are major spoilers towards the end of this review,
newcomers to the film should proceed with
"When you're president of the biggest gang in
the city, you don't have to take any shit."
"Ah, fuck him!"
never really subscribed to the idea that movies shape
behaviour, not on a widespread scale and not exclusive
of other influences. But I know full well that sometimes,
just occasionally, they do at the very least have an effect on the susceptible. Here are three examples:
- Back in the days when Hollywood was king,
Clark Gable took of his shirt in Frank Capra's It
Happened One Night to reveal a bare chest.
The sales of under-vests apparently plummeted across
the English-speaking world.
in the 1970s, a good friend of mine was visiting a relative
on an army base in Germany and became friendly
with the medical officer. One evening he dropped
in to see him and noticed a weary expression on
his face. "It's movie night," the M.O.
explained, "and they're showing a kung-fu
film." Apparently every time this happened
the squaddies emerged from the screening and,
fired up by what they had seen, began karate-chopping
walls and flagpoles and kicking trees. A kung-fu
film on movie night meant an evening of treating
broken hands, arms and feet, all self-inflicted.
1979 two teenage film students emerged from the
cinema, clambered up to the lighting gantry of the
TV studio in which they trained, and sprayed a red letter W on the wall in places that
most would think impossible to reach. I was one
of them. The film we had just seen was Walter Hill's The Warriors.
Ah, The Warriors. Here was a work that was
destined for cult status from the moment it hit
the cinemas. It arrived in the UK on a wave of controversy
following screenings in the US at which fights had broken
out between rival gangs, fights that had even, it was alledged, resulted
in a number of deaths. Press reaction was divided between
condemnations of irresponsibility on the part of the film-makers
and open celebration of the film's stylish visuals and breathless
action. At the time we thought it was one of the coolest things
we'd ever seen.
the years passed and my critical distance increased, I
still had a soft spot for the film, which for a while seemed to fade into the fog of cinematic history. It was
rarely discussed, and I can only recall one UK TV screening
(in BBC2's Moviedrome slot), while a fresh generation
of movie enthusiasts were looking for new things to
get excited about. But then some of these new film fans,
disillusioned with the more recent Hollywood output, began
to rediscover the joys of 1970s American cinema and to talk enthusiastically about what they had found. Among the discoveries
was The Warriors. The thing is, they
were really excited by it. This was my first
inkling that the film had gone from being a moment in
movie history to a fully fledged cult favourite. Not that this
was reflected in the film's first DVD release, of course.
But then, it's possible at this point that even Warner
Brothers did not realise how big the film's new following had become.
looks to be a big year for The Warriors.
Finally acknowledging its cult film status, Warner are soon to release
the director's cut on DVD, a project that the fim's director Walter Hill has
been actively involved in. On top of that, Rockstar, producers
of the phenomenally successful, amoral and ludicrously
addictive Grand Theft Auto video game series, are set to
release a game based directly on the film. A quick look at
the trailers on the Rockstar site suggests not just that
they intend to be faithful to the film's look and feel, but that
the game designers are all huge fans themselves. With
all this renewed interest in the original, the announcement
that it is to become yet another casualty of the Hollywood
Remake Machine could not have been more poorly timed,
set to hit our screens just as everyone has re-familiarised
themselves with the original, allowing the negative comparisons
to be even more focused and widespread than usual.
Warriors was an important movie for director
Walter Hill. Having earned industry respect with his scripts
for Hicky and Boggs (1972) and The Getaway (also 1972, and directed by Sam Peckinpah), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), The MacKintosh Man (1973) and The Drowning Pool (1975), he made his mark as a director
with the stylish brutality of Hard Times (1975) and the existential crime thriller The Driver (1978), but it was The Warriors that
really brought him to international attention.
It enabled him to tailor his next two studio projects – The
Long Riders and Southern Comfort – to his own by then distinctive and Peckinpah-influenced style,
before hitting the big time again with 48 Hours and making his mark as a producer and script re-writer
with David Giler on a science-fiction project you may just have heard of called Alien.
He's made some clunkers since,
but he recently directed the pilot of Deadwood,
one of the most noted and controversial successes in modern American television.
premise of The Warriors is, on the surface
at least, straightforward enough. On the streets of New York, a
general truce is called by the city's largest gang, the
Gramersy Riffs, who arrange a meeting in the Bronx to
which nine unarmed representatives from all of the key gangs in the city are invited. Here they are addressed
by the Riffs' enigmatic leader Cyrus, who suggests that
by co-operating instead of fighting they could effectively
take over and run the city. But at the height of his speech he is shot dead by the semi-psychotic Luther
(a scene-stealingly bonkers turn from David Patrick Kelly), leader of The Renegades. They swiftly plant the blame on unluckily located Warriors leader Cleon, who is instantly killed by the Riffs. Unaware that they have become a target for a city-wide manhunt by police and street gangs alike, the surviving Warriors attempt to dodge and fight their
way to the perceived safety of their Coney Island home.
get one thing straight – The Warriors is no gritty portrayal of the New York street gang problem.
