Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Film Appreciation - City Streets Don't Have Much Pity


Cody Hamman rains praise on The Warriors for Film Appreciation.

Put off by the candy-coated portrayal of street gangs in 1961's West Side Story, New York Department of Welfare worker Sol Yurick was inspired to write a novel that would mix a realistic representation of street life into a structure inspired by ancient Greek writer Xenophon's story Anabasis, which told of a Greek army stuck behind enemy lines when their leader, Cyrus the Younger, is killed while fighting to take control of Persia. Yurick replaced the army with gang members and moved the setting to modern day New York. The resulting novel, The Warriors, was first published in 1965.

The film rights to Yurick's novel were bought by producer Lawrence Gordon, who hired David Shaber to adapt it into a screenplay. Initially, the film adaptation stuck to Yurick's realistic work... but when Walter Hill came on board to rewrite the script and direct the film, it became something Yurick ultimately wasn't happy with, but legions of fans have been enjoying since it was first released in 1979.

While Hill kept the basics intact, he approached the material with a very comic book-ish sensibility, even intending to include a comic book style opening and scene transitions. Those didn't make it into the finished film, but were added into a 2005 Director's Cut DVD release, which I haven't seen because I feel that the movie is perfect just the way it was in its original form. Hill meant his adaptation to be set "sometime in the future", and although this future looks very much like late 1970s New York, it really is a place that existed only in Hill's mind. He departs sharply from Yurick's idea of giving the audience a realistic portrayal of gangs and fills his version of New York with very stylized gangs, each immediately recognizable by their wardrobe and appearances. There are fellows who dress like pimps, a bunch of skinheads, a gang of mimes, rollerskating guys in bib overalls, and most popularly The Baseball Furies, a gang whose members dress up in baseball uniforms, use bats for weapons, and in a touch inspired by the band KISS, paint up their faces.

The Warriors themselves dress in leather vests with their names and logo on the back. Wearing a shirt under the vest is optional, and several Warriors opt not to.

The groundwork for the very simplistic story is laid out during the opening title sequence, which grooves along the back of the awesome synth rock score composed by Barry De Vorzon. When I first watched The Warriors in the early 2000s after years of hearing about it, the movie had already captured my heart by the end of this seven minute sequence.

A man named Cyrus, who everyone refers to as "the one and only", the president of The Riffs, the biggest gang in New York, is holding a summit in a park in the Bronx. Nine delegates from over one hundred different gangs from around the boroughs have agreed to a truce so they can gather together at the park, with no weapons, to hear what Cyrus has to say.

The nine delegates from the Coney Island-based Warriors include their leader Cleon, his "war chief" Swan, and members Snow, Cochise, Cowboy, Fox, Rembrandt, Vermin, and surly, cynical Ajax, who doesn't think much of this event, he's just hoping to waste some heads and lay some strange wool during the trip.

Despite Ajax's prediction that no one will actually show up for Cyrus's presentation, the park is packed with peaceful gang members who watch with rapt attention as the man delivers a four minute monologue, famously punctuated with the repeated question of "Can you dig it?", in which he lays out a plan for all the gangs of the city to unite and become one big gang. This gang alliance would include twenty thousand members, forty thousand counting affiliates, and twenty thousand more would be likely to be recruited. That's an army of sixty thousand gang members, who would proceed to go to war with the police force, which they would outnumber three to one, in a fight to completely take over New York. One gang to run all the boroughs. It's a scenario that would probably be a nightmare for the average citizen, but the gang delegates seem totally won over by Cyrus, listening to his words as if he were a messianic figure.

All of the delegates except for those from a gang called The Rogues. One of their members, a weaselly little creep named Luther, has broken the rules of the summit and brought in a weapon. A gun. And at the peak of Cyrus's speech, right before the police arrive to break up the meeting and nab some gang members, Luther shoots Cyrus dead. When asked why he did it, Luther will simply reply, "No reason. I just like doing things like that." He thrives on chaos.

Warriors member Fox witnessed Luther do the shooting, and so Luther turns the Cyrus-loving crowd against The Warriors, blaming the murder on them. As the titular gang runs away from the park and tries to negotiate the public transit system, they at first believe they just need to avoid the police. But word starts to spread, word that they don't get wind of until much later in the film, that they were the ones responsible for killing Cyrus. Apparently every gang in the city listens to the same radio station, and when The Riffs hear that The Warriors killed their leader, they put out an APB of sorts through the radio DJ that they want The Warriors brought in, alive or wasted.

