's vital signs bracelet in order to locate him; he also received a Master Life Clock timer gauge, now counting down from about 23 hours - not 24 as previously discussed

Snake Plissken Offered a Deal by Hauk to Rescue the President

Countdown Timer Strapped to Plissken's Left Wrist

Snake Given Neck Injections With Explosive Micro-Capsules
  • Hauk explained why the time was reduced - the President was enroute to a scheduled world summit meeting between the US, China and the Soviet Union in Hartford, CT that would conclude in 22 hours; it was essential that Plissken retrieve what the President was carrying inside a briefcase - a cassette tape recording (the film's MacGuffin) holding vital information about nuclear fusion (that might be used to produce a new energy source or as a peace offering, but also might be used to develop a thermo-nuclear weapon); Hauk stressed that the recording had to reach Hartford within 22 hours: ("It's about the survival of the human race")
  • a young medic prepared Plissken for an injection, and was first told it was a "strong antitoxin - stops bacteria and viral-proofs you for 24 hours"; however, both sides of his neck were injected with two small but powerful explosive microscopic capsules that would detonate in 22 hours if his mission wasn't successful, and sever his carotid arteries; after the injections, Hauk explained how they would act as an incentive to make sure he would fully cooperate; Plissken angrily grabbed Hauk in the neck as the medic explained that the capsules would be deactivated or disarmed (in the last 15 minutes before they exploded) if he succeeded in his mission: (Medic: "Fifteen minutes before the last hour is up we can neutralize the charge with X-rays" Hauk: "We'll burn out the charges IF you have the President"); if Plissken was "late," Hauk described his fate: "No more Hartford Summit. And no more Snake Plissken"; Plissken promised Hauk: "When I get back, I'm gonna kill you"
  • Plissken was led to a tiny stealth plane glider (known as a Gullfire) for him to pilot on his silent and covert entry into the city; Hauk reminded him: "Remember, once you're inside, you're on your own"; by the time Plissken was launched, he now had only 20 hours and 17 minutes remaining; three screens on his glider's control panel displayed wireframe animations (not CGI) of his landing target on top of the World Trade Center near surrounding buildings; Plissken made a hard-landing on the rooftop and halted his glider's trajectory with a grappling hook, and then electrified the service elevator for a ride down to the 50th floor - graffiti-decorated and strewn with garbage, before taking the stairs to ground level; he communicated with Hauk via walkie-talkie to describe his progress

Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) In the Vaudeville Theatre Audience