Its influences are more comic book than social realist,
something the opening credits announce with aplomb, as
the plot preamble is set up through a series of artificially
posed and scripted conversational sound-bites, which are
eye-catching intercut with passing subway trains, graffiti-styled
credits and shots of a whole range of colourfully dressed
gang members making their way to the Big Meeting, all
powered along by Barry De Vorzon's driving synth score.
This is not drama-documentary, this is cinematic rock
comic-book styling extends to all aspects of the film,
from the costuming and sometimes ritualistic behaviour
of the gangs (the Riffs stand silently in troop-like rows,
the Baseball Furies space themselves out at a seemingly
measured distance in preparation for conflict) to the
celebrated punch-ups, which despite involving everything
from fists and feet to baseball bats and chains, never
result in a single drop of blood or a visibly broken limb. It was
this very issue that prompted some of the more negative
reactions to the film, complaints of irresponsibility
for suggesting that a whack in the gut from a baseball
bat would do no more than temporarily wind its victim.
Thus some of those who had berated film-makers in the
past for excessive on-screen blood-letting found themselves
in the bizarre position of protesting the lack of it here. This
complaint seems particularly absurd given the highly choreographed
nature of the fights, providing as they do a clear indication
of the film's rejection of realism. The encounter with
the Baseball Furies in particular sees one gang member
punched hard enough to spin him through the air and another thrown
a good ten feet by a sharp knee to the face. If this weren't clear enough, a key reason the Furies are beaten by a smaller number of Warriors is that because, in the tradition
of kung-fu films (whose star had not yet faded in 1979),
the silly buggers stand around and wait for their
turn to fight rather than rushing their opponents in force – at one point there are two Warriors beating the
crap out of one Baseball Fury while his mates stand in the background
looking uselessly on. This is the essence of movie fighting,
stylised and choreographed like a Bob Fosse dance sequence,
created as much in the camera placement and editing as
in the physicality of the performers.
out of nowhere this artificiality may well seem absurd,
but having established its credentials in the preceding
scenes as a stylised action piece, the film does not just
absorb these exaggerations, it revels in them. As a narrative reward, the fight
with the Baseball Furies is timed to perfection, following on as it does from a series of set-backs
and minor skirmishes and a furious chase through
Central Park, in which four Warriors flee a sizeable and murderously determined gang. After 45 minutes of running and outwitting their
opponents, this is where the gang members first take a stand, triggered
by the mouthy Ajax's proclamation that "I'm sick
of running from these wimps." To Ajax just about
everyone is a wimp or in danger of "going faggot,"
a term that both dates the film and tells us something
about Ajax's anxiously defended masculinity. It is with
no small sense of irony that Hill has him ultimately defeated
not in a fist fight with another gang but by a female undercover cop when
he allows his animal urges to overide his common sense. In a film in which
women always seem to come off second best, it's a notable
moment where this is turned completely around on the
very gang member most in need of a lesson in sexual politics.
Against the Baseball Furies, though, he shows what he
is made of, and with the assistance of compadres Swan
and Snowball, finally demonstrates just why the Warriors
are the ones worthy of their own film.
Viewed in retrospect, the set-up takes some serious swallowing.
The gang truce itself is unlikely enough, but Cyrus's plan for
city-wide domination is hopelessly naïve, relying
as it does on the continued co-operation between fiercely
territorial gangs and a complete lack of state and the
government intervention – presumably the prospect of National
Guard or even the armed forces being sent in is something
that hadn't occurred to this supposedly great leader.
Later, as they near home ground, Vermin says of Cyrus's
plan "What crap that was." He's right, but it
doesn't matter – the meeting very effectively kicks off the plot,
but it also vividly demonstrates the range and variety of
gangs that are out there, adding credibility to the seemingly
endless barriers that the Warriors colide with on their
long journey home. This is emphasised by their early encounter
with street punks The Orphans (whose leader bears an uncanny
resemblance to a young Tim Burton) who were not even
aware of the Big Meeting in the Bronx, suggesting a sub-level of potential
conflict that neither the Warriors nor those hunting them
had bargained for.
has to be said that the Warriors are very much a Hollywood
version of a street gang, cast in part for their looks
and a little too well fed and groomed to convince as Coney
Island punks, their racial mix having more to do with
audience demographic than street level harmony.
Of their number only Ajax (wonderfully played by James Remar),
initial leader Cleon (Dorsey Wright) and the tribally decorated Cochise
(David Harris) really look ready to rumble, though as stand-in leader Swan, Michael Beck is suitable sweaty and athletic. The
most unlikely member is the young Rembrandt (Marcelino Sánchez), as tough
as a stick of celery and on board purely to leave the
gang's mark wherever they go, a task that could easily have fallen to someone with better offensive skills.*
is also a Homeric nobility to the gang that is reflected
specifically in Swan's attitude to those they encounter,
negotiating safe passage to avoid a fight they may not
win, passing almost puritanical judgment on loud-mouthed
gang girl Mercy (a sassy turn by Deborah Van Valkenburg)
and yet forbidding her Ajax-proposed gang rape, in the process
maintaining their moral superiority within the street gang hierarchy.
