These brush strokes help students view Carpenter as a consistent artist with a wide variety of films stretching over four decades.
Again, a love of old Hollywood Westerns (and also old Hollywood films in general) is neither a surprise nor a revelation, especially considering that Carpenter grew up – not unlike his movie brat brethren (Spielberg, Lucas, Landis, Dante) -- watching the big screen efforts of Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Huston.
But specifically, Carpenter’s much-acknowledged favorite film is 1959’s Rio Bravo, a Western starring John Wayne. Over Carpenter's long career, that Hawks film has served as the specific template or blueprint for no less than three Carpenter films: Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness (1987), and, yes, Ghosts of Mars.
Written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, Rio Bravo is an early siege-style film in which a group of heroic characters must work together to repel the equivalent of a hostile invading force. In Rio Bravo, audiences meet the unlikely “heroic” triumvirate of a “sheriff, a barfly” and a cripple.” In order, they are: Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin) – an alcoholic – and an old man, named Stumpy (Walter Brennan).
The face of evil is represented by wealthy Nathan Burdette, whose brother Joe is being incarcerated by the honorable Chance inside the local jail. Burdette proceeds to close down the town so that Chance and his men can’t leave, and -- importantly -- so that no additional law enforcement can get in. Then Burdette sends in hired killers to “prod” Chance into releasing his brother from behind bars. Our three heroes (at least two of them quite untraditional...) work together to combat this siege and defeat Burdette. In the process, they come to understand, admire and depend on one another. Their bond is unbreakable.
Carpenter recreated the central premise of Rio Bravo in Assault on Precinct 13. In that film, it was Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) assuming the John Wayne role of honorable law enforcement official. He was assisted not by a drunk, however, but by a notorious criminal named Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), and a Hawksian woman, a police secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer). In this case, they were protecting an imperiled citizen from a local (and extremely violent...) gang, Street Thunder.
Going into specifics, one can pinpoint how cleverly Carpenter updated the Rio Bravo template from the Old West to the urban, inncer city blight of the 1970s exploitation era. The so-called"cut-throat song" of Hawks’ film is transformed into the gang banner or cholo in Assault on Precinct 13. The wagon filled with dynamite that initiates Burdette’s ultimate defeat in Rio Bravo becomes a cast-off acetylene canister in the Carpenter’s film, and so on.
Assault on Precinct 13 even repeats the trademark action moment in Rio Bravo in which Colorado (Ricky Nelson) throws Chance his shotgun as hit men close in for the kill, but only here the quick action is shared by Bishop and Wilson in the under-siege police station.
In Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter creates another heroic troika of equally unlikely origins, and -- once again -- changes the setting, the terrain for the battle. The Old West/Inner City location becomes instead a frontier town on Mars (also replete with a jail building). The heroic Ballard, like Dude before her, must overcome a devastating personal vice (drug addiction, rather than alcoholism), and Desolation Williams is but a future variation of noble crook, Napoleon Wilson (you can even detect the similarity in names there…Williams/Wilson).
Howard Hawks (unofficially) re-made Rio Bravo as El Dorado in 1967 and as Rio Lobo in 1970 and he is championed as an auteur for, among many fine qualities, his sense of consistency. Now Carpenter has also vetted the same Western archetype three times, but modern audiences are so distant from the original Rio Bravo (or original Assault on Precinct 13, for that matter...), that his method, his "homage" is not recognized, let alone championed for the clever alterations and updates he has injected into the longstanding formula.
Rio Bravo and Assault on Precinct 13 aren’t the only important antecedents to 2001's Ghosts of Mars. The film also serves as a futuristic, sci-fi version of the 1964 British classic Zulu, which was also a “transplanted” version of the American Western genre (and particularly the sub-genre of the siege.)
Zulu recounted the (true) story of a landmark 1879 battle at "Rorke's Drift" in Africa. Miraculously, 150 British soldiers held out (and survived) a siege by 4,000 Zulu warriors at a small supply depot and hospital. The Zulu attackers in the film were deliberately modeled after the Western genre's (mostly innaccurate) stereotype of Indians as frightening, aggressive savages, ones with vastly different rules of warfare than those of the “civilized” West. Zulu's director, Cy Endfield even had his Zulu extras watch Western films to get down the behavior of Indian marauders in preparation for their attack scenes.
The Martian warriors of Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars clearly perform the same function, and -- like their Zulu or Indian predecessors in film history -- are visually differentiated from the force of the establishment/civilization. The Martians are the savage "uncivilized" attackers, and with their strange body piercings, sharpened teeth and battle paints, they represent an “alien” or unfamiliar aesthetic. More than that, the Martian ghosts represent the indigenous population resisting an Imperialist occupation.
