Remember the Alamo: Alternative fortresses in film

Dog Soldiers

‘Know what this reminds me of? Rorke’s Drift. A hundred men of Harlech, making a desperate stand against 10,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered, surrounded, staring death in the face and not flinching for a moment. Balls of British steel.’ Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002)

Pvt ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon may grossly exaggerate the enemy numbers faced during the Anglo-Zulu War’s most famous battle, but as he prepares to help defend a farmhouse from an attack by werewolves the comparison is a resonant one. Holed up with his squaddie comrades deep in the Scottish Highlands, and under siege from lycanthrope adversaries, Spoon draws attention to a trait common to many horror movies: the backs-to-the-wall stand carried out in an ad-hoc ‘fortress’. Complete with a scene where a letterbox becomes the horizontal equivalent of a loophole, enabling a burst of gunfire rather than arrows to be deployed, Dog Soldiers casts the humble farmhouse in the role of a castle, a fortification designed to keep its inhabitants safe and the enemy on the outside. Though predominantly used in horror movies, the embattled-last-stand plot-line also crops up elsewhere: Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), itself inspired by Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), and Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), in which a small, rural village is fortified, are notable entries into the non-traditional siege movie.

Evoking, either consciously or not, many historical sieges and last stands, from Masada to The Alamo and Leningrad, the alternative siege movie (for wont of a better catch-all definition), utilises many types of architectural structures as their last line of defence. Shopping malls, pubs, supermarkets, brothels, police stations, mansions, tower blocks and underground silos have all been co-opted to (rarely successfully) provide safety from all manner of adversarial forces in movies such as Red Lion (Kihachi Okamoto, 1969), From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) and 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002). Zombies, vampires, criminal gangs, samurai armies, inter-dimensional entities and drunken, repressed locals have stalked, attacked and sometimes destroyed places not designed to withstand prolonged violent assaults. Even sanctuaries constructed with safety in mind, such as the oil-rich compound in George Miller’s Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (1981), a post-apocalyptic version of the circled wagons defensive technique seen in many Westerns, struggle to keep villainous gangs at arm’s length. Characterised by lengthy sequences set in one location inhabited by diverse, fractious characters, or ones intimate with each other but driven to the edge of breaking point, the alternative siege movie rarely ends well for the majority of its protagonists, even if the enemy is finally repelled. When actual weaponry is spent or absent, anything that can be brandished in its place usually will be. Cricket bats, man traps, gas canisters, kitchen implements and gardening equipment among other things take the place of guns, swords, bombs and shields. After all, when you’re staring death in the face, it’s better to be armed with a kitchen knife than nothing at all.

The zombie movie almost always revolves around a hardy group of survivors being laid siege to, and the Don of the genre, George A. Romero, placed his central characters in increasingly fortified, if not infallible, locations in his original Dead Trilogy. The isolated house in Night of the Living Dead (1969) gave way to the imposing, sprawling Monroeville Mall, replete with a storage room version of a castle’s keep, in Dawn of the Dead (1978), itself, ostensibly, usurped in the safety stakes by the underground silo in Day of the Dead (1985). That all of these places were eventually fatally compromised, from outside and within, flags up the necessity in terms of narrative drive and tension for the line between safety and danger, civilisation and anarchy, and life and death never to be full-proof. Even Day‘s silo – underground, window-free and populated in part by the military – was rendered useless by the actions of an insane soldier, and the foolhardy decision to hold scientific ‘specimens’ below ground. Indeed, internal schisms, the emotional, physical and mental pressures of life-or-death situations and the inadvertent or unavoidable presence of ‘the enemy’ inside a makeshift castle/fort are often as hazardous to survival rates as external threats.

Windows are a major problem for those trapped inside an embattled location, for while they may afford the opportunity to keep an eye on the enemy, they are also a relatively easily traversed entry point. The all-glass façade of the supermarket in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, The Mist (2007), The Winchester’s eyes onto the street in the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and the windows of the Sumners’ home in Straw Dogs are all architectural Achilles’ heels when it comes to fending off attackers. The Lovecraftian creatures drawn to The Mist‘s ‘fort’, the shuffling undead hordes of Wright and Simon Pegg’s horror spoof and the aggressive, insular locals threatening the married couple in Peckinpah’s psychological thriller penetrate the safety barrier, the dividing line between order and chaos, through what should be merely a source of light. The scalding of one of the locals with boiling oil thrown through a broken window by David (Dustin Hoffman) historically references the dark ages and specifically an oft used method of repelling invaders from castles.

Even family movies aren’t averse to conjuring up the ghosts of sieges past, for what are the latter stages of Christopher Columbus’s Home Alone (1990) but a siege movie played for laughs? Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin, a precocious, loveable youngster, finds himself essentially in the same situation as Straw Dogs‘ complex beta male David and the strained but mutually advantageous policeman/prisoner partnership in Precinct 13. His enemy, two bungling thieves, may break in but Kevin’s array of booby traps – internal defence mechanisms – succeed in protecting the McCallister family home.

They say that everyone loves an underdog, and the alternative siege movie gives audiences a chance to root for characters, some sympathetic, some not so, up against the wall with no apparent escape route and no option but to fight for their very existence. Be the presentation horrific, psychological or comedic, the base essence is the same: the survival instinct will kick in, however insurmountable the odds may appear.

Neil Mitchell