Stark says: “In the meantime, I got this plan. It’s called “Save Ass”. And the way it works is this – I slip outta one of these windows and I run like a bastard!”
Alright, alright, I’ll admit it: Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t actually a Western. BUT, in an alternative 1975 where Carpenter had a bigger budget and more time, it might well have been.
The story goes that after releasing Dark Star, Carpenter was set to produce two low-budget exploitation films for under $100,000 with money from private investors. The first of these scripts was called Eyes, but he promptly sold that one to Barbara Streisand. (It went on to become Eyes of Laura Mars) The second was all set to be a Western, inspired by one of Carpenter’s favourite directors, Howard Hawks, and especially his 1959 Western, Rio Bravo.
Rio Bravo tells the story of gruff John T. Chance, sheriff of Rio Bravo, who has arrested the brother of a notorious bad-guy rancher, and who subsequently must hold-off the rancher’s hired goons until a marshal can arrive to transport the prisoner for trial. Even at this point, it’s easy to see why the film appealed to Carpenter, drawing on many of his thematic and stylistic preoccupations: a small town with divided loyalties, an isolated location without hope of outside help, a group of misfits pitted against an overwhelming force…
Unfortunately for Carpenter (and fortunately for us) $100k was just not enough for him to make a Western, even one as localised as Rio Bravo. So, he quickly re-hashed his initial idea, changed the beleaguered town to a beleaguered police station and presto, the film that was originally titled The Anderson Alamo became Assault on Precinct 13.
So to what extent is Assault actually a re-make of Rio Bravo? On its release, the film was variously described as a “modern-day paraphrase”, or an “urban Rio Bravo”. It’s true, nods and winks to the earlier film abound; Carpenter used the pseudonym “John T. Chance” as his editor credit and Laurie Zimmer’s character Leigh (named after Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Brackett) has a distinctly Lauren Bacall air about her, as Carpenter’s spin on the “Hawksian Woman”. But for all its overt homages, I’d argue that Assault on Precinct 13 is more than simply a re-hash of Rio Bravo; it’s a resourceful, original work in its own right, and – at the risk of having to hand in my Western credentials – a much better film.
Maybe it’s me. I just don’t like Wayne westerns much. I also think a lot of it comes down to tone; Rio Bravo is sort of a comic conversation piece disguised as a Western. And there’s some good dialogue, with the instances of banter between the mismatched deputies among the strongest in the film. There are also compelling scenes driven by strong characterization, but they mostly belong to recovering alcoholic Dude, played by Dean Martin. In fact, part of me would love to ditch John Wayne altogether, and have Dude as the lead instead. Angie Dickinson’s character Feathers might be Hawksian woman in places – tough-talking and mocking sheriff John T. Chance’s upright attitude – but ultimately she lacks agency.
By contrast, Leigh in Assault on Precinct 13 is fully active; an experienced member of the police station whose actions and knowledge drive story points. She’s witty without being kooky, tough without being brittle; her character is given room to display emotional depth and development, even within a terse script. This is also the case with Lt. Ethan Bishop, the newly-promoted officer who is the protagonist of Assault. Masterfully played by Trinidadian-American actor Austin Stoker, at a time when leading roles in action films for black actors outside of the blaxploitation genre were few and far between, we learn more about his character, his background, his beliefs and the prejudice he has faced in his life and career in one or two short scenes than we learn about John T. Chance in the entirety of Rio Bravo.
Leigh: Your father or somebody obviously got you out of Anderson early enough.
Bishop: No one took me out of Anderson when I was a baby. I walked out, myself, when I was 20.
Perhaps because, with Chance, there is less to learn: Hawks and Wayne made Bravo partly as a response to High Noon (1952), which they considered both “un-American” and “unmanly” for its allegorical references to McCarthyism and its portrayal of a morally-stricken sheriff. And so, we get Rio Bravo, with its preoccupation with masculinity and authority, and Sheriff Chance, the “good law man” who shows neither fear nor doubt nor inner turmoil. On the other hand, in Assault we get a sense of full, human characters, from the principled, empathetic Lt. Bishop, to the criminal but brave Napoleon Wilson:
Starker: Why did you kill those men?
Wilson: Everybody asks me the same question. I always tell them the same thing. First time I ever saw a preacher, he said to me, “Son, there’s something strange about you. “You got something to do with death.” Being real young, I believed him. Turned out he was right.
Starker: That’s no answer.
Wilson: I thought it was pretty good.
(Sound familiar? If you needed more convincing of Carpenter’s love of westerns, Wilson’s line there echoes Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West: “You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”)
Rio Bravo suffers from issues of depth and tone in other areas. Sure, it’s meant to be fairly light-hearted, but it’s never funny enough to be a comedy like Hawks’ famous screwballs. Neither is it weighty enough to carry the promisingly ominous set-up. I kept waiting for things to become tense. And they do in places, for example when bandit Nathan Burdette orders the band at his saloon to play the Degüello – the cutthroat’s song, to send a message that there will be no mercy. But at other times, especially during the crucial denouement, Hawks opens the action out rather than concentrating it, and as a result, the film feels flabby and unfocused.
Which is partly the fault of the staging: we are constantly told that the town and its sheriffs are vulnerable, and yet, beyond oblique references to “the road” and “the creek”, we have no idea about the layout of the town, and why it would be impossible for anyone to go and seek help. The idea of being “trapped” bears no real weight.
By contrast, Carpenter takes the premise of “trapped in confined space and surrounded by enemies” and pushes it to its fullest. One of my favourite Hollywood formulas is low budgets = resourceful directors, and Assault on Precinct 13 is no exception, even if some of Carpenter’s solutions are on the extreme side. (Three words: ice cream truck). After the first fifteen minutes of the film, almost all the action takes place within the de-commissioned Anderson police building. In Rio Bravo the setting opens out for the final showdown, losing a lot of tension. But in Assault, the focus continually narrows, from city, to district, to street, to station, to room, and so on. With every wave of action, as the physical setting contracts, the tension increases and the odds become stacked ever higher. This same technique is used in countless horror films; think Alien, when Ripley retreats to the escape pod or The Thing, where Carpenter uses a similar technique in reverse: slowing destroying each safe area, until nothing remains but the exterior, hostile environment.
In short, is Assault of Precinct 13 really best described as a re-make of Rio Bravo? No, not really. Knowing the film’s providence provides a fascinating insight into Carpenter’s inspirations, but in making Assault, he took the best of Hawks’, Wayne’s and Brackett’s film and jettisoned everything that hindered it to create something altogether more compelling. Plus, I defy anyone to watch it and not come away with that soundtrack lodged in their head for days. Bow bow bow bow bow…