Standing tall with a ragtag crew of 20th century redemption
No movie oozes cult appeal quite like The Warriors. Walter Hill’s roguish ballet is as detached from reality as it is socially relevant — quite the achievement for a screenplay of such bare bones simplicity. Unlike most other gang-orientated pictures, it doesn’t condemn or even sympathise. Its cast of thugs are not the subject of morality plays. They are not analysed or judged for their actions and there is no Bronson-esque retribution or attempt to provide solutions for its overblown representation of violent youth. Instead they are accepted as part of a corrupt society that inspires rebellion. They are neither heroes nor villains in the traditional sense.
The Warriors is one of those rare movies that I had an immediate affinity with. I was thirteen when I first caught it on late night TV and it immediately sparked my rebellious streak, its brand of comic book violence and hard-earned pathos leaving me utterly breathless. Some movies have such an impact on you as a youngster that you immediately reach for your action figures. Watching it just isn’t enough. You want to get further involved, directing your own mini movie in the only way you can. The Warriors was even more special. Figures would not suffice this time around. I remember drawing the characters in the back of my school notebooks, marvelling at every last larger-than-life detail. I even went as far as writing a story in English class, a kind of alternate reality tale that touched on many of the movie’s plot points and themes. That is one of my earliest memories of being in love with the written word and the teacher was so impressed she gave me an A. The best part was it didn’t feel earned. It was all so effortless and natural, the kind of story that gallops through meadows and tears through the skies, reducing the author to a mere spectator.
Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name provides the movie’s source material. Although straying rather liberally from realism, it explores themes such as family and sexuality and is much less fantastical. It does, however, allude to the comic book style of its cinematic successor. The novel opens with a quote from Anabasis, a book by Ancient Greek soldier and writer Xenophon, upon which the story is based. Throughout Yurick’s novel a character reads from a comic book version of the story, something director Walter Hill envisioned as a more literal visual element, but only with the movie’s 2010 release did he finally get his wish. In a discussion edited by Fader‘s Eric Ducker, Hill would state, “I don’t think you can understand the movie without understanding my infatuation with the American comic book. It was the height of my creative interest in that art form. I wanted to divide the movie into chapters and then have each chapter come to life starting with a splash panel.”
Cowboy: [winded, running from the Baseball Furies] I can’t make it.
Ajax: Are you sure?
Cowboy: Yes, I’m sure…
Ajax: Well, good! I’m sick of runnin’ from these wimps!
The version known as the Ultimate Director’s Cut does come to life in this way, beginning with an old scroll and comic panel depicting the Battle of Cunaxa, and panning to an illustrated introduction to its 20th century counterpart. The same technique is used throughout the movie to delineate scenes in the same comic book fashion, and it works wonderfully, fusing with the film’s cartoon appeal without detracting from its rough-and-tumble thuggery. Hill’s 1979 Theatrical Cut had no such embellishments, but it still manages to communicate that same comic book aura, a sequence of beautifully staged scenes and frenetic cuts offering glimpses of stylised exposition and world-building right out of a graphic novel. Plot developments are delivered in that same comic book style, whether its the Riffs’ newly-appointed warlord Masai receiving cooly-framed updates on the whereabouts of our fleeing gang, or the iconic ‘D.J.’ offering debonair threats and ironic requests such as Arnold McCuller’s “Nowhere to Run” as our wrongly accused antagonists are pursued from all corners.
The film’s cartoon embellishments may be the stuff of pure fantasy, but these are warriors entrenched in the social injustices of late 20th century America; a post-Civil Rights era of economic liberalism, Reagan’s War on Drugs and widespread gentrification, ideologies that have no place for working class minorities and citizens deemed useless to capitalism, a grey area where gangs like The Warriors fall. In spite of its comic book pzazz, The Warriors gives us real people with very real emotions. The vernacular may be lyrical, the action heavily orchestrated, but our cast of amplified rogues prove strangely relatable when forced along a path to self-discovery that will transform them into everything they aspire to be.