During one long, action-packed night, The Warriors must travel through enemy territory (the Bronx and Brooklyn), on their way back to Coney Island, dodging police and having violent encounters with various other gangs, including The Turnbull ACs, The Baseball Furies, the all-girl gang The Lizzies, The Punks (who clearly didn't get their style from the music genre), and even the "lame f--ks" of The Orphans. Along the way, they pick up an instigating young woman named Mercy but also lose some members... Not all of The Warriors get back home alive.

Cleon is the first to fall, so war chief Swan has to step up into the leadership role. Swan is played by Michael Beck, who is totally awesome in this movie. Beck should have been a star after this, but unfortunately the role he took as he was on the rise post-Warriors was the lead role, opposite Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, in the infamous roller disco musical Xanadu, which immediately smacked his career right back down to the ground. Beck is so great in The Warriors that he deserved to get a John Travolta/Pulp Fiction style comeback, but unfortunately that hasn't happened for him. 

The rest of the Warriors all make an impression in their own way, I particularly like the more comedic performance delivered by Terry Michos in the role of Vermin, and of course James Remar is a standout as Ajax. The Warriors was only the second movie for Remar, and he's still going strong and kicking ass today.
Fans of cult and genre movies may recognize Thomas G. Waites, who played the character Windows in John Carpenter's The Thing, as Fox, but you won't find his name in the credits. At one point, Fox was supposed to be the lead character, which is probably why he's the one to witness Luther shooting Cyrus, and was meant to be the love interest for Mercy, which is probably why he's the one who's always at her side when she first joins the group. But Waites got along so poorly with the director that Hill fired him during production and killed his character off.

Deborah Van Valkenburgh is great as Mercy, who is both tough and vulnerable. It was a rough shoot for Van Valkenburgh, who received a broken wrist during the filming of one scene and needed stitches for a head injury caused by a baseball bat in another scene.

David Patrick Kelly plays the very hateable little troll Luther, and with an ad lib gave the film one of its most memorable moments when, while clanking three beer bottles together, Luther taunts The Warriors with an intense, sing-song repetition of the line, "Warriors, come out to play." Thanks to Kelly's delivery, no viewer can walk away from watching The Warriors without having that stuck in their head.

In recent years, there has been talk of remaking The Warriors. Tony Scott was attached to direct for a long time, and under his guidance the project was being developed to be much more gritty and realistic. He was so dedicated to presenting a true-to-life look at gangs that he even wanted to fill the cast with actual gang members. That may have been closer to what Sol Yurick intended with his novel, but it was never an idea that appealed to me. I had no interest in seeing The Warriors redone realistically. For me, the comic book style and lack of realism that Walter Hill brought to the story is what elevates it and makes it so much fun to watch. Give me Baseball Furies over the real world any day.

I was late to the party on The Warriors, as mentioned earlier I didn't see it until the days of DVD, sometime after its first release in January of 2001 but well before the Director's Cut edition came out in October of 2005. I rented the DVD from the local video store and watched it repeatedly, having back-to-back viewings of it. It was an instant favorite. I bought a copy of the DVD as soon as possible after I had to return that one to the video store. More than ten years later, The Warriors remains a favorite of mine, and the DVD copy I bought still gets played regularly.

The Warriors turns thirty-five years old this year, and it's still as badass as it was when it first came out.

Can you dig it?


  1. Great review. I was but a 7 year old kid when my older cousin took me to the movies to see this film. This isn't the type of movie you take a 7 year old to the movies too, but hey I lived in South Central L.A. at the time, so it was ok. What a thrill ride. I loved it as a kid, and still do. As soon as I got home from the theater that day in 1979, I ripped the sleeves off of my jacket.

    I can dig it.

    Agreed the original is the only one worthy of watching.

    Unitl the original comes to blu ray I don't see my self ever seeing the director's cut on blu ray again. And while you may say "I [we] don't got one", I do suggest you watch the director's cut on BLU RAY once only to appreciate some details that were not so readily seen on the DVD.

    Welcome Bopper to our cult; wether it was in 2001, 2011, or 1981.