First released in February of 1979, The Warriors was based on a 1965 novel of the same name, authored by American Sol Yurick (1925–2013). Written when he was 40 years old, The Warriors was Yurick’s first published novel and interwove elements of Xenophon’s classic Greek tale Anabasis with a fictional account of inner New York City gang warfare. In his introduction to the 2003 edition of the novel, Yurick claimed the main inspiration for writing The Warriors was to provide a point of view of New York gang culture that was alternate to the popular perception of them at the time, as had been established in films like Robert Wise’s Oscar-winning musical drama West Side Story (1961). Growing up poor in the Bronx, combined with years working as an investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare, provided Yurick with plenty of material and character sketches for his novel.
Interestingly, AIP, aka American-International Pictures, the famous exploitation film studio of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, originally bought the rights to Yurick’s novel in 1969, but no adaptation eventuated. It certainly would have been interesting to see what a studio like AIP would have done with Yurick’s source material, especially since this was around the time Roger Corman was directing some of his best films for the company, and often had people like Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Susan Strasberg and Peter Fonda helping him out. It’s a mouth-watering combination that would have made for a potentially very cool interpretation of The Warriors, though one likely to have been quite different from the one we eventually got.
After the property went unproduced at AIP, the rights were eventually picked-up by Lawrence Gordon, who had been one of the key executives at AIP at the time, and Gordon had David Shaber adapt a draft screenplay from the novel, which was then sent to Walter Hill for consideration. Hill, at the time, was an up-and-coming screenwriter with directorial aspirations, whom in 1979 was perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s tough crime novel The Getaway (1972), as well as serving as one of the producers on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Hill was initially approached as a potential director for Alien, but backed off, fearing he would not be competent enough at handling all the special effects requirements the film demanded. If Hill had taken a chance at directing Alien, it’s doubtful we would have ever gotten to see The Warriors.
Shaber’s original screenplay for The Warriors, as first given to Hill, was by all reports a fairly gritty and realistic take on street gang culture, which Hill then reworked to incorporate some more fanciful and escapist elements in order to make it saleable to the film’s eventual distributor, Paramount Pictures. Paramount also balked at Hill’s original desire to feature an all-black cast, insisting he mixes it up for commercial reasons.
I’m not going to delve into the plot of The Warriors too much here, as if you’ve already seen it, you know what it’s about. And if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to be spoiling any of the pleasure or surprises which the film has in store for you. Walter Hill often refers to Greek mythology when discussing the primary influence on The Warriors’ storyline, but I’ve always seen it as more in tune with classic American western mythology, with the ragtag team of wrongly accused trying to make their way through hostile land to the safety of friendly territory, encountering pockets of Mexican bandits, Native Americans and reward-hungry bounty hunters along the way, culminating in the inevitable stand-off (which in The Warriors, occurs in the sand at Coney Island Beach, not the middle of the Arizona desert). The narrative for The Warriors is extremely basic, but the great benefit of its simplicity is that it allows Hill to break the film down into a series of episodic confrontations, each one unique and stylized in its own way, without it appearing disjointed or detrimental to the flow of the film.
The superbly constructed opening credit sequence for The Warriors really sets up the premise, tone and main characters of the film in such a simple but concise way, that by the time the sequence is over and the film properly begins, we already have a sense of who our individual Warriors are, their personalities, their pecking order, where they are heading and the nature of their mission. The credit sequence also introduces us to many of the various street gangs that the Warriors will be confronting throughout the movie and showcases the creative costume designs by Bobbie Mannix, who came up with a great range of iconic individual looks for the various cliques. Some of my favourite ganglooks in The Warriors, apart from the Warriors themselves, are the Baseball Furies, with their uniforms, bats and KISS-like war paint; the greasy, low-rent Orphans; the silent, dungaree and brightly-coloured sweater-wearing Punks (their leader preferring roller skates to walking); and the trouble-making Rogues, who hail from Hell’s Kitchen and with their black leathers most resemble the image of the classic juvenile delinquency street gang. There’s also the all-girl gang the Lizzies, who don’t have any uniform as such, apart from some sexual ambiguity and their feminine wiles, which they use to easily lure a few of the unsuspecting – and unthinking – Warriors into their seedy jukebox den (interestingly, only the youngest Warrior, the graffiti artist Rembrandt, displays any wariness – even a hint of disgust – towards the Lizzies).
