Finally, The Warriors come out to playby
Having been a cinephile for over 30 years now there is one thing that I have learned that will always be true – the more movies you watch, the more you expose yourself to new filmmakers, the more you realise that there are huge gaps in your film knowledge. Each time I look at the filmographies of my favourite directors I will see films listed I have never sat down and watched before and the more I listen to recommendations from people I like and admire (both filmmakers and fellow cinephiles) I discover yet more films that I should have seen but haven't got round to yet.
Many of these films are known to me. They are not always unknown gems which have passed me by, they are often well known films which, for whatever reason, I just haven't seen. An example is a recent Twitter conversation with fellow Cultjer.com writer Haydn Leigh who mentioned the film Gatacca. Now, I've heard the reviews which are really good, I've got friends who love it and the trailer certainly looked interesting – yet I've not seen it.
And it is not an isolated case, my cine-bucket list is chock full of potential gems.
One of these films, which I can now thankfully tick off my list, is Walter Hill's 1979 film The Warriors.
This is a film that many cinephiles take for granted that you have seen. Many have spoken to me about it as if it is inconceivable that I have let it pass me by. I already knew some of the major events – the fight in the toilet, the ominous roller-skater – solely because others have spoken about it. They don't normally even ask me if I have seen it first, they automatically assume that I have. I've also read many reviews as it is a film that has achieved a certain cult status. Skye Windfield wrote his own retrospective in these pages (click here to read his take)
Well, I hadn't seen it before. Part of me thought that maybe I had. A memory from the mists of time was, I thought, of this movie, but no, as I watched it a few days ago it was very obvious that it was all brand new to me.
For those others who have yet to see it, The Warriors starts with a huge meeting of all the various gangs of New York. Cyrus, the Leader of the Riffs – the biggest of these gangs – has called this meeting with the hope of bringing everyone together, working as one unit, to take control of the city. The numbers are their side as they have more members that the police have uniforms. The city could be theirs, he argues, total control. Before the meeting can conclude, however, he is shot by the leader of one of these gangs - the Rogues. The gangs scramble in panic and Luther sees the opportunity to pin the blame on the Warriors. Their leader, Cleon, is beaten (presumably to death) and soon the word is out to all gangs that the Warriors are wanted men. They have to make it from the Bronx, back to Coney Island, in one piece without knowing that they were being held responsible.
What follows is a tense story of survival in the urban jungle, punctuated by a few excellent fight scenes as the boys get slowly closer to home.
Anyone who has ever seen a Walter Hill film will know that there is not a lot of fat on them. There is little in the way of story (although it is based on a Greek Tragedy - Anabasis by Xenophon) and little in the way of character arcs. Hill is not interested in revelations about the individual's background, no explorations of why the gangs members are who they are. Instead we get a lean and trim story, full of brilliant and iconic moments.
It was filmed mostly on the streets of New York and the cast and crew were repeatedly threatened by the locals – rocks were pelted at them in the Bronx, a double homicide interrupted filming at one point and one of the real local gangs actually challenged the cast to a fight one night. The one scene that was filmed on a set is probably the film's highlight – the fight in the toilet. And what a scene it is. Cramming over a dozen gang members into a small area and letting all hell break loose!
The final scene is at once really cool but also quite poignant. On the one hand you have the great moment when Luther (David Patrick Kelly), having tracked the Warriors to their home base, teases them from the hearse he has used to stalk them - 'Warriors, come out and Play-ay' - but you also have the anti-climax of returning home. What should have been a celebration, instead is a realisation that there was nothing much to come back to. Swan, the new leader sums this all up as he scans the run down rooftops of Coney Island 'This is what we fought all night to get back to?' He asks dejectedly.
It must be said that The Warriors is not without heart, despite who these people are and what they do, we still empathise with them and there is one small moment that perfectly encapsulates the position they inhabit at the bottom of society and the fact they know it.
They are on the train in the last stages of their journey. At one of the stops two couples get on and sit opposite Swan (Michael Beck) and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). They are rich, clean, care free. One of them glances over at our couple which makes Mercy very self aware of the fact that she is dirty from head to toe and her clothes are cheap. She automatically reaches for her hair, as if to tidy it, to cover some of her flaws. Swan stares at the couple, his hatred projecting toward them, not taking his eyes off them. He takes her hand to stop her. He knows his place, he is not ashamed and neither, he is telling her, should she. It is a wonderful little moment that gives these characters a true humanity and rises The Warriors from a mere exploitation piece that it could have easily been.
The performances throughout are excellent with Beck and Van Valkenburgh really shining. David Patrick Kelly is sufficiently manic as Luther (he worked with Hill as number of times, most notably in 48 Hours, playing another character called Luther – alongside James Remar who played Ajax) but the star of The Warriors is undoubtedly the streets of New York City. This is not the New York of today, it is a time when the threat of violence was around every corner, in every glance.
When the film was released in 1979 it caused quite a stir and there were reports of violence (and three killings) at it's screenings. This was a time when New York was a very violent city and for some screenings the theatre owners had to hire extra security. Walter Hill perfectly summed up the challenges and the reasons for this violence: "I think the reason why there were some violent incidents is really very simple: The movie was very popular with the street gangs, especially young men, a lot of whom had very strong feelings about each other. And suddenly they all went to the movies together! They looked across the aisle and there were the guys they didn't like, so there were a lot of incidents. And also, the movie itself is rambunctious — I would certainly say that."
It has been a long time coming but I am very happy I have seen The Warriors. It is fun, tense, and gritty and certainly deserves it's status as a cult classic.