Following Ghosts of Mars' release, Peter Jackson's The Two Towers (2002) similarly utilized some of the impressive compositions and ideas of Zulu (as well as the seemingly impossible battle/siege scenario) as the foundation for the Helm's Deep sequence of that fantasy.
Fans of Zulu may find other corollaries between that film's presentation of scoundrel Henry Hook and Ghosts of Mars’ thief, Desolation Williams. Both are rebellious characters (or anti-heroes) who fight successfully against the Establishment...and the enemy.
Also, Zulu opens with the narration of a communique detailing the shocking defeat of a British Outpost in Africa (at Isandhlwana) by the Zulu forces. Melanie Ballard in Ghosts of Mars fulfills the same function in Carpenter's 2001 narrative; her voice-over narration representing the “early” warning of a coming storm on Mars...
In much more general terms, Carpenter has also crafted Ghosts of Mars as a clever homage to the Western format. overall. His film features a primitive frontier town (not the Tech-Noir metropolis of Blade Runner, for example), employs trains and balloons as conveyances, rather than spaceships or hover-crafts, and he arms his police with rifles and pistols…not lasers or light sabers.
Basically, Carpenter has “terra-formed” the conventions of one genre to make them fit another, transforming his Martian movie into a pitched battle between futuristic cowboys and extra-terrestrial Indians.
Again, if consistency of purpose and mode of operation represent the trademarks of a talented and committed artist, consider how often Carpenter has appropriated the concepts associated with the Western and nudged them into new (and currently popular) genres. It happened not merely with Assault on Precinct 13 and the form of the 70s exploitation film, but with Vampires (1998) as well, a horror film which opened with a sunlit siege on an abandoned Western farmhouse.
That film also gave us another Neo-Rio Bravo group of bantering heroic characters: Jack Crow, Father Guiteau, and the afflicted (by vampirism, not alcoholism…) Montoya. There is also -- no doubt intentionally -- a set-piece set in a jail in Vampires, again recalling Rio Bravo. Even the general settings of Vampires -- brutal deserts and “ghost towns” -- is far more simpatico with Western film tradition than the established conventions of the vampire movie.
On at least one memorable occasion, Carpenter even noted that his Lovecraft-inspired, cerebral horror film, In The Mouth of Madness (1994) was really...a Western. He has spent his career, then, re-purposing the tenets of an old, out-of-fashion form for new, fresh consumption. Any reasonable review of Ghosts of Mars, it seems, would -- by necessity -- judge Carpenter on how well he accomplishes this feat; and on how the film fits into his career tradition.
Finally, in addition to his well-documented love of Westerns (and even transplanted Westerns like Zulu), Carpenter has long been a genre fan, with a particular affection for the British Quatermass film of the 1950s and 1960s (The Creeping Unknown, Enemy from Space and Five Million Years to Earth). In particular, Five Million Years to Earth (1968) dealt with the concept of a Martian psychic force sweeping through London (after a buried rocket was excavated by workers toiling on a new underground subway line.)
These Martians had changed our human evolution (and were responsible for aspects of human mythology...), and they also exerted a strange, malevolent mental power. Of course, that last bit represents the set-up and Nature of the Martian Enemy in Ghosts of Mars as well. Incorporeal spirits of deadly and evil desires, and ones fully capable of possessing the living.
So, what we really have here in Ghosts of Mars is two-fold: it’s a deliberate tribute to the admired films of Carpenter’s youth (most importantly Rio Bravo, Zulu and Five Million Years to Earth), and a consistent continuation of Carpenter’s obsession with Westerns, and with transplanting Western conventions to new genres and new locations....
In the film’s last scene, Desolation notes with admiration that Ballard would make a great criminal, and Ballard responds in kind, saying he’d make a great cop. Then they look at each other and say "Nah!" Again, it’s a kind of duet: two “opposites” circle one another with admiration, having learned to respect each other despite their obvious differences. This style of wordplay also means that Ballard and Desolation share a tough-talking bond that borders on the flirtatious. “I never give my word,” Desolation says. “I never make deals with crooks,” Ballard shoots back. And on and on. It's banter. It's one-up-manship. It's...deliberate.
When confronted with certain death and total apocalypse, Ballard and Desolation intensify their dance, revealing aspects of their personal codes of conduct. Ballard wonders what makes Desolation tick. He answers that if she sticks around, he’ll tell her some day. She wonders when that will be, and Desolation answer “when the tide is high, and the water’s rising…” To some folks, this sort of dialogue may seem cliched, but it's more accurately just old-fashioned, and a reflection of the kind of film Ghosts of Mars seeks to be: a deliberate evocation of the 1950s Hollywood Western. People seemed to like this approach to dialogue just fine in Assault on Precinct 13, but deride it in Ghosts of Mars.