Later, in one of the film's most quietly effective scenes,
Swan stops Mercy from absently tidying her hair as the two
sit across from their middle-class prom date counterparts
on a subway train, wordlessly reminding her (and us) that
they should wear their bruises and street-level scruff
with pride. As they exit the train, he hands Mercy a dropped
flower, a romantic gesture disguised as practicality –
"I hate to see anything go to waste." Even
the gang's name – The Warriors – with its almost mythic
links to clan and tribal fighters of years past, suggests
men who are a cut above the street brawlers they essentially are, a fighting
force whose battle across town at times recalls Odysseus's
heroic travels in Homer's Odyssey. This link
is emphasised when three of their number are distracted
by a group of seductive sirens, an all-girl lesbian gang
known as The Lizzies (one of whom is clearly far more
dangerous than any of their would-be victims). A grippingly
staged encounter that steadily builds in intensity to
the strains of of Genya Ravan's 'Love is a Fire', it nonetheless
ends shabbily when the Warriors escape not through their
own wit and fighting skills, but because the Lizzies,
instead of running after them, crouch behind their single
pistol and groan at their poor shooting.
such lapses are thankfully few and far between. Once you
accept Hill's larger-than-reality approach, this is an
often electrifying ride in which narrative
buttons are repeatedly pushed with a clockmaker's precision.
Hill even manages to top the Baseball Furies fight with
a brilliantly staged battle in a station toilet
and deliver a climactic encounter that is in some ways anti-climactic, and yet still feels just right for this story
and these characters; that the us-against-all battle comes
down to a simple one-one-one between two warlords seems
to define what makes the Warriors who they are – the grubby,
twitchy Renegades have no honour, no sense of style and
no real purpose, and it is only right that Swan should
take on a gun with a knife and win, recalling
Toshiro Mifune's sword-against pistol victory in Kurosawa's Yojimbo. As with the gun-weilding samurai
in that film, the pistol here is a symbol of dishonour
and cowardice, the crutch of a wannabe fighter who is
only able to win by cheating his way to victory using
superior firepower over traditional fighting skills.
real justice turns up en masse in the shape of
the all-powerful Riffs (who are indeed an intimidating
presence), the retribution takes place in the warm glow
of daylight and on Warrior turf, at the end of a journey
made exclusively in the darkness of night. The Riffs acknowledge
the Warriors' achievement respectfully – "You Warriors
are good," their leader tells them, "Real good."
"The best," Swan replies. By this point, we
are in no position to argue.
the director's cut now waiting in the wings, there is
inevitably some speculation over what might be added or
removed and how it will effect the film's at-present
fine balance. Two examples to the negative have already
been provided by an earlier video release and the aforementioned BBC Moviedrome screening. On the UK video release, musical copyright
issues prompted the replacement of Arnold McCuller's emotive
'Nowhere to Run' – played as a direct message to the fleeing
gang by the DJ who is relaying coded messages on their
fate as part of her between-records chatter – with some
whiny drivel called 'I am a Warrior', which made no sense
at all in the context of the radio announcements that
surrounded it (indeed, it actually reversed the
intended message). When
screened on the BBC, the original song was thankfully reinstated,
but a new sequence appeared at the very start, set in daylight
and providing a more literal explanation of the plot to
come. It featured Cleon exchanging words with his girlfriend
and giving a pep talk to his fellow Warriors (in the process
introducing each of them and their role on the mission
to the audience), plus an exchange between Ajax and Swan
that emphasised the former's unhappiness about the whole
deal. In some respects this provided the film with day-time bookends
for the night-time adventure, but it still feels like
a prologue and not part of the film, which did and always
should begin with the Coney Island Wonder Wheel at night.
at 1.78:1 and anamorphiclly enhanced, this is, on the
whole, a very good transfer. Visually The Warriors was always striking for its use of colour against the
blackness of night and this is faithfully reproduced
through strong colour reproduction and solid black levels.
Detail is often very good. Grain is evident throughout
and does vary a little, but much of the time is barely
visible unless you slam your nose against the TV screen.
There is one shot – as Swan and Mercy emerge from the
subway train at Coney Island – where the picture is in
a bit of a state, but this could well be an issue with
the source print.
Dolby 2.0 mono track does the job, but if there ever was
a film in need of a 5.1 remix then this is it – the canny
combination of sourced tracks and de Vorzon's score really needs to thump out of the speakers in a way it doesn't
here. One for the director's cut, then. Clarity, though,
one, the original theatrical trailer (1:51), which is anamorphic, a tad soft, but otherwise
in rather good shape. There are a couple of shots not in
the film, and it is set to what sounds like a Tangerine
safe to say that most Warriors fans will
already have this disk, but if you haven't then it's a purchase
worth considering, as director's cuts don't always turn
out to be the best version. I guess in a few weeks we'll
know, but no matter what the new cut delivers, for me The
Warriors begins at night with the Wonder Wheel and ends with a walk on the beach to Joe
Walsh singing 'In the City'. What happens between may well
be open to successful re-interpretation, but I'll hang on
to my original cut, just in case...
The original opening scene, restored on its UK TV showing, goes
some way to explaining the mix, as the characters are introduced
and their purpose in the party outlined by Cleon.