Snake Plissken in Escape from New York
To celebrate Kurt Russell’s 70th birthday, please enjoy this submission from BAMF Style reader and contributor “W.T. Hatch” featuring a frequently requested character said to be the actor’s personal favorite from his filmography.
Kurt Russell as S.D. “Snake” Plissken, “cycloptic cynic ’80s cyberpunk” as one reader eloquently described
Manhattan Island Maximum Security Prison, Summer 1997
Film: Escape from New York
Release Date: July 10, 1981
Director: John Carpenter
Costume Designer: Stephen Loomis
Call me Snake.
Set in John Carpenter’s dystopian vision of the future, Escape from New York is the story of a one-man rescue attempt to save the President of the United States from a maximum security penitentiary located on Manhattan Island. Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, played by the legendary Lee Van Cleef, offers recently captured bank robber S.D. “Snake” Plissken a deal: save the President (Donald Pleasence) in under 24 hours and receive a full pardon. As a forcing mechanism, Hauk orders his medical detail to secretly place two small explosive charges in Plissken’s bloodstream that will explode if he fails to make the deadline (nice pun, eh?)
Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Snake marked a clear departure from his usual family-friendly characters in Disney cinematic fare. Indeed, Snake’s entry onto the silver screen initiated a new generation of antiheroes who lived by their own rules and their own code of honor. Snake is a former U.S. Army Special Forces lieutenant who was the youngest man decorated by the President, with the implication that he earned the Medal of Honor, along with two Purple Hearts during his military service. A veteran of combat against the Russians in Leningrad, Plissken is qualified to fly the Gullfire glider, an expert at both armed and unarmed combat, and the ultimate BAMF survivalist.
Kurt Russell knew Snake was going to be a successful character before the film was even finished with primary shooting. In an interview available on YouTube, Mr. Russell shares the story of setting up a shot while filming on location in East St. Louis. This particular moment required Snake to walk down a darkened street in full costume to include his signature MAC-10 submachine gun. The film’s rather paltry budget meant limited set security, so Russell simply walked to his mark without any escort. Rounding a corner and now out of sight of the rest of the production team, Russell had a chance encounter with four “pretty rough characters.” Unfazed, Russell simply stood his ground. One glance at Snake’s appearance was sufficient and the four men beat a rapid retreat from the area.
What’d He Wear?
Although Snake is a former soldier, he retains very little clothing from his previous life in uniform. The most obvious item indicating a military past are a pair of camouflage pants with a unique urban disruption pattern. Assuming these pants are successors to the U.S. Army’s venerable Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), they are made from a rip-stop composite weave of nylon and cotton material found in the heavier Temperate Weather issue. The pants differ, however, from traditional BDUs in that they are tight-fitting, lack belt loops, and have just two large bellows-style pockets, all of which are unusual features in a combat uniform. Unlike BDUs or modern U.S. Army combat uniforms, the trousers’ snap-closed flapped pockets are located on the front of the wearer’s thighs.
My assumption is the Army issued Snake these pants in his capacity as a glider pilot. Cramped cockpits are no place for extraneous material such as belt loops that might catch on the glider’s controls, and the pockets are ideally placed for access during flight operations.
Snake wears the pants without a belt when first brought to Staten Island but is later provided a black leather utility belt to carry his weapons and other gear during infiltration.
Snake wears his pants tucked into motocross-style boots that reach nearly as high as his knees. These particular boots were custom-made for the film and further modified by Mr. Russell, who installed four metal golf cleats along the toe of each boot. Although small in size, these improvised weapons enhance Snake’s combat abilities while remaining easily concealed. The boots’ defensive value is improved by the addition of large silver-colored metal shin guards fabricated in a reptile skin pattern. Snake secures his footwear with five gray bail sky-type buckle closures on the outside of each boot.
As a further hint to his background with motorcycles, Snake wears a heavily distressed brown leather 1930s-style motorcycle jacket prior to his insertion via glider into the prison. The jacket features wide lapels with deep set notches. The left lapel includes a large buttonhole, but Snake is hardly the type to accessorize à la Bogart with a chrysanthemum.
Snake keeps the jacket open throughout the movie reflecting both the warm summer weather and his continual need to be on guard. There are two large slash pockets on the front of the coat near the waist and an additional small chest pocket over the left breast. The leather jacket includes a fourth vertical zipper pocket near the center line of the coat which is surprising in a pre-cell phone era garment. The jacket sleeves are closed by a plastic button at each wrist while the back includes belted tabs for individual fitting.
Perhaps the most unusual item in Snake’s appearance is his black sleeveless shirt that is far less militaristic in appearance than his pants and more of a nod to the ’80s punk scene. Like his trousers, Snake wears the shirt tight to his body thereby allowing him a full range of motion as he flies, fights, and runs throughout New York City. The basic black color affords Snake additional concealment somewhat offset by the material’s sheen under light. Given the era and the character’s background, the shirt is likely made from polyester or spandex cloth. What makes the shirt even more striking are two silver zippers which run from the neck to the armpit along the front of the shoulders. The zippers’ exact purpose is never specified and will remain a mystery for future movie fans to ponder.
Prior to his arrest for bank robbery, Snake’s ensemble did not include any observable jewelry, a situation soon rectified during his mission briefing and equipment draw. Plissken dons a large “lifeclock” on his left wrist to monitor the countdown to the detonation of his bloodstream borne explosives. The lifeclock features a very large red-light LED display in a bronze color metal housing worn on a broad brown leather strap, mounted to the strap with four brass rivets and secured to the wrist via Velcro fasteners.
