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John Carpenter's

 

Sheriff MacReady and the Big Showdown
at Outpost #31

by Jeffroi

Certainly many cinematic genres share characteristics with the Western, and clearly science-fiction is one of them.  It is problematic, however, to assess a film, its conflicts, iconography, hero, etc., based wholly on the markers or characteristics of another genre.  "The Thing" has a reputation of being a science-fiction film, and sci-fi has it's own conventions, many of which are different from those and that of the Western.  It is impossible then, to prove that "The Thing" is a Western, but I assess that it is the most prevalent form of cinema evident in the film.

Opening with the inter-title: Antarctica, Winter 1982, the cinematography depicts a vast landscape, resembling a most unexplored region of land.  This site is both similar to the Old West, and contrarily a somewhat darker version.  The West was more of a state of mind with respect to the infinite opportunities that awaited.  Comprising of broad stretches of inhabited land, it was scattered with a few isolated towns that welcomed travelers from the East.  With such immensity and a lack of a well furnished political entity, the governing laws were left to the respective towns.  It is a bit of a stretch to indicate that Antarctica is similar to this, but it does adhere to common emphatic points.  The laws of Antarctica are more powerfully dictated by the discretion of nature, however they both contain identical themes of man against nature.  Furthermore, it is this conquest of desolate and untamed land through courage, and the ability to constantly be able to adapt, that "The Thing" and the Western continually are able to orbit one another in an artful unison.

Instead of the traditional Western image of a man riding-in on a horse, the black Norwegian helicopter creeps into the white foreground set against a white sky.  As the chase leads the Norwegians to The United States National Science Institute Station #4, the compound is not unlike a Westernesque town.  A prototypical Western setting involves a town filled with dust, in addition to an intimate, quiet community.  The outpost is also secluded and rather quiet, and the imagery of dust is replaced by blinding white snow.  The lack of religion present at the Outpost, whereupon most Western towns possessed churches for Sunday communion, indicates that religion has transgressed and technology has advanced.  This is intuitive from the period in which the Western was most famous.  Symbolically, if one wishes to make the analysis, the sound of church bells are coupled with the progression of technology to the electronic alarm that MacReady pulls to alert the other crew members of danger.  Like the classic Western movies "The Gunfighter" and "High Plains Drifter," the inhabitants of the towns/complex gather outside at the sound of newcomers.  Immediately following the explosion of the helicopter, the remaining survivor is portrayed as villainous, firing wildly at the dog, and injuring George.  He is subsequently shot through the eye by Gary, which establishes a scenario indicative of a common Western ideology.

With the introduction/intrusion of an unknown, the town's equilibrium is disturbed.  Like many films however, action has purposely been induced to create entertainment, and further create a spectacle of how it adapts.  This philosophical nature is inherent in many Western films such as "Hell's Hinges," where a newcomer (like "The Thing") enters a town, and ends with chaotic imbalance that ultimately results in the towns destruction.  This is also apparent in the climactic scene of High Plains Drifter, where the "unknown", now "known", rides off as the presumptuous figure of vengeance.  "The Thing" also exhibits a destructive conclusion, as the remaining components of the complex continue to burn in the final shot of the movie.

Of the numerous inherent symbols of the West that outweigh other genres, the scientists themselves depict a stereotypical Western society.  They are all men, highlighting masculinity as the central driving force of the film, and conversely depicting its terrible absence of love, personifying its creepy and dark feel.  It is easily said that the film demonstrates a brutally sexist attitude by the absence of females, in agreement with "High Noon" and Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch."  Both of those films, like most Westerns, within a small standard deviation of the mean (Sharon Stone comes to mind as one of the few female protagonistic Western heroes in Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead") depict law and prosperity at the control of men.  The weapons themselves, mainly the revolver, shotgun and dynamite further resurrect this theme.  Like the principal weapons of the West, phallic symbolism is subtly implemented.  The gun and its shape, function to spurt hot lead on demand.  The kennel dog take-over scene illustrates this concept of the male macho ego, as both Gary and MacReady strike strong confident poses with their weapons, firing wildly, firmly placed in their hands.  It is not necessary to go further into a Freudian analysis to conclude that "The Thing" is a film about men.