Snake Backstage Holding His Weapon On Cabbie

In the Basement, Snake Found a Drunken Bum Wearing the President's Tracer Wrist-Bracelet
  • after walking through dark streets and alleyways, Snake arrived at the still-burning crash site with debris, where he followed a signal generated from the President's vital data and tracer wrist-bracelet that led him into a run-down 42nd St. vaudeville theatre (with an awful drag revue chorus line and musical show on stage); there, he was followed backstage by one of the few audience members who recognized him - a friendly, yellow-taxi driver named Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine); in a dark corridor in the theatre's dingy basement, Snake found the President's stolen bracelet on the wrist of a drunken bum (George "Buck" Flower) who was being beaten up; in frustration, Snake smashed it to pieces (sending the vitals to 0), and alerted Hauk: "I'm coming out!"; Hauk refused with 18 hours still on the clock: "Plissken, if you get back in that glider, I'll shoot you down. You climb out, I'll burn you off the wall. You understand that, Plissken?"
  • as he wandered around and returned to the empty escape pod, Snake found himself amongst roving, criminally-insane and violent subterranean gang members known as Crazies, one of whom banged on manhole covers to alert others; he was soon surrounded and converged upon by a group of rags-wearing street vagrants who appeared out of nowhere or from the underworld through the streets' manhole covers; he sought refuge in a rat-infested Chock full o'Nuts, where he met a well-informed short-haired blonde Girl (Season Hubley), a Turks gang member who had been stuck there after dark; she described his pursuers as 'Crazies': ("It's the end of the month. They're out of food"); she knew of Snake's reputation, asked to join him, and was about to seductively kiss him, but was sucked through the rotting floorboards; then, the Crazies also threatened to attack him; he fled through a broken window and up a fire escape and into a vacant apartment and then back down to the street level; as he evaded pursuit, he accidentally dropped his walkie-talkie and it smashed into pieces; he was saved and rescued by Cabbie who pulled up in his 1974 Checker Taxi-cab in front of him in the street
  • the Cabbie warned Snake about the unsafe environment: "Bad neighborhood, Snake! You don't want to be walking from the Bowery to 42nd Street at night! I've been driving a cab here for 30 years and I'm telling you, you don't walk around here at night! Yes, sir! They'll kill you and strip you in ten seconds flat. Usually I'm not down around here myself, but I wanted to catch that show"; Cabbie tossed a lighted molotov-cocktail at the Crazies in an alleyway before driving off
  • Snake aimed his gun at Cabbie as he demanded information: "I'm GONNA ask you. Now where's the President?"; the Cabbie answered that everyone knew that the President was being held hostage by a ruthless warlord and crime boss known as The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), and his right-hand man Romero (Frank Doubleday); the Duke led the most powerful street gang in NY - the Gypsies: "The Duke's got him! Everyone knows the Duke's got him! You don't have to put a gun to my head. I'll tell you!...The DUKE! The Duke of New York! A-Number-1! The big man, that's who!"
  • Cabbie was pressured to drive to a towering "fortress" (in a "better neighborhood") - the former New York Public Library, now ravaged; it was the fortified residence of one of the Duke's advisors who would know the Duke's whereabouts - Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton); Brain's girlfriend (or "squeeze") and feisty bodyguard Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) answered the door and let them in and pondered Snake's reputation: "I thought you were dead"; it was a familiar refrain for the third time in the film (after the Cabbie and the Girl) that Snake was supposedly dead
  • upon meeting "Brain" in a room with an oil pump in the background, Snake realized that he knew him as Harold Hellman, one of his former associates who ran out on him during a job four years earlier in Kansas City; pressured at gunpoint and then led outside, "Brain" was forced to explain how he worked for the Duke as a skilled engineer and planner: ("Make gas for him. Figure out things for him"); "Brain" had created one of the city's sole gasoline refineries to fuel up the Duke's cars, and he was also making plans for the Duke to lead a mass escape or exodus across the "mined" 69th Street Bridge, with the hostage-President out front serving as a human shield, to acquire amnesty
  • out on the street, as Cabbie fled in his taxi, the threesome watched as Duke and an unexpected caravan of three cars arrived in front of the "fortress" - Duke's lead car was a 1977 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham with chandeliers hanging over the headlights; the gang-leader Duke exited the car from the passenger seat, wearing a black cowboy hat, jeans, boots, and sunshades; standing alongside him was 'Weirdo' - aka Romero (Frank Doubleday), who went to knock on Brain's front door; they had arrived to acquired detailed diagrams of the bridge's land mines from "Brain"
  • surreptitiously, "Snake" was able to carjack a yellow, wood-paneled station wagon from the convoy and drive off with Maggie and "Brain" - they guided him to the Duke's hideout at Grand Central Station Terminal (where the President was being held hostage) on the other side of the city; while driving down a littered Broadway (to avoid the 7th Avenue route to be taken by the Duke), they passed through a gauntlet of Skulls gang members tossing bricks and objects at their vehicle, and were forced to break through a barricade of piled-up junked cars to get free; near the Terminal, they watched as the Duke's caravan of cars returned
  • "Brain" and Maggie drove up to the front of the train station Terminal to speak to guards as a delaying tactic, while Snake proceeded on his own on top of a line of train cars to rescue the President, who was being held hostage in one of the abandoned train cars next to campfires; as Snake located the bruised and terrified President, he broke the neck of one guard and threw a metal star into a second guard's forehead, but not before he had been shot in the right leg with a crossbow arrow
  • Snake was able to release the President (with the briefcase still on his wrist), but as they exited the train to escape, Snake was jumped and overpowered by Duke's men and savagely beaten; the captured Snake suspected that he had been betrayed by Brain who told Duke: "He had a gun on me, Duke, there was nothing I could do"; the Duke had also heard of Snake's reputation: ("I've heard of you. I heard you were dead"), but then knocked him unconscious with a crowbar

