In for the night: The Siege Drama on Film

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While having a look at the new, remastered DVD of John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), I felt a wash of renewed love for the action/horror subgenre that is the siege drama.  It’s really a no-brainer as to why these movies always work a charm – it’s part of our pioneer DNA that attracts us to tales of protagonists who must hole up, board up, lock and load up against an onslaught of (always) overwhelming forces… be they aboriginal warriors, Indian braves, Nova Scotian homophobes  or flesh-eating ghouls. In addition to vicarious thrills, siege scenarios force us to assess what is really important and what is useful when the odds are against us.  They foster teamwork and cooperation and show us the perils of acting selfishly when all-for-one becomes every-man-for-himself.

Here’s a short list of 10 siege movies that give me that cozy, in-for-the-night feeling so few movies do:

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ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976).  For his second feature film and stand-alone debut as a director, John Carpenter wanted to make an all-out western but the budget he cobbled together from independent investors didn’t permit a period piece… so he made a modern western set in Los Angeles’ bleak South Central district.   When the LAPD guns down a handful of gang members, the thugs retaliate by laying siege to a precinct house on its last night of operation.  You can’t dwell on the logic (or lack thereof) of this exploitation classic, just enjoy the funhouse ride of exploding squibs and shattering glass (the real thing, as fake glass was too expensive).  Carpenter’s multi-racial youth gang is so relentless that his homage to Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO (1959) wound up looking more like…

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).  You can’t board up the windows of your house without thinking of George Romero’s landmark – and I’m talking Acropolis-sized – horror flick about a group of disparate Pennsylvanians who find themselves in common cause when the recently dead rise up hungry for man-meat.  I haven’t spent ten minutes in a house in all of my adult life without silently assessing its value as a stronghold against an army of ravening ghouls.  Corporations should show this movie as an employee incentive.

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CHUKA (1967).  Nobody remembers this backlot Rod Taylor western but me and I’m not sure why that is because it seems pretty radical for a mid-60s western.  Produced around the time the genre was becoming more violent but predating THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and ULZANA’S RAID (1972), this programmer by director Gordon Douglas (who reteams here with his THEM! star James Whitmore, in a supporting role as an Army scout who likes his “tequily”) is told via flashback and gallops towards a siege setpiece that finds Taylor’s pistolero aiding the US Cavalry (headed by John Mills) and civilians (personified by the dishy Luciana Paluzzi) against an all-out attack by indigenous forces.  Complicating matters are internecine squabbles among the non-coms that result in a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-style punch up and murder while all hell is breaking loose.  The film’s downbeat conclusion has long had me thinking this could have influenced John Russo’s script for NOTLD in some small way.  But really, for the mother of all fort sieges, we have to go back to…

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ZULU (1961).  Star Stanley Baker produced, Cy Endfield directed and Michael Caine had an important early role in this brisk retelling of the Battle for Roark’s Drift, in which 100 British servicemen faced down and overcame an opposing force of 5,000 Zulu tribesman (armed with single shot Martini rifles taken after their rout of the British at Islawhanda, depicted in the 1979 film ZULU DAWN) for 16 hours in 1879.  My boyhood chums and I were captivated by this movie and watched it slackjawed, certain that the redcoats could not survive the seemingly endless flood of warriors to their mudhut parapets… and yet they did.  And speaking of history…

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‘G’ MEN (1935) is a flatteringly (for the FBI) fictionalized account of the origins of that federal bureau with James Cagney starring as a lawyer who signs on as a government agent when a friend is gunned down by gangsters.  While not a siege movie in and of itself, ‘G’ MEN does build to one of the most unbelievable siege scenes in American cinema, a wood-splintering, glass popping, spent shell ejecting tour de force as the Feds bear down on the gang’s hide out.  Based on the true crime raid of the Little Bohemia Lodge in 1934, a disaster for the FBI (whose only victims were innocent men), this scene turns the events into an FBI rout… but even if it’s bad history, the scene is compelling for the Category 5 level of violence, as mobsters (among them an unbilled Marc Lawrence) and their molls fend off the Feds with Winchester “repeaters” (the censors forbid the gangsters to be seen using Tommy guns) and die horrifically (for 1935) onscreen.  While the gangsters here aren’t made sympathetic or attractive in any way, you really do feel for them in their pugnacious resistance to surrender.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these bastards go down fighting and when they’re dead, their women pry their guns from their cold dead fingers and keep the fight alive.