On his right wrist, Snake wears a large brass bracelet with a U.S. Police Forces eagle motif concealing a red button. When pressed, the button initiates a signal allowing Commissioner Hauk and his team to track Snake’s location in the prison for 15 minutes. Snake loses the bracelet when captured by the Duke’s henchmen attempting to free the President. He later spots another of the Duke’s men wearing the bracelet during his gladiator fight—with spiked baseball bats—against the behemoth prisoner known only as Slag (played by hirsute professional wrestler Ox Baker).
Throughout Escape from New York, Snake wears a black eyepatch over his left eye which, according to the novelization, he lost in Russia. Like so much of the character’s iconic appearance, the eyepatch idea was the brainchild of Kurt Russell. Clearly, the loss of the eye had little impact on Snake’s depth perception given his accuracy shooting, flying, or driving.
Reflecting on Snake’s unique ink of a large rampant green cobra with red eyes, Russell once observed, “I must say that after we did this I got some of my favorite fan letters from girls who saw this tattoo.”
Commissioner Hauk lays out the weapons that Snake will have for his mission, consisting of a compact M10 submachine gun (with scope, suppressor, and carry strap) for primary combat as well as a backup .38-caliber revolver (also with a scope) holstered on his belt for backup work, not to mention spare ammunition for each. At various points, both of Snake’s firearms fall into the hands of others—”The Duke” (Isaac Hayes) handling the M10 while his ally Maggie defends herself with the stainless revolver—though both find their way back to Snake.
Snake’s primary weapon carried during his mission to retrieve the President is a MAC-10 submachine gun, accessorized with a scope and sound suppressor. This compact open-bolt “machine pistol” was designed by weapons engineer Gordon B. Ingram in 1964 and first produced six years later by his firm Military Armament Corporation (MAC), leading to the colloquial “MAC-10” though the weapon itself was actually designated M10. Ingram had hoped that his new weapon—available both in 9x19mm Parabellum and the .45 ACP round then in use by the U.S. military—would replace the venerable M1911A1 as the Army’s sidearm of choice, but the M10’s frantic rate of fire demolished its reputation for accuracy, with International Association of Police Chiefs weapons researcher David Steele dubbing the weapon “fit only for combat in a phone booth.”
What differentiated the M10 and earned it some begrudging respect in the firearms community was the innovative sound suppressor designed by former OSS operator Mitchell WerBell III of Sionics, though—at nearly a foot in length—the distinctive-looking two-stage suppressor counters the compact qualities of the weapon. However, the suppressor aided in controlling the M10’s fully automatic fire.
A screen-used poly-foam stunt prop (listed by The Escape from New York & L.A. Page) inscribed “M10. CAL 9MM PAR/RPB Industries, INC./Atlanta, GA. U. S. A.” establishes that Snake carries a 9mm M10 with a 32-round magazine rather than the .45-caliber M10.
Snake is additionally armed with a 4″-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 67, the stainless steel counterpart of Smith & Wesson’s blued Model 15 revolver, also chambered in the classic .38 Special police round. The Model 67 has adjustable sights (which differentiate it from the cosmetically similar Models 64 and 65, according to IMFDB), enhanced by a mounted scope for additional accuracy as needed.
N.B. This weapons focus was drafted by your usual BAMF Style author, though the rest of the content in this post was scribed earlier by contributor “W.T. Hatch”.
How to Get the Look
Fortunately, reproductions of Snake’s clothes and accessories are readily available for online purchase, providing further testament to the character’s continued appeal.
- Black polyester or spandex sleeveless shirt with superfluous shoulder zippers
- Brown worn-out leather motorcycle jacket
- Reproductions available from Magnoli Clothiers
- Urban camouflage military trousers with snap-flapped front cargo pockets
- Black leather motocross boots (adding improved weapons is not recommended)
- Bronze color “Lifeclock” with red light LED display
- Reproduction timepieces available from Lifeclock One
- Brass eagle motif tracking bracelet (and don’t forget about the hidden safety catch!)
- Black eyepatch
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie… but remember the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Escape from L.A.
The name’s Plissken!
Thanks W.T. (and Nick) great write up.
Another one ticked off my list.
I think we can all agree that if you inspire the look and character of one Solid Snake you are indeed a BAMF.
I well recall going to this movie in its first theater run and being hugely impressed by the pansy Disney kid’s impression of Clint Eastwood. Very clever script, great music and fine performances made for an extremely entertaining movie. I liked the motorcycle jacket back then, but now think it is too long and flared at the bottom. Never did like the zebra pants. I’ve been a fan of Russell’s ever since- the actor, not the person, as his politics are far too right-wing for me, especially in this day and age.
One thing though; Why is there a picture of Adrienne Barbeau without Russell in it?
I’m a big fan of Russell AND his politics.
Being from St. Louis, this is of course a favourite. A lot of the filming took place in St. Louis/East St. Louis. In the early 80’s St. Louis had not yet begun it’s gentrification. So, much of downtown and specifically Union Station were still derelict from the 70’s. Union Station was renovated in the late 80’s and you can still stand in the hotel lobby in the exact position of the death match ring. Plus the balcony seat where Isaac Hayes was sitting. The train cars Kurt Russell ran along are still there. The “Chock Full o nuts” scenes were shot in East St. Louis, and if you want to check those out, you’re on your own.