Made at the tail-end of the blaxploitation era, the movie is a somewhat accurate reflection of the times, seeped in garish counterculture and echoing the societal struggles of recent history. The demonising of gang culture is inevitable in a world where financial disparity is actively sought by those in power. Power structures want a society that is weak and subservient, and for those on the breadline the lure of violence and organised crime is their only escape from a life of oppression. But The Warriors refuses to bow to convention. Hill’s gangs seek unity in the face of a police state brutality, freedom in the face of imposed uniformity. They are not mindless thugs hellbent on evil deeds, they seek solidarity and revolution. They are desperate men reduced to desperate acts. Much like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, there is a moral compass that transcends traditional ethics. Morality, it seems, is not always so clear-cut.
The movie begins with a series of grainy neon shots of New York’s underbelly, a sequence of hip soundbites offering us a glimpse into the titular gang’s various members and their differing personalities. Outwardly, they all seem to fit the bill. They are rambunctious and brimming with bravado, electric with juvenile anticipation as they head to what promises to be a monumental meeting at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx as the city’s gangs converge for the prospect of unity. Championing that pact is inspirational Riffs warlord, Cyrus, a kind of elder statesmen with the unifying charisma of Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, some hoods are too far gone for coalition. Instead they feed on death and destruction, and after a public assassination somehow falls into the unwitting lap of The Warriors, they face a race to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island with their lives intact.
The catalyst for this cruel case of mistaken identity is ‘Rogues” leader Luther (David Patrick Kelly). Kelly’s frenzied miscreant is one of the most recognisable villains in all of cult cinema, a bottomless character who not only feasts on hostility but lives for it. The scene where he calls out to The Warriors with a nerve-jangling melody of clashing bottles is one of the most memorable in the entire movie, his screeching taunts leading to a cowboys-at-dawn finale on the beaches of Coney Island—interesting, since the Peckinpah-obsessed Hill was originally set to make a western before pitching The Warriors to producers at Paramount.
Swan: Why’d you do it? Why’d you waste Cyrus?
Luther: No reason. I just… like doing things like that!
Due to the promise of an extremely low budget and minuscule shooting time, the honchos at Paramount were all over it, and a relative cast of unknowns would only add to the movie’s bargain-basement appeal and visual authenticity. In an interview with The Warriors Movie Site, Kelly would discuss the role that allowed him to become one of the most recognisable bad guys of the 80s. “Because it was my first film I learned so much, especially about the difference between what the original script is and what finally ends up on the screen. All the craft of producing, which is organizing and hiring the set designers, camera workers, costumers, the director, writer and actors. They all contribute so much. I was very fortunate with The Warriors, and I am glad it meant so much to people. I am very proud of it.”
Luther and his gang of delinquents would represent the more malevolent side of gang culture, highlighting the very real threat of unmotivated violence in the gangland arena. He also represents the farthest reaches of disillusioned youth in an era of street-bound rebellion and drug culture, the kind that would explode during the latter half of the 20th century. Perhaps inevitably, some would find motivation in the movie’s more superficial elements, and upon its release The Warriors would inspire real-life violence that would see Paramount pull the plug on its advertising, leaving the movie in commercial limbo. Incredibly, gang violence would even occur in theatres during screenings, leading to the death of real-life gang members and the kind of mainstream furore that would discredit a movie meant primarily as entertainment. Remembering the incident, actor Michael Beck would tell The Fader: “I was certainly surprised and shocked that kids who went to see this movie ended up fighting and killing each other. The press jumped all over that and Paramount got cold feet about supporting the movie and pulled all the ads on it. It opened well and then it just died a death.”
Beck’s character, Swan, the self-appointed Warlord of The Warriors following predecessor Cleon’s early demise, represents an altogether different product of the streets; a level-headed soldier whose aggression is inspired solely by the necessity of self-preservation, and he’s not the only one to portray gang culture in a less cynical light. Despite its modish violence and dissident jive-talk, The Warriors paints gang warfare as an aggressive culture forged from a sense of vulnerability. Iconic gangs such as the heavily-painted Baseball Furies may possess obvious cartoon flourishes, but gangs such as the unrecognised Orphans, insecure at being unaware of the night’s all-inclusive gathering, want nothing more than to fit in. They don’t necessarily want trouble, they just want to be respected, and are willing to let our eponymous gang pass through their territory until a crass broad heckles them into begrudging combat.
