Kent Jones of Film Comment has referred to horror maven John Carpenter as the last genre filmmaker working in America (indeed, while everyone else seems to move with the digital tide, Carpenter remains a resilient “analog man”). Joseph Kaufman, executive producer of Carpenter’s thoroughly-modern western Assault on Precinct 13, wrote in a 1994 essay: “People have noticed that both Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 take place in besieged and isolated police stations, and that moral codes of behavior are important in the two films.” Kaufman is careful to point out that the Assault on Precinct 13 isn’t a literal imitation of Howard Hawks’s film, but there’s no mistaking the modern racial and sexual politics encoded in the distinctly western elements of Carpenter’s lean, mean, genre-defying masterpiece.
Less subtle though arguably more successful than Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the film evokes an ever-shifting political pecking order when a cultural cross-section of society trapped inside a Los Angeles police station wages war against a violent street gang named Street Thunder. Blaxploitation star Austin Stoker stars as Bishop, a cop sent to baby-sit Precinct 13 as it closes shop. Tensions mount when cops shoot and kill six members of the gang. (A news reporter notes the interracial mixture of the victims, in essence setting up the film’s critical race crisis.) Members of Street Thunder go on a killing spree, senselessly (and fabulously) offing an ice-cream man and the daughter of a man who’s obviously distrustful of authority. When the man avenges his daughter’s death and seeks refuge inside Precinct 13, Street Thunder descends on the police station with menacing aplomb.
Bishop is none-too-happy that he has to tend shop at a police station his first day on the job. “There are no heroes anymore, Bishop,” says his commissioner over the radio to the unsuspecting officer oblivious that he’ll have to rid a besieged, god-forsaken town of a violent pestilence. Bishop is welcomed hospitably at Precinct 13 by the sexy Leigh (the great Laurie Zimmer), who shows him the ropes and offers him a friendly cup of coffee as if she were the proprietress at a lone saloon. She asks him if he likes it black. “For over 30 years,” he says. She gets the joke, but she’s clearly not amused. Compare her to Julie, the whiney chicken-shit played by a hysterical Nancy Kyes, and it’s obvious that Leigh is a woman in full control of her sex—certainly she’s one to be reckoned with (at least one who’d rather rescue herself than have a man do all the work for her).
Carpenter acknowledges that his protagonists are equally responsible for the choices they make. As a troubled black youth, Bishop walked out of the ghetto on his own, but thanks in part to the guidance of his father. Conversely, white prisoner Napoleon Wilson (the late Darwin Joston) turned to violence on his own, but no thanks to negative encouragement (a priest once told him: “You have something to do with death”). But what is the audience to make of Bishop fearfully observing a white officer as he loads his rifle, or the black prisoner, Wells (Tony Burton), who shoots his silencer at Street Thunder only to realize after one of the film’s many mini-battles that his gun wasn’t loaded? Carpenter’s doesn’t allow his characters to play any sort of blame games, and despite any lingering hang-ups they may have with each other’s color, the director acknowledges that our problems with race are obscuring larger issues dealing with misguided authority and rampant political deception.
It’s easy to dismiss the film’s racial morality play as simple, but there’s plenty going on beneath the surface of Carpenter’s formalist exercise. At Precinct 13, Carpenter envisions a society in moral transition. A crazed and naïve Kathy can’t understand why anyone would shoot at a police station (observe the startling defiance of authority when gang members walk stealthily toward the police station with “DO NOT ENTER” street signs to either side of them), and when she realizes that Street Thunder is only after the traumatized man who ran into the Precinct, she suggests that they throw him back into the street. “Don’t give me that civilized look!” she screams, feeling the burn of Bishop and Leigh’s scorn. With a name like Bishop, it’s not surprising that Stoker’s hero is a man of God who is not about to forsake his fellow man much-needed sanctuary.
Because Assault on Precinct 13 is among one of the most remarkably composed films of all time, it’s easy to look at Carpenter’s rigorous framing techniques as their own acts of political resistance. The film’s tight medium-shots position the characters in constant defiance of each other: blacks against whites, women against men, prisoners against officers. When Wells announces that he will attempt to escape Precinct 13 (he humorously calls his plan “Save Ass”), Bishop suggests a fairer approach. After a speedy lesson in trust and human decency, Wells and Wilson engage in a quickie game of Potatoes that positions Wells as the group’s potential gateway out of the police station. Despite the tragic but inevitable human losses, no one group comes out on top because only their capacity for kindness reigns supreme in Carpenter’s democratic kingdom.