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THE ALAMO (1960).  Back in 1836, Huston said to Travis/”Get some volunteers and go, fortify the Alamo/Well the men came from Texas, and from Old Tennessee/And they joined up with Travis, just to fight for the right to be free. That lyric comes courtesy of The Ballad of the Alamo, sung by Marty Robbins and the concluding track on the soundtrack to THE ALAMO, directed by and starring John Wayne.  We had the record in the house all through my childhood (I still own the LP, battle-scarred though it is from repeat playings and countless moves) and I grew up wishing I could invent a time machine and take a machine gun back to San Antonio for those “13 days of glory” to help Travis, Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett defeat the hated Santa Ana.  Whether he really fought this way or it’s just a bit of wishful thinking-as-speculative history, but I’ve always liked the image of Crockett swinging his empty flintlock as a truncheon at the Mexican soldiers climbing over the walls of the Alamo.  (The artist who drew the painting above substituted a cannon prod for the musket.)  I have a little plastic figure of it here on my desk as I type this – a testament to frontier indomitability.

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ISLAND OF TERROR (1966) is another non-siege movie that builds to a corking siege setpiece, as mutants spawned by cancer research gone awry (as happens) slither en masse towards the island town hall where protagonists Edward Judd, Peter Cushing and Carole Gray have herded the fisherman-sweatered locals (among them Niall MacGinnis).  Although the creatures look like the bastard children of Dim Sum dumplings and gooseneck lamps, they are pretty fearful… dropping out of trees, slithering over automobiles and jumping out from blind corners to surprise the slow moving and easily confused.  Terence Fisher directed this independent production on a break from his duties from Hammer Studios and being knocked down by cars while exiting his local… and he did a good job.

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SIEGE (aka SELF DEFENSE, 1983) is based on a little known slice of Nova Scotia criminal history, in which a dispute over wages in May of 1981 drove the Halifax police force off the job, leaving the city unprotected for 42 days.  In this low budget Canadian exploitationer, the sole witness to the execution-style murders of the patrons of a gay bar by a self-deputized Right Wing militia escapes into a halfway house run by Tom Nardini (from CAT BALLOU), who takes care of blind Mutt & Jeff team of Jack Blum and Keith Knight (who had played pals for laughs in  MEATBALLS in 1979).  The budget is so low it hurts but claustrophobia is cheap and the film is tight and tense, with occasional bursts of ironic humor (“We can make a flamethrower like we used to do out of the Right Guard.”) as the tumbledown tenement is surrounded by militiamen, who infiltrate the adjoining building with a mind to punch through the walls.  Not only is the old VHS of this tape a rare bird, but it isn’t even a complete cut of the original film whose elements are presumed to be long lost.

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PHASE IV (1974).  You know, sometimes it’s the little things that get you in the end… and never was this more true than in the only feature film directed by legendary Hollywood title maker Saul Bass.  Studying the intelligence of ants in the American southwest, bickering eggheads Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy (poised midway between COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE and Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN) find themselves on the other side of the microscope when the ants advance and force them to barricade themselves inside their geodesic research center with willowy orphan Lynne Frederick.  There are no windows to board up and even if you could you can’t keep out the ants once they have a mind to dominate.  Unseen and underappreciated for way too long, PHASE IV was put out on DVD last year by Legend Films and is awaiting rediscovery.

