Watching in 2013, it’s hard to believe that The Warriors was ever a major mainstream motion picture. The idea of anything – let alone an action movie – this strange, wild and beautiful being made on such a budget nowadays seems completely alien (no Walter Hill pun intended).
Very loosely based on a Sol Yurick novel of the same name, The Warriors was Paramount’s attempt to tap into the youth market and its burgeoning obsession with gang warfare. I feel perhaps the movie they wanted – a realistic, violent take on the problems of street gangs – and the movie that director Walter Hill finally delivered were two very different things.
The film begins when Cyrus, the charismatic – almost cultish – leader of the biggest gang in New York, gathers representatives from all the other gangs together for a meeting. He wants to propose a citywide truce. Half way through his rousing speech to his “armies of the night”, he is shot dead and Coney Island also-rans The Warriors (who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) get framed for it. This starts a film-long chase in which they have to make their way across the city to the safe haven of their own turf with every gang in New York out for their blood.
So far so simple, but The Warriors doesn’t play like the brutal, gritty thriller that the plot suggests. Instead, it has a richly camp, dreamlike quality that makes it one of the most interesting, overlooked films of its era.
The “rumbles” between gangs, although they sometimes descend into light fisticuffs, are extended sequences of boys in flamboyant outfits displaying to one another like warring peacocks. Each gang has their own fashion style, and these costumes (by Bobbie Mannix of Xanadu fame) are a work of insane genius. The Baseball Furies are probably the weirdest – think gothic clowns in baseball uniforms – but there are also Marceau-style mimes, pimps in hot pink leisure suits, doe-eyed skinheads in white vests and red suspenders, and a group of martial artists in black silk kimonos. One gang even has rollerskates. The eponymous Warriors are all decked out in tight leather waistcoats with no vest underneath, in case you were wondering.
No one actually dies throughout all the endless staring and circling around one another (with the exception of one character who has a nasty accident – but he was apparently written out on-set because the actor didn’t get along with Walter Hill). It’s just a kaleidoscopic stream of highly choreographed bodies flinging themselves around the screen like a gloriously macho ballet dance. I’m astonished no one’s made it into a musical yet, because it would make a wonderful one.
You never feel like any of these boys actually engage in stereotypical gang activity in between flouncing about the city, preening at one another. This is near-confirmed in a nihilistic exchange between Warriors where one says, “it’s all out there for the stealing” and the other just sighs and mumbles, “yeah, but first you’ve gotta figure out what’s worth stealing”. They’re so full of petulant ennui, they can’t even be bothered to, like, do crime and stuff. But that’s okay! Another pretty gang will be along in a minute and they can flex their muscles at each other.
So yes, there is an undeniable homoerotic quality to The Warriors, and this is never more explicit than some 30 minutes into the movie where we see Mercy – the first woman in the film – enter a scene. One Warrior turns to another and whispers nervously, “Do you know what that is?” The other rolls his eyes and replies, “Yeah! Trouble!” They, naturally, try their best to get rid of her as quickly as possible.
Mercy throws herself at Joe Dallesandro-esque gang leader Swan, and is rejected until the very end, where he begrudgingly gives her a corsage that someone dropped on the subway. Still, even this is only because he “hates to see anything go to waste”. Interestingly, the only other women in the film are the husky-voiced DJ whose face we never see – only her shiny crimson lips whispering veiled threats into a microphone – and an all-girl gang called The Lizzies who (as the name crudely suggests) are lesbians. In the hyper-hetero environment of late-70s action cinema, The Warriors is unique in this defiance of the norm, but it’s only one of many aspects that lead it away from the traditional shackles of its genre and towards feverish, borderline-abstract fantasy.
Even the character names (Swan, Mercy, Cleon, Ajax, Cyrus, etc) are removed from the real world. Many are rooted in mythology, and indeed, the film lifts some of its themes from the Anabasis. It’s hard to believe that there are no actual supernatural elements, because so much of it feels so unreal.
Hill creates a crimson dream world for his characters, shooting much of the film on location in New York in the middle of the night. Most shots are drenched in neon, swathed in the red lights of stop signs or simply spotlit by the street lighting. The film has a very theatrical air, and it often feels like you’re looking at a meticulously decorated set rather than just a New York street, which is no mean feat. Barry De Vorzon’s musical score – a feverish, throbbing Moroder-esque synthesizer heartbeat – brings it to life beautifully.
Perhaps the film’s defining (and certainly most moving) moment comes when Swan and Mercy sit bruised, battered and bleeding on a subway train and four peppy high-class socialites get on opposite them. The partygoers’ laughter peters out as they eye up Mercy’s torn clothes and the dirt all over her. She grows self-conscious, and tries to brush her hair in front of her face, but Swan forces her hand down and continues staring straight ahead at the socialites; a statement that tells them explicitly “This is not your world. Move on.”
Shaken, the rich kids scramble to get off at the next stop. What makes the scene is that it really does feel by that stage like you’re there with Swan and Mercy, looking at these people as if they’re the ones from another planet and that they just wouldn’t understand. They haven’t spent the last 90 minutes entranced by the stylised magic mirror world of The Warriors. Whatever it is they’re doing is surely banal and preposterous by comparison.
The Warriors is a beautiful oddity of a film – gorgeous, suspenseful, poignant and hilarious in roughly equal measure – and, for my money, Walter Hill’s finest hour. If you’ve not seen it already, what are you waiting for? Come out and pla-ay…
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