John Carpenter had always wanted to make a western. He’d loved them since he was a child, growing up watching the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks. In fact, it was his love of westerns that made him want to be a filmmaker. The first film that he had worked on that received a theatrical release, the short film “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy,” was a sort of modern-day fantasy western. But by the mid-‘70s, he knew that westerns had lost most of their box-office appeal, and he also knew that making westerns entailed dealing with the inherent problems (such as cleaning up after horses) that went with them. No, making a western in the classic style wasn’t an option for John Carpenter.
After the cult success of his student-film-turned-feature Dark Star, Carpenter decided to do a budget-friendly modern update of one of his favorite films, Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, as his next project. He wrote the film quickly, titling the script The Anderson Alamo. In the script, Anderson is a Los Angeles ghetto that has a gang problem. After the police kill some of the Street Thunder gang’s members, the gang’s leaders decide to declare war on the police. At the same time, one of the police precincts in Anderson is in the process of moving to a new building and is operating with a skeleton crew for its last night in its current location. There’s also a bus ferrying some inmates from one prison to another, but when one of the inmates gets ill, they have to make a stop at the nearest precinct, which just happens to be the one closing down. And in one more plot strand, a father and his young daughter get lost in Anderson while on an errand. After the father ends up killing one of the gang leaders, he heads to the nearest police station for protection, and, of course, it’s that very same precinct.
These plot machinations may sound terribly contrived, but Carpenter pulls them off beautifully in the film, keeping things moving at a rapid clip so that the audience doesn’t have time to question the plot details. By the midway point of the movie, all of the main characters are inside the police building, the gang shows up, and the siege of the precinct begins.
One of the strongest aspects of Assault on Precinct 13 is its cast. Darwin Joston, who plays Napoleon Wilson, one of the inmates on the bus which had to stop at the police station, was a neighbor of John Carpenter. In fact, Carpenter wrote the role with Joston in mind for it. Joston didn’t make many features, but most of them are psychotronic in nature. If I’m remembering the story correctly, Joston was in an acting workshop with Austin Stoker, who plays Lt. Ethan Bishop, and he was responsible for introducing Stoker to John Carpenter. Austin Stoker is also no stranger to the Psychotronic Encyclopedia, having starred or been featured in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Horror High, and Abby before appearing in Assault on Precinct 13. He and Joston later went on to be in 1982’s Time Walker together. Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers show up in the cast (as they did in Carpenter’s next film), and Henry Brandon, Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers, puts in a cameo appearance as a police station desk clerk.
If you’re looking for them, the Howard Hawks influences can be seen everywhere in the film, from Napoleon Wilson’s asking everyone he meets for a cigarette, to one of the characters being named Leigh after one of Hawks’s favorite writers, Leigh Brackett (Carpenter took this one step further in Halloween, when he named Charles Cypher’s character Sherriff Leigh Bracket.), to Carpenter crediting the editing of the film (which he did himself) to “John T. Chance,” which was John Wayne’s character’s name in Rio Bravo. However, the film also shows other influences, recalling films as disparate as Night of the Living Dead and Once Upon a Time in the West.
Carpenter also composed and performed the score for Assault on Precinct 13, something that he’s done on the majority of his films. It’s another one of his minimalist scores, with a very distinctive synthesizer riff that was based on both the score to Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” It WILL get stuck in your head, so be prepared for the earworminess of it. Check it out:
Assault on Precinct 13 was released to an indifferent American public in 1976, playing inner-city grindhouses and drive-ins. It made practically no splash at all here in the States; however, it fared much better in England. Carpenter was so thankful to its British distributor, Michael Myers, for making the film a success there that he named the killer in Halloween after him. Another happy coincidence that occurred due to the film’s British release is that Donald Pleasance, who played the iconic Dr. Loomis role in Halloween, took that job because his daughter had seen Assault on Precinct 13 in London and had loved it.
If you’ve seen the film, you may have noticed that I’ve not discussed what is perhaps the film’s most infamous scene. I’ve done this on purpose; if you’ve never seen Assault on Precinct 13, do yourself a favor and avoid searching for info about the film until after you’ve seen it. If you HAVE seen the film, however, know that the film was going to be given an X rating if that scene wasn’t taken out; however, the film’s distributor took the scene out of the rating board’s print to secure its R rating, but kept it in all of the release prints. It’s still pretty shocking, all these years and thousands of movies later.
Oh, just one more thing. If you watch the film closely, you’ll discover that the building that’s under siege has signage that refers to it as Precinct 14, not Precinct 13. However, the film’s distributor thought that thirteen was a much more dangerous-sounding number than fourteen, and so the title was changed. No matter what it’s called or where it’s actually set, Assault on Precinct 13 is classic John Carpenter, and it’s worth seeing whether you’re familiar with his work or not. If you’ve never seen a John Carpenter film (I realize that it’s unlikely, but these are strange times that we live in), this is a great place to start. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite to see it, again or for the first time:
Up next: Terror awaits…in the murky mists of outer space!