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BEAU GESTE (1966).  Sure, it’s a cheap remake of a Hollywood classic but this mostly backlot-filmed Universal programmer was directed by Douglas Heyes (who wrote the screenplay for the awesome ICE STATION ZEBRA) with a nice feel for the grotesque.  After Arab marauders decimate the ranks of a garrison held by the French Foreign Legion, the dead are propped up on the parapets as shills to fool the invaders into thinking their attacks have been fruitless.  I don’t know if this plot point is original to the novel by Percival Christopher Wren but it occurs in the 1939 version starring Gary Cooper, albeit more tastefully executed (and less memorable).  I’ve never forgotten the faces of those dead men in the 1966 version, their eyes bugging, their tongues bulging, or the downbeat conclusion that finds the eponymous sole survivor giving his fallen brother and comrade-in-arms an unlikely Viking’s funeral.

0 Response In for the night: The Siege Drama on Film
Posted By Marty McKee : March 3, 2009 10:22 pm

Nice call on SIEGE. The cropped video print I saw does the film no favors and probably contributed to the biggest problem I had with SIEGE, which is that you don’t get a very good sense of the physical layout of the building with its various staircases, drainpipes, skylights and secret panels. It’s quite a suspenseful film with a fine leading-man turn by Nardini, a once-busy actor who didn’t do much film or television in the 1980s, but he probably should have.

Posted By Marty McKee : March 3, 2009 10:22 pm

Nice call on SIEGE. The cropped video print I saw does the film no favors and probably contributed to the biggest problem I had with SIEGE, which is that you don’t get a very good sense of the physical layout of the building with its various staircases, drainpipes, skylights and secret panels. It’s quite a suspenseful film with a fine leading-man turn by Nardini, a once-busy actor who didn’t do much film or television in the 1980s, but he probably should have.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 4, 2009 7:24 am

A fine list, RHS, and no, you’re not the only person who remembers Chuka fondly. As a big fan of the roller coaster career of director Gordon Douglas(Them!, The Detective, Between Midnight and Dawn, among many others)–as well as Rod Taylor‘s sometimes mysterious career choices, such as they were, this Western remains one of my slightly guilty pleasures.

Btw, the propping up of the bodies appears in all versions of Christopher Wren’s Beau Geste, (even Marty Feldman’s 1977 parody, The Last Remake of Beau Geste). The sequence is truly haunting each and every time.

Another siege mentality movie that you might like is Guns at Batasi (1964), about a British colonial outpost caught off guard during the transition from colonialism to nationhood by a coup d’etat that hems in all the visitors and soldiers in a dicey situation, where they proceed to stew in the juice of their own prejudices and human foibles. A couple of fine portraits are created in the course of the movie by Richard Attenborough as a British NCO who is also a martinet of the old school and Flora Robson as a liberal politician.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 4, 2009 7:24 am

A fine list, RHS, and no, you’re not the only person who remembers Chuka fondly. As a big fan of the roller coaster career of director Gordon Douglas(Them!, The Detective, Between Midnight and Dawn, among many others)–as well as Rod Taylor‘s sometimes mysterious career choices, such as they were, this Western remains one of my slightly guilty pleasures.

Btw, the propping up of the bodies appears in all versions of Christopher Wren’s Beau Geste, (even Marty Feldman’s 1977 parody, The Last Remake of Beau Geste). The sequence is truly haunting each and every time.

Another siege mentality movie that you might like is Guns at Batasi (1964), about a British colonial outpost caught off guard during the transition from colonialism to nationhood by a coup d’etat that hems in all the visitors and soldiers in a dicey situation, where they proceed to stew in the juice of their own prejudices and human foibles. A couple of fine portraits are created in the course of the movie by Richard Attenborough as a British NCO who is also a martinet of the old school and Flora Robson as a liberal politician.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : March 4, 2009 8:10 am

If you’re a fan of the “siege on the cavalry fort” sub-genre, as I am. Check out ONLY THE VALIANT with Gregory Peck as the hated officer who commands a deserted fort to defend a mountain pass from ticked off Indians. Neville Brand and Lon Chaney Jr. are two of the cavalry men with a vendetta against Peck. Unusual setting makes this a very effective, over looked western. Another is GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT where cavalry officer Audie Murphy must defend the fort from assorted villains with a handful of hardy women with varying emotional issues. Good stuff.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : March 4, 2009 8:10 am

If you’re a fan of the “siege on the cavalry fort” sub-genre, as I am. Check out ONLY THE VALIANT with Gregory Peck as the hated officer who commands a deserted fort to defend a mountain pass from ticked off Indians. Neville Brand and Lon Chaney Jr. are two of the cavalry men with a vendetta against Peck. Unusual setting makes this a very effective, over looked western. Another is GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT where cavalry officer Audie Murphy must defend the fort from assorted villains with a handful of hardy women with varying emotional issues. Good stuff.