There are a number of enjoyable performances on display in The Warriors. In the role of lead Warrior Swan (at least, lead Warrior by necessity), Michael Beck exhibits a quiet but strong, square-jawed American stoicism. Beck was actually brought into the film by Walter Hill when he recalled watching him in a film called Madman (1978), where he appeared alongside Sigourney Weaver (Hill had been watching Madman to gauge if Weaver was right for the lead role of Ripley in Alien. Of course, that Madman is not to be confused with the classic 1982 slasher film of the same name). Beck went on to movies like Xanadu (1980), Megaforce (1982), along with a couple of great TV movies in the mid-80s, Blackout (1985) and Wes Craven’s Chiller (1985). Blackout, in particular, is a great little thriller, pretty intense for an 80’s television movie, and well worth checking out if you ever get the chance.
As the only central female character in the film, Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s Mercy, whom we originally meet as seemingly the gang mole to the Orphans, does a terrific job of holding her own against a cast of high-testosterone co-stars. Mercy is the only character for whom we get any real clear motivation or depth, when she tells Swan that she can see what her future holds – five kids, cockroaches in the cupboards and a miserable life of poverty and boredom in the slums of the Bronx – and she wants to enjoy any excitement in her life while she still can, before she gets swallowed up by that stifling world that’s waiting for her a few years down the road. She uses her body and her sexuality as a means for escape and attention, and because that is all men have ever wanted from her until she meets Swan and senses some gentleness within him, even though he is reluctant to show it at first. There’s a wonderful little moment on the train when Swan stops Mercy’s hand from trying to straighten her disheveled hair when two neatly-dressed young couples – obviously on their way home from a prom – sit down opposite them. It’s a nice way of having Swan show Mercy that she should never feel ashamed of who she is. Van Valkenburgh certainly has an exotic and uniquely beautiful look to her (she stated once that Walter Hill cast her in the movie because she was the ‘unobvious’ choice), and it was always a treat to see her show-up in things like Streets of Fire (1984, another Walter Hill film), the early-80’s television sit-com Too Close for Comfort (1980 – 1985), and she even popped-up in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005) more recently.
Future Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl appears here in an early role – you’ll spot her sitting provocatively on a Central Park bench – and of course, David Patrick Kelly, in his debut as bad boy Luther, creates what is undoubtedly one of the great creeps of 70’s cinema, an anarchist who instigates mayhem and murder merely because – much like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) – he finds it fun and simply enjoys getting caught-up in the chaos that ensues. Short in stature, with his rat-like features and excited, cackling high-pitched voice, Kelly delivers the most infamous line in the film – “Warriors, come out to play-ayyy” – spoken while clanging together three small glass bottles he has attached to his fingers. According to Hill, Kelly improvised this sequence, collecting a few empty 25 cent midget soda and beer bottles from under one of the Coney Island attractions, and recreated the voice that a creepy neighbor terrified him with when he was a kid.
For me though, my favourite character in the film has always been Ajax, as played by James Remar. The cocky and supremely self-confident Warrior who is cynical of the gang’s initial mission prefers brawn to brain, and goes along only because he has been chosen to by their war chief Cleon, and because there is always the prospect of “breaking a few heads or laying some strange wolf” along the way. He’s certainly not the nicest character, but he’s someone you’d love to have on your side in a rumble, and Remar manages to make him likeable despite his lesser qualities.
One of the strongest elements of The Warriors is its visual style, and its use of authentic New York locales – including a dirty and deserted Coney Island – makes the city almost as much of an integral part of the film as the characters themselves (the only actual set built for the movie was the bathroom at the train station). A mixture of comic book fantasy and modern film noir, it also achieves a perfect balance of 70’s urban grit with moments that foreshadow a slickness that would not really become popularised until a few years later, when the huge success of MTV and music videos started influencing the look of mainstream, and even independent, cinema in a pretty substantial way. This is particularly true in The Warriors in the way in which the soundtrack numbers are incorporated into the action, chiefly via a female radio DJ – who was played by the late actress Lynne Thigpen but is seen in the film only via close-ups on her mouth – who acts as a kind of Greek Chorus throughout the film, broadcasting coded news about the hunt for the Warriors, and spinning some cool wax with subtle titles like Nowhere to Run, performed by Arnold McCuller. Elsewhere on the eclectic soundtrack are the likes of Genya Ravan, lead singer of the 60’s all-gal rock band Goldie and the Gingerbreads, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, and Desmond Child, who performed with a band called Rogue at the time, but found his biggest success co-writing songs like I Was Made for Lovin’ You by KISS, Dude (Looks Like a Lady) by Aerosmith and Livin’ On a Prayer by Bon Jovi. The pumping, synth and guitar melding opening theme music, along with the other instrumental tunes in the film, were composed by Barry de Vorzon, a veteran of television and film soundtracks whose career encompassed everything from Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and Children (1971) to Mr. Mom (1983), Night of the Creeps (1986) and The Exorcist III (1990). His most recognisable piece of music is no doubt that opening piano theme from The Young and the Restless, which was originally composed for, and used in, Bless the Beasts and Children, before it was recycled, and found its own slice of dubious immortality, on that long-running daytime soap.
