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Director Walter Hill originally wanted The Warriors to open with a sprawl about Ancient Greek warriors crossing a desert to get home. Hill wanted Orson Welles to voice it and he wanted the film to be divided up into chapters that would move from live action to comic book style drawings and back to live action. He eventually got his wish in 2005 with the Director’s Cut but Welles was long dead by then. Regardless of all that The Warriors shows a time and place that is not necessarily forgotten but certainly misremembered.
The Warriors, the Baseball Furies, the Riffs, the Rogues, the Turnbull ACs, the Punks and many more gangs descend on the Bronx to hear Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the Riffs, speak about the ongoing truce between the gangs. A shot rings out. Cyrus falls and the Warriors are on the run after Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of the Rogues, claims they did it. The Warriors must avoid the cops and other gangs as they make the long way back to Coney Island, their home turf.
Everyone likes to forget that before the 1990s New York City was a complete shithole. Plagued by sanitation strikes, crumbling infrastructure and nearing bankruptcy New York’s status as the open gate of the United States was fading fast. Watch any film from that era from Taxi Driver to Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated animations like Fritz the Cat and it feels like you have to wipe down the screen and scrape the shit off the disc. But that’s kind of the point.
Films like The Warriors and Taxi Driver highlighted to America and the world how dreadful a place New York City was to grow up and live in. Much like how the taxi was all Travis Bickle had, gangs were all young men and women had back then. Gangs gave the disaffected and often destitute youth of New York City a sense of purpose, community and belonging. What does it mean to live and to love in a city that’s more likely to kill you than cater to you? Being in a gang might not save you but it sure does help.
Aside from the socio-economic background of New York and those that grew up there during the 1970s, The Warriors is a roaring good time. The different gangs look like groups out of Mad Max or The Purge. The Black Panther style tribalism of the Riffs. The childish chaos of the Rogues. The pathetic Orphans. Every gang has its place in the hierarchy of the film but the Warriors are who we root for.
The Warriors – nine in all – are the best fighters easily scaring off the Orphans and battering the better equipped Baseball Furies. Swan (Michael Beck), the War Chief of the Warriors, moves so fast at one point he dodges a bullet. Walter Hill put the actors playing the Warriors through stunt school and it shows. The actors, most just starting out, make every fist fight and brawl look authentic. The fight scene in the public bathroom with the Punks is one for the ages.
With that said The Warriors also shows its age at certain points. Ajax’s (James Remar) rapey attitude and occasional homophobic language isn’t always comfortable to watch. The fight scene between the Warriors and the all-female Lizzies has its moments of action-comedy but the setting of the scene along with the supremely breakable furniture gives the whole thing an artificial feel. Still you can’t help but laugh and that’s probably the greatest part of The Warriors’ enduring legacy.
“I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.” Remar’s Ajax might make for occasionally uncomfortable viewing but his delivery of the above line is legendary. Along with Roger Hill’s booming projection “Can you dig it?!” and David Patrick Kelly’s whine “Waaaaarriors, come out to plaaaay!” are embedded in the public consciousness and have become independent of the film itself. But The Warriors was influential as art not just as an entertaining midnight movie.
The book The Warriors is based on – also titled The Warriors – is a lot more philosophical and digs into masculinity and sexuality a lot more. Hill cut out all of that and scraped the plot down to the bone. He also cut out the gang rape in the book which was probably a sound decision. The Warriors shares similarities with Hill’s other work such as the neon beauty of The Driver and 48 Hrs as well as the grit and grime of Red Heat and Last Man Standing. Though Hard Times was Hill’s directorial debut it was probably The Warriors that made Hill’s name as one of the greatest genre directors of the late 20th Century.
The Warriors still feels impactful today. It is a film that casts an incredibly sympathetic yet stylised eye over young men caught in the rat trap of a dying city. The Warriors works on many levels but it works best as pure entertainment. The roars and laughs in the Sugar Club at the 40th anniversary screening aren’t something I’ll forget for a long time.