The Influence of Howard Hawks in John Carpenter's 'Assault on Precinct 13'
April 5, 2023
Bridging over the changes of New Sentimentality in the late 1960s, the early 1970s was a time of seismic cinematic change. It was a time when a new batch of filmmakers was looking to create something new while also honoring those that came before them. This new group, better known as The Film School Generation, consisted of names like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. They were heralded around for making films such as The Godfather, Carrie, Taxi Driver, and Star Wars. Each of these films took clear inspiration from its predecessors. Lucas mentioned the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, Spielberg was indebted to David Lean and John Cassavetes, and Scorsese revered Federico Fellini.
This same period also saw the rise of the career of John Carpenter, who broke onto the scene with his action crime-thriller, Assault on Precinct 13. Like those in The Film School Generation, Carpenter lovingly borrowed several elements from those that influenced him to be a filmmaker. But he also wanted to be an auteur, reimaging and adding new aspects to classic stories.
Carpenter’s film took inspiration from a few different sources, most notably the works of Howard Hawks. Hawks was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 40s and 50s, churning out top-notch John Wayne westerns and a few comedies. Carpenter took particular interest in Hawks’ Rio Bravo when finding inspiration for his film. Hawks’ Westerns were always known for how they branded their heroes through a rite of passage. The good guys had to prove to the other characters, and the audience, that they were good. Dean Martin’s character in Rio Bravo isthe central character who goes through this arc. Carpenter directly uses this within his film, having his characters prove their heroicness through acts of valor against the odds. We as the audience identify and lift these characters who are good at their job and do it in the name of honor.
Physically, Carpenter also uses Hawks’ model of staging his film within a limited number of locations. A fact that can be hinted from the title of the film, the majority of the action takes place within Precinct 13. The setting becomes familiar and we understand why the police are protecting it. The precinct almost becomes a castle that must be defended from invaders.
Speaking of invaders, Carpenter directly took a page out of another filmmaker's book when he decided how to portray the gang members. While Hawks was the older teacher, Carpenter’s contemporary George Romero was the inspiration for that element. Only a few years earlier did Romero make waves with his independent horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Like how Romero dehumanized the zombies in his film, Carpenter adopted that style for his villains. By not giving them any dialogue and never showing their faces, Carpenter strips the gang oftheir humanity, creating them into a pack of remorseless killers.
At the same time being indebted to Hawks and Romero, Carpenter was still able to add his spin. Hawks also had the trademark of the “Hawksian woman”, often a tough character who acts more like “one of the guys” rather than a pure damsel in distress. Most of the women in Hawks films were progressive for the time, but still often seen as weaker than the men and needed saving from time to time. Carpenter took that idea a step further, making his women characters equal to the men. In Precinct 13, Leigh is an equal badass compared to her male co-stars. She shoots bad guys, takes charge of situations, and even takes a bullet for her troubles.She even gets her moment at the end of the film when she walks off without medical help.
By honoring the past and blazing a trail for the future, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is a timeless classic. Its handling of themes, setting, depiction of villains, and women stereotypes make it a perfect example of how movies can be inspired by the past and how they can inspire the future.