The broad in question is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a hard-faced loiterer with the deep-rooted fragility of a cracked vanity mirror. Mercy talks tough and appears to thrive on trouble, but trouble is the only thing that allows her the attention she craves, and her outward hostility belongs to a lack of self-worth. This is beautifully accentuated during a scene on the subway after two couples join Mercy and eventual love interest Swan on an otherwise empty subway train. Caught in a distinctly middle-class night of fun-filled titillation, the quartet at first fail to notice our rough-and-ready couple, until giddy laughter suddenly turns to awkwardness. Sensing their pity, a sheepish Mercy instinctively reaches to fix her hair, but a defiant Swan stops her from acquiescing, a falling corsage punctuating the emotional contrast of a life she’ll never know. Instead of romantic walks along some magical promenade, her comfort arrives in a reluctant clinch beneath the rat-infested tunnels of the underground. That train journey marks a turning point for both Mercy and Swan. For once their defiance doesn’t smack of bravado, but of a quiet and determined sense of dignity.
Mercy: Friday nights are good. Saturday nights are better.
Swan: I bet you can’t even remember who you get on Friday and Saturday night… you probably don’t remember what they look like…
Mercy: Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t… who gives a damn?
Asides from Swan and the gang’s latest recruit, The Warriors represents an inner journey for the gang as a whole. There are obvious casualties along the way: the loyal yet short-sighted Ajax (James Remar), succumbing to citizen’s arrest and a no-nonsense dame in the park, the aforementioned Cleo, and, more by necessity than design, Fox, whose body double would succumb to a spectacular and premature train death due to a conflict between Hill and actor Thomas G. Waites, but for those who exit to a ‘red sea’ of parting Riffs during the film’s redemptive climax, the story is about self-realisation. When we first meet The Warriors they are yet to prove their worth. They sport the right colours and spit the right words, but the only member who seems cautious of the potential consequences of gang life is quasi-leader Swan. Ajax is tough, as are Vermin and Cochise, but the former is hotheaded, the latter proving themselves easily distracted when the opportunity for some ‘tail’ arrives in the form of The Lizzies, a covert female gang who almost get the drop on them.
Another member of The Warriors doesn’t belong anywhere near the streets. The aptly-named Rembrandt (Marcelino Sánchez) is the gang’s designated artiste, spray-tagging their territorial mark wherever instructed. Other than that he is little more than a passenger, a strangely effeminate member who sticks largely to the shadows, and who seems to belong more for protection than to represent. On the surface, The Warriors are just another band of senseless thugs, but they represent the full spectrum of misguided youth: fear, apprehension, frustration, anger and ultimately a desire to be accepted. Gangs are about solidarity in the face of alienation, about strength in numbers, and The Warriors are determined to stand tall in a society that is hellbent on cutting them down. They represent honour and dignity in a world of prejudice and disillusionment. They stand for truth and justice in a society that is all too quick to condemn.
Like any meaningful achievement, it doesn’t come easy. Before their ill-fated meeting on Van Cortlandt Park, The Warriors belong to gang culture only as an accessory; largely unknown and almost completely untested. When is comes to animal instincts, bark can be just as valuable as bite, but inevitably someone will bite first, and only then will an animal grow or shrink. The Warriors have plenty of bark in them, and after a series of desperate manoeuvres as they flee from rabble after pursuing rabble, they have no choice but to stand their ground and bite back, and bite back hard. Like the movie itself, The Warriors would rise above expectation, the distant memory of commercial scandal succumbing to a timeless resolve that found its way into the hearts of a generation. Most low-key movies may fade into obscurity, but The Warriors stands the test of time. Not only is it “good”, or even “real good”. In fact, as a grainy spectacle of low-key cult appeal, it is still one of the very best around.