Helicopters Scanning Manhattan

Injured Snake Held Prisoner by the Duke

Snake's Abdominal Cobra Tattoo

The President Serving as a Practice Target for the Duke

The Duke Firing Snake's MAC-10 Gun at the President Hanging on the Wall

"Brain" Ordered by the Duke to Retrieve His Bridge Diagram
  • surveillance helicopters scanned the Manhattan area and reported back: "Nothing strange going on down there"; there were about 12 and a half hours left on the timer clock; Hauk refused the Secretary of State's order to enter the city; in a large hangar, Snake began to regain consciousness (and revealed on his lower torso a large "Snake" tattoo of a Cobra), as the Duke used Plissken's MAC-10 gun to sadistically fire at the President serving as the target on a wall (with his briefcase chained to his wrist); the Duke ordered "Brain" to leave and retrieve his diagram of the bridge; one of the Duke's bullets penetrated the briefcase's lock; the briefcase opened and spilled its contents - a cassette tape and papers, and Romero put the audio recording (of nuclear fusion secrets) into his pocket
  • a helicopter was alerted to enter Central Park to pick up the President's sawed-off briefcase; inside the case was a note from the Duke: "Amnesty for all prisoners in New York City in exchange for President. 69th Street Bridge tomorrow, 12 Noon. No bulls--t or he's dead," but there was no audio-tape; the case also held Plissken's goggles; Hauk ordered choppers to move in, with only about 2 hours left on the timer clock

The Death of Slag in the Ring
Snake in the Arena's Fighting Ring Against His Opponent Slag (Ox Baker)
  • Snake was ordered to limp into a stadium filled with blood-thirsty spectators booing at him as he entered up into a blood-stained, rectangular fighting ring; in NYC's Madison Square Garden, he was forced to compete against a formidible, detestable, fearsome and brutish opponent named Slag (Ox Baker), fighting gladiatorial-style with weaponry consisting of nail-spiked baseball bats and trash-can lids as shields; Snake noticed Slag was wearing his life-clock; in the balcony, the Duke forecast that Snake ("their best man") would be beheaded (and displayed on the hood of his car) to lead the way down the 69th Street Bridge the following day as they sought freedom
  • meanwhile, Maggie and "Brain" deceived Romero and guards to allow them access to the President, arguing that they had to prevent the President from suicidally taking cyanide capsules; "Brain" knifed Romero to death in the abdomen, and Maggie shot and killed three other guards before the two escaped and hurriedly proceeded to the top of the World Trade Center, hoping to use Snake's glider to escape from the city with the President
  • in the second round of the blood-bath tournament death-match between Slag and Snake, Snake was able to defeat and kill his opponent with a sharp blow to the groin and to the back of his head; he jumped out of the ring and activated the tracer-device worn on the wrist of a ring-side guard - alerting Hauk that he was alive and was heading toward the World Trade Center; now with the master timer clock back on his own wrist, Snake realized only 1 hour and 35 minutes remained; at the same time, the gold-chain-wearing Duke was notified by a guy in a cowboy hat that "Brain" had taken control of the President, and he quickly left the stadium to pursue them
  • in the chaos of the moment, Snake slipped away from the arena to pursue "Brain" and Maggie and prevent their getaway with the glider; with only one hour remaining, Snake appeared on the top of the World Trade Center (after ascending 50 flights of stairs and using the elevator), where Maggie, the President, and "Brain" were in combat with a gang of three Indians; the glider was pushed off the rooftop by them as "Brain" shouted out: "Goddamned redskins! They're savages, Mr. President!"
  • the group (with Snake) was forced to return to street level where they found "Brain's" car battery was dead, and realized they were surrounded by the Duke and his gang; they were saved by Cabbie who drove up in his yellow-cab; Snake took the wheel and whisked them away toward the 69th Street Bridge; to his relief, Snake learned that Cabbie had traded his taxi-hat with Romero for the audio-tape, and he grabbed the tape from him for safe-keeping; only 23 minutes remained on the timer
  • during the intense car chase, their taxi was pursued by Duke in his chandelier-adorned Cadillac accompanied by his gang members, amidst exploding mines; "Brain" attempted to guide Snake and have him steer clear of the planted mines, but the taxi hit one of them, destroying it and killing Cabbie; the others fled on foot, "Brain" mistakenly stepped onto a mine and was also killed; Maggie refused to leave him, and stayed back to fire at the Duke's Cadillac with Snake's MAC-10 gun; her gunfire caused Duke to plow head-on into her and kill her too; the Duke survived the crash and continued his pursuit on foot; the entire chase was being monitored at the base by Rehme and Hauk, who ordered a jeep, a winch and some cable to that part of the containment wall surrounding Manhattan