A classic, but dark Western hero is brought to the character of MacReady by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, although it is Garry who is initially presented as the dominant male because he shoots the Norwegian.  In the scene where the team uncovers the remains of a charred Norwegian corpse, the camera pans slowly to the left into the back of Garry.  A revolver is seen placed around his waist on a beige holster, and is in stark contrast with the dark ambiance of the room.  It is this portrait that paints the clean-shaven Garry as the sheriff figure of the camp.  He may not be the brightest or strongest individual on the team, but he holds the gun.  However, his competence as the physical leader of the group dissolves when he loses emotional control in being questioned about sabotaging blood that was to be used for determining who was infected by the alien organism.  After his resignation as the leader, the authority and gun are quickly possessed by MacReady.  He has now obtained the duty to uphold and protect the complex, a fate forecasted by the previous scene where he physically subdued the delirious Blair and then locked him up in a prison like cabin.  It is ironic that Kurt Russell would later go on to play Wyatt Earp, because both MacReady and Earp share similar evolutions. Villainy has arrived in both Tombstone and the US outpost, and through time they both inevitably take charge.  It could be said that Wyatt Earp is a cleaner version of MacReady, but the characteristics of courage, leadership and competence are all traits inter-twined in both individuals.

The scene where MacReady is making an audio tape of the account further solidifies the conviction of his sheriff status and Western figure.  We see him slouched in a chair drinking scotch with the gun placed in the foreground on the desk.  As if talking to his deputies, a mental construction is formed that is not that different from a sheriff writing his will on the verge of death.  Sheriff Cane, of the film "High Noon," performs a similar eulogy.  He writes his will just before leaving to confront the three gunmen, after discovering the town has turned against him, similar to Childs reaction of self-protection alone and locking MacReady out in the cold.  In addition, while MacReady sits in the 'saddle' of the helicopter, his cowboy style hat is worn sideways.  By taking the symbol of the Western hat and rotating it ninety degrees, has the frontier migrated South?  It is probably coincidental, but is possible Carpenter may have conceived this idea purposely (Carpenter has openly declared that "Escape from New York" is a Western).  All these attributes dictate that beneath the veneer of MacReady, lies the soul of a sheriff, bound on protecting his community and providing justice through competence and necessary violence.

Beyond the similarities of MacReady and the Western hero, there is further imagery that reinforces Western conventions eminent in "The Thing."  A cowboy traditionally drinks mash whiskey, and MacReady's beverage of choice is scotch.  There is also a recreation room which looks like a saloon, complete with a bar, billiard table, gambling and liquor.  MacReady becomes dependent on alcohol to cool his nerves and remain in control.  When he faces the mammoth pincering composite "Thing" in the final showdown, it is the alcohol that has kept him from crumbling.  Like the Mexican standoff routine, they are alone at opposite ends of the corridor, waiting for the other to make a move... with dynamite in MacReady's hand, but ending too quick for the luxury of a tumbleweed to wisp across.  Ultimately, like the gunfighters of the West who needed whiskey to retain skill, and remain calm and confident under pressure, MacReady succeeds in defeating the creature by virtue of whiskey and dynamite.

When considering a film like "The Thing," classification into a genre breaks down to two essential pillars, repetition and recognition.  Geiger counters will always register science-fiction readings for a film like "Alien."  "The Thing," however, is more difficult to diagnose since everything is scaled down, from the small cast size, to the limited complex in which most of the film was shot.  However, this loss transforms into a more profound character-depth exposition.  Certainly it has elements and characteristics that are science-fiction related, just as there are Western and other properties.  The driving point of my argument, however, is that the film needs to be analyzed more with respect to recognition, than repetition, since very few films have ever been made with this style.  From that perspective then, "The Thing" alludes more to the doctrines of the West than any other film genre.

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