Posted By Jim : March 7, 2009 3:28 pm

While not literally a siege movie, a good modern film which depicts a cop and his prisoner fighting a squadron of New York’s finest is Bruce Willis’ movie, “16 Blocks”

Posted By Jim : March 7, 2009 3:28 pm

While not literally a siege movie, a good modern film which depicts a cop and his prisoner fighting a squadron of New York’s finest is Bruce Willis’ movie, “16 Blocks”

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : March 13, 2009 5:09 pm

[...] mention the other day in a post about siege movies of the forgotten 1967 western CHUKA prompted some interesting inquiries from readers who had never [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : March 13, 2009 5:09 pm

[...] mention the other day in a post about siege movies of the forgotten 1967 western CHUKA prompted some interesting inquiries from readers who had never [...]

Posted By Larry B : March 15, 2009 10:42 pm

Great blog, Richard. I’m a sucker for a siege from way back. Already ordered CHUKA–thank you for that, and I’m going to read your review after I watch it. ZULU might just be THE siege masterpiece. For remembering the Alamo, I go to Republic’s leaner THE LAST COMMAND, only because that’s the one I grew up with on TV (and it has some pretty visceral action I must say).

Nice to see Gordon Douglas’ other siege film ONLY THE VALIANT mentioned. It surprised me when I first saw it for its very early use of a squib/blood bag. And I think no siege discussion is complete without mentioning the excellent, and mega-grim, BATAAN, another violent film for its time. It’s interesting to trace its lineage from THE LOST PATROL, which led to some fascinating reimagings, like BAD LANDS, SAHARA (two versions) and LAST OF THE COMANCHES (stagecoach for tank).

Also worth mentioning: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989), a kind of Alamo set in Vietnam.

Posted By Larry B : March 15, 2009 10:42 pm

Great blog, Richard. I’m a sucker for a siege from way back. Already ordered CHUKA–thank you for that, and I’m going to read your review after I watch it. ZULU might just be THE siege masterpiece. For remembering the Alamo, I go to Republic’s leaner THE LAST COMMAND, only because that’s the one I grew up with on TV (and it has some pretty visceral action I must say).

Nice to see Gordon Douglas’ other siege film ONLY THE VALIANT mentioned. It surprised me when I first saw it for its very early use of a squib/blood bag. And I think no siege discussion is complete without mentioning the excellent, and mega-grim, BATAAN, another violent film for its time. It’s interesting to trace its lineage from THE LOST PATROL, which led to some fascinating reimagings, like BAD LANDS, SAHARA (two versions) and LAST OF THE COMANCHES (stagecoach for tank).

Also worth mentioning: THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989), a kind of Alamo set in Vietnam.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 16, 2009 11:56 pm

Another stunning siege movie worth mentioning (under the category of a non-seige movie that climaxes in a major seige-a-thon) is FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. Also, one of my top ten films of all time (why doesnt Dustin Hoffman ever discuss this epic in his career retrospective interviews) is STRAW DOGS – based on the novel Siege at Trenchers Farm. “I will not allow violence against this house.” OH YES: and what about THE KILLER SHREWS? That’s the film where i learned how to make an impentetrable fortress out of an overturned oil drum.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 16, 2009 11:56 pm

Another stunning siege movie worth mentioning (under the category of a non-seige movie that climaxes in a major seige-a-thon) is FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. Also, one of my top ten films of all time (why doesnt Dustin Hoffman ever discuss this epic in his career retrospective interviews) is STRAW DOGS – based on the novel Siege at Trenchers Farm. “I will not allow violence against this house.” OH YES: and what about THE KILLER SHREWS? That’s the film where i learned how to make an impentetrable fortress out of an overturned oil drum.

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