My all-time favorite director is John Carpenter, but a very close second is Walter Hill. No one does “ensemble action” better, and the fact we never got to see his version of The Magnificent Seven—co-written with a screenwriter for The Dirty Dozen—is a crime against cinema.
On that note, if you’ve never seen Hill's Southern Comfort, I highly recommend it. Featuring a National Guard squad in a life-or-death struggle against Cajun hunters in the Louisiana bayou, it’s basically Deliverance meets The Warriors, starring Powers Boothe.
For lack of a better term, I think of this kind of story as an “Anabasis-esque.”
In it, a relatively small, tightly-knit group must fight to escape enemy territory, generally under the leadership of a new, untested, otherwise unknown commander.
Of course, the best-known example is probably The Warriors. Hardly surprising, considering the source novel’s author, Sol Yurick, drew inspiration from Xenophon’s famous memoir.
For those unfamiliar, Anabasis recounts the true story of the fabled March of the 10,000 in 370 BC.
In brief, Xenophon was a junior officer in an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries, hired by Cyrus the Younger to take the Persian throne from his brother, Artaxerxes II. After a long march into present-day Iraq, Cyrus fell in battle, most of the Greeks' senior leaders were murdered, and the Persian army was demanding they surrender.
Xenophon and the other remaining leaders decided the best course of action was a fighting retreat back to Athens, a journey of over 2100 miles under near-constant harassment by hostile forces.
A timeless story of determination and courage under the direst of circumstances, it's no wonder Xenophon's memoir has endured for more than 2400 years.
That said, while the Anabasis-esque takes much inspiration from the 10,000, it's not a 1:1 copy-paste of history. It's drama, with an ideal form ultimately owing more to Walter Hill than Xenophon. And while I’d hesitate to call the Anabasis-esque a genre of its own, it is a story type with particular set of stock characters and tropes that make it work.
The first is that the de facto leader is either inexperienced in the role, like The Warriors' Swan, or a new arrival the rest don’t fully trust yet, like Hardin in Southern Comfort.
Another is the guy who pushes, questions, or otherwise challenges the new leader’s authority. This causes internal tension in the group, which makes escaping harder, and forces the leader to aggressively take the mantle.
Ajax in The Warriors and Reece in Southern Comfort are examples.
This dynamic between Leader and Challenger is what sets the Anabasis-esque apart from the larger chase/survival genre. The primary drama isn’t in the escape, or in the fight against hostile locals. It’s in the unproven leader's struggle to earn the acceptance and respect of his in-group. The escape just adds pressure and immediacy to that struggle.
Deliverance arguably fits into the Anabasis-esque mold, too, or at least has elements of it. Which brings up another important stock character for the form: the expected leader. This is the experienced/respected person the new leader must fill the shoes of.
In order to drive the drama, the expected leader must be killed or sidelined at some point, usually early on.
Another film that has elements of the Anabasis-esque is Cameron's Aliens. On the surface, it seems like an almost perfect fit. The Marines are trapped in hostile territory. After first contact with the xenomorphs, the expected leader—Sgt. Apone--is dead, and Ripley must step into the role of leader.
That said, it’s not as good a fit as Deliverance.
This is because the central leadership conflict of the Anabasis-esque only makes sense in the context of proving oneself in a masculine hierarchy, a conflict Aliens eschews altogether.
To understand why, we need to dive into masculine notions of honor. In particular, we need to understand the concept of the honor group.
In The Way of Men, author Jack Donovan identifies the honor group the central social unit to masculine identity. In short, this is a group of other men that a man seeks the respect and admiration of, because he respects and admires them.
To quote Donovan:
Honor is a concern for one’s reputation for strength, courage, and mastery within the context of an honor group comprised primarily of other men.
—The Way of Men, pp. 57
But even if you concede that a woman can earn a place in a men's hierarchy—and the film does concede this, with the character of Vasquez—Ripley doesn't make the cut.
While she does become de facto leader, Ripley doesn’t especially respect the Marines, and she doesn’t care if they respect her. Her status in the honor group is never in question, because she isn’t part of it, and she doesn’t want to be.
Furthermore, the only man challenging her leadership—Burke—is not a part of the honor group, either. Nor does he have any desire to be. Indeed, he actively looks down on them as a bunch of dumb grunts. In this sense, Aliens is the anti-Anabasis-esque, a story of two outsiders fighting for authority over an honor group neither one respects or admires.
Compare this to the central leadership conflict in The Warriors.
At the start of the movie, Swan is already a rising member of the gang. He wears their colors. He lives by their code and traditions. Earning the respect of his fellow Warriors is important, because he respects them.
The film contains several fantastic examples of this characterization in action, but one of the best happens when the Warriors cross into Orphans territory.
After a brief parley, the Orphans' leader says they can go peacefully, as long as they remove their colors first. From a simple survival standpoint, it’s a no brainer. But there’s much more than survival at stake here.
This is an honor challenge, and Swan refuses to back down.
It earns him some trouble with the Orphans, but he is demonstrating to the rest of the Warriors that he honors their code and their traditions enough to fight for them. Because it’s not just about leading them home safely. It’s about leading them home as Warriors.
When Ajax challenges Swan’s leadership, it’s because he also wants the respect of his fellow Warriors. Just look at his dialogue immediately after Swan takes over as war chief:
“I only got one question. Who named you leader? I got just as much right to take over as you.”
In short, Ripley’s conflict is about making it home at all costs, honor and respect be damned. Swan’s conflict is about how he answers repeated challenges to his honor, and proves he deserves his new position as leader. This conflict—this honor question—is at the core of the Anabasis-esque. It’s what separates it from other survival stories.
And it only really works in groups where honor matters as much as life itself.
On that note, I think it's time to let Joe Walsh play us out.
'Til next time, Boppers.