Boy, do I ever love late-1970s movies. The grittiness and hard-edge of the early part of the decade is still present, but now the idea of a “blockbuster” exists and people tried to make their movies bigger and showier, even if they didn’t really have the money for it. This is particularly true of late-’70s action movies, which hadn’t yet become the Reagan-era bloodbaths of the ’80s but still were full of intensity (if not the firepower).
One of these movies I revisit every few years, usually on a whim, is Walter Hill’s 1979 film The Warriors, which is just about as simple a premise as can be, but has a great eye for location, and its finger on the pulse. Can you dig it?
This has to be one of my favorite trailers from the era because it actually manages to perfectly sum up both the plot and tone of the movie with awesome, driving synth score to punctuate the visuals. It looks like a near-future hellhole, or just New York City in pre-Giuliani times. For not being a very high-budget film, only around $4 million, The Warriors has a seemingly endless supply of people in it, and almost all of them are cops or gang members. This version of Manhattan has no civilians; the night belongs to them.
The film is based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel of the same name, which was based on the most famous book by the Ancient Greek writer and professional soldier Xenophon, Anabasis. Anabasis details the exploits of a group of hired Greek soldiers called the Ten Thousand who commander by Cyrus the Younger to seize the throne of Persia (like ya do). But due to treachery, Cyrus ended up dead and several other generals were killed in the ensuing battle, so Xenophon and the rest of the Ten Thousand had to march across hundreds of miles of foodless desert, with no supplies, fighting the Persians as they went, to try to get back to Greek-held coastal cities. That’s one hell of an adventure, and the book and film The Warriors use that structure to frame their own stories.
At the beginning of the film, nine members of Coney Island’s Warriors gang travel all the way to the Bronx at the behest of Cyrus, the leader of NYC’s largest and most dangerous street gang, the Gramercy Riffs. Nine delegates from all of the city’s gangs come to this meeting. Cyrus tells the assembled group that, with all the members of all the gangs, they outnumber the police by more than three times and if they all work together, they could rule everything in the city from the drug trade to protection rackets to prostitution. Nobody could stop them, not the cops and not the mafia; they’d effectively own this town. While this sounds pretty appetizing to most everyone, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rogues, causes a fracas and in the ensuing confusion, shoots Cyrus dead, then screams that he saw the Warriors do it. This breaks all amnesty, and the nine Warriors have to try to make it back the 27 miles to Coney before they end up dead.
Before I get too much further, I want to just accentuate one of the coolest speeches in movies, that being Cyrus’ rallying speech from the beginning of the film. While he’s not in the movie much, Roger Hill’s performance is easily one of the most memorable, and his mixture of politician and jive talker is truly wonderful, culminating on one of the best moments in ’70s cinema:
CAN YOU DIG IT?! Man, is there anything better than that?
Right away, in the ensuing raid by police, Cleon, the Warrior’s leader, is beaten and arrested/probably killed, and the rest of the gang have to regroup. A power struggle immediate starts between the gang’s War Chief Swan (Michael Beck) and its top lieutenant Ajax (James Remar). Regardless of who’s in charge, they need to get the hell out of here, and what the movie does really well is explain that the subway offers a fair amount of safety. Since they have to change trains so often, it’s the time in between subway rides where all the danger lies, and the ride on the otherwise completely empty train cars gives them a breather, however brief.
As they travel, the Riffs have placed a bounty on the Warriors for Cyrus’ murder and a late night DJ played by Lynne Thigpen (only seen via her mouth talking into a microphone) lets everyone know where the Warriors are at any given moment. That means all the other gangs are out to get them, and the Warriors have a long way to go. They rumble with the Baseball Furies, who wear uniforms and paint their faces, the Turnbull A.C.s, who are basically skinheads, and a group of misfits called the Orphans, who aren’t big in numbers or skill, but they possess a lot of spirit. The Orphans have a lady hanger-on named Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who recognizes the Warriors are her way out of the podunks and she and Swan begin a strange sort of romance, perpetuated mostly by disdain.
Eventually, the Warriors are separated, Ajax is arrested after trying to solicit an undercover police woman, and another member of the group is killed in a fight with police. Three members think they’ve found solace with a female gang called the Lizzies, but secretly they are trying to kill the Warriors and collect the reward themselves. Meanwhile, the Gramercy Riffs decide not to mess around and go after the Warriors themselves. While all of this is happening, Luther and the Rogues are following, keeping their presence unknown until sunrise, when the Warriors have somehow made it back to Coney Island and are seemingly safe. But no; Luther makes it pretty clear in another of the movie’s signature sequences (which Kelly largely improvised) that they’re anything but safe:
While the fight choreography isn’t all that complex and the action sequences certainly aren’t the most eye-catching, what makes The Warriors nonetheless a great action movie is the sheer attitude in every single frame. There’s disaffected youth onscreen in a way that hadn’t been done since Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but in a far more nihilistic way. The Warriors and the other gangs don’t care at all about anyone else, and they’re in it for power, for territory, for violence, for sex, for fun. It’s a condemnation of city living when the gangs really do outnumber the police. While Anabasis is all about heroism and adventure, The Warriors uses the same basic structure to talk about urban decay and wanton violence, all while following the “heroic” gang who would kill just as many people as the Rogues if they had to.
This is a movie I simply adore and will return to time and again. I think you all should watch it ASAP, and it’s on Netflix and Amazon Prime, so there’s no excuse. CAN YOU DIG IT?!?!?!