Brain Dead From Mine Explosion

At Brain's Side, Maggie Fired Back at Duke in Pursuit

Crash-Victim: Maggie
  • the President and Snake continued running to the containment wall, where at Station 12, the President was placed into a harness and hoisted up on a cable; as Snake waited, the Duke began firing with his gun and killed a few guards; Snake tackled the Duke and punched him out before being rescued by the cable; the Duke revived and took aim at him, but the vengeful President protected Snake by grabbing a downed guard's submachine gun and shooting Duke dead, as he manically shouted out: "Yeah, hey, Number One! You're the Duke! You're the Duke!...You're A-Number-One"
  • after Snake was safely over the wall, he dutifully handed over the audio cassette recording - and then Hauk's medic was given permission - with only two seconds to spare - to disarm the explosive micro-capsule devices in his neck
  • while preparations were being made for a Presidential press conference set up at Liberty Island to be broadcast to the leaders at the summit meeting, Snake asked for a few moments of the President's time, while he was being shaved and makeup was applied, to ask about his feelings for all the people who had died to save him: "We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. I just wondered how you felt about it"; the President offered an insincere, half-hearted statement of regret: ("I want to thank them. This nation appreciates their sacrifice") - the cynical Snake was clearly disgusted with his cold-hearted answer and realized that the President didn't deserve to be rescued
  • afterwards, Hauk reminded Snake who had been fully pardoned: "You going to kill me now, Snake?", but Snake was too exhausted: "I'm too tired. Maybe later"; Hauk offered Snake a job as part of his security team for other missions, but the nihilistic anti-hero Snake ignored his request and limped away from Liberty Island's control area, after once again reprimanding and glaring at Hauk: "The name's Plissken!"
  • during the President's speech, he offered to play the cassette tape - "Although I shall not be present at this historic summit meeting, I present this, in the hope that our great nations may learn to live in peace"; after pressing play, he was stunned and embarrassed that it began playing the theme to American Bandstand - titled "Bandstand Boogie" - Cabbie's favorite tape and song heard earlier in his taxi; it was Plissken's ultimate prank to demean the President in public

The President Stunned by the Wrong Tape Playing

Snake Shredding the Real Audio Tape
  • in the film's final ironic moments outside the center's gates, the freed Snake removed the real 'nuclear fusion' audio recording from his pocket, unwound and pulled out the long strip of magnetic tape from the cassette, tore it apart, and destroyed it

New York Maximum Security Penitentiary

Raft With Escapees Before It Was Blasted by a Security Helicopter

Arrival of Long-Haired Ex-War Hero "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell)

(l to r): Captain Rehme (Tom Atkins) and Police Comm. Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef)

Aircraft Identified as "Air Force One"

View of Jet Crash and Location of Red-Beeping Escape Pod

Escape Pod Found Empty in Manhattan Street by Hauk and the Police

Threats to Hauk By a Weirdo Named "Romero" Who Knew About the President's Hostage-Kidnapping

Master Life Clock Time Remaining For Snake's Mission At the Time He Was Launched on a Glider Into Manhattan

Snake At the Crash Site of the President's Plane

The President's Smashed Health Monitor

A Violent Underworld Gang Member Emerging From a Manhole Cover

Snake Seeking Refuge From Assailants in a Chock full o'Nuts Restaurant

Seductive Punk Rock Girl in Chock full o'Nuts Restaurant

Snake Rescued by Cabbie

Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) - the "Brain's" 'Squeeze

Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton)

The Duke's 1977 Cadillac with Ornate Chandeliers Above the Headlights

The Duke and Romero Outside Brain's Residence

Snake Releasing the Bound President in a Train Car Before Being Beaten Up and Captured

The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes)

Romero Taking Away the President's Audio Tape

"Brain" Knifing Romero to Death and Rescuing the Wig-Wearing President

One of Many Views of the Master Life Clock - Now Activated

Snake at the Wheel of Cabbie's Checker Taxi on the 69th Street Bridge

Cabbie's Taxi Split in Half by a Bridge Mine

Cabbie Dead From the Mine Explosion

The President Firing at the Duke and Killing Him, as Snake Was Hoisted Up the Containment Wall

Snake's Micro-Capsules Disarmed by the Medic

The President's Half-Hearted Regret About Those Who Died Saving Him

Snake's Glaring Retort to Hauk: "The name's Plissken"


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