Upon its release, The Warriors proved to be a decent sized hit with youth audiences, earning just under twenty-three million dollars during its original theatrical run in America, which was certainly a great return for a film that only cost a reported four-million to produce. The film’s subject matter saw it being blamed for a number of sporadic outbreaks in vandalism and violence – including three killings – involving people supposedly on their way to or from early screenings. This prompted Paramount to pull the film’s advertising from television and radio, and reduce the prominence of the newspaper ads to feature just the title, rating and session times, until the furore over the incidents had died down. Of course, this only added to the allure of the film, and its status certainly grew when it hit home video in the early eighties. Critical reappraisal, in volumes like Danny Peary’s classic 1981 study Cult Movies, has helped The Warriors find a devoted core audience that has continued to expand over the ensuing years, the last decade, in particular, seeing the emergence of off-shoots like video games (with many of the original cast members returning to provide the voices), action figures and comic books based on the film and its characters.
Despite the success of The Warriors and the minor controversy it created, it surprisingly did not lead to a rash of similar movies, though you can probably see elements of its influence in some early-80’s exploitation cinema like Escape from New York (1981), Class of 1984 (1982) and Enzo Castellari’s Italian production 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982). There was Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979), released less than six months after The Warriors, which centered around the greaser gang sub-culture in early-60’s New York, but that film was already well into production by the time The Warriors hit theatres, although the two films would often be mistaken for each other due to the similarities in their titles and general street gang theme.
In 2005, Walter Hill set to work assembling a director’s cut of The Warriors, and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it was one of those director’s cuts that is universally reviled by most fans of the film, and even those who don’t hate it still feel like it does nothing to expand or add to its appeal. Apart from adding an illustrated prelude which retold the tale of Xenophon and his march to Persia in 401 B.C., Hill’s director’s cut also tried to amp-up the comic book feel of the movie by having the last shot of every scene in the film freeze frame and then dissolve into a faux comic book panel, complete with description boxes and dialogue balloons. This creative decision really does the film a disservice, even if it really is the way Hill originally envisioned the film. The passing of 25 years can alter an artist’s interpretation of their original vision in so many ways, and not only do these comic book panel freeze frames slow down the wonderful flow of the film and meddle with its near-perfect pace, the clearly cheap modern computer graphics used to create and colour the illustrations are completely at odds with the look and feel of the rest of the film. And of course, much like George Lucas with his original Star Wars trilogy, it is this far inferior director’s cut of The Warriors that is the only version of the film currently in print on DVD or Blu-ray. The director’s cut is still worth getting if you see it cheap enough, if only for the cool making-of featurettes included on it, but if you want to see the original theatrical cut you will have to track down a copy of the out-of-print 2001 DVD release on the Paramount label, or the old CIC VHS tape.
I think The Warriors, when presented in its original version, is an incredibly exciting, entertaining and vibrant piece of late-seventies pop cinema. I would also personally rank it as Walter Hill’s best film as a director. Hill has made a lot of terrific – and at times extremely tough – cinema, including Hard Times (1975) with Charles Bronson, 1980 western The Long Riders, which cast real-life acting brothers as historical outlaw siblings, and his Vietnam-in-the-bayous thriller, Southern Comfort (1981). And of course, 48 Hrs. (1982) provided him with a major box-office hit that launched Eddie Murphy’s cinematic career. But I still find The Warriors to be the film of his that speaks strongest to me.
Note: the above article is a slightly edited transcript of John’s live introduction to the Cinemaniacs’ screening of The Warriors, which took place in Melbourne on 1 August, 2014.