Cinophile: THE WARRIORS

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Usually the people behind a movie welcome controversy. It’s pretty certain Clint Eastwood lost no sleep over the raging storm around his adaptation of American Sniper, not as it raked in more cash than a terrorist fraud scheme. Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot of people angry for various reasons, but that only boosted its revenues. Kevin Smith covertly joined a protest against his movie Dogma as a lark, because the pickets really boosted the movie’s performance. Even Mel Gibson’s representation of the final days of Jesus did nothing less than establish his short but piping-hot directing career.

But The Warriors could have done without the bad press. It made a healthy return of $22 million on a roughly $7 million budget. Yet that was overshadowed by the movie’s theme and implications. Many years would pass before the film regained ground as a cult classic.

The movie is based on a book of the same name. Both quote an ancient series of novels called the Anabasis, in which ten thousand Greek mercenaries suddenly find themselves stuck deep in Persian territory and need to make a fast and violent retreat to home turf. The Warriors are one of countless gangs that control patches of territory across the larger New York City area. Nine delegates of the gang go to a meeting in the Bronx, called by the leader of the city’s most powerful gang. The gangs are all rag-tag outfits who mostly brawl with melee weapons, but they number in their tens of thousands.

Over a hundred thousand, in fact, and at the meeting the gang kingpin Cyrus argues for a general truce so the gangs could take over control of the city. But Cyrus is assassinated. The Warriors see who pulls the trigger, but they flee when police storm the meeting. The assassins immediately accuse the Warriors and the main gang puts out a call to everyone that the Warriors are marked men. Thus begins a odyssey similar to those ancient mercenaries, deep behind enemy lines and thousands coming after them.

The usual movie about gang culture is one about wasted youth and the desperate situations that pull them into the gang world. That or they focus on how to avoid gang life – pretty much any ‘teacher in bad public school reaches students’ film has that unwritten implication for its legions of angry blue collar kids. A few films break the mould, but that trend only really started as the eighties progressed.

In 1979 nobody had done it, not until The Warriors. It presented gang members as characters operating in their world and doing their thing. There is no narrative other than the desperate journey of the Warriors as they go through different rival areas. No intervening teachers, no crying moms, no snide police remarks. Nothing but the world of these gangs. Everything operates within those parameters.

The Warriors has a fantastical bent to it: the gangs all have uniforms, some quite elaborate, and one has to admire their strong believe in matching outfits. This element can be found in the novel, but it was also Hill’s way of giving the story a more comic book feel. Perhaps he wanted a lighter edge to the movie, because The Warriors hit a nerve. Some say its portrayal of gang culture in that era was uncomfortably close to the mark. Many people complained about the original poster tag line “These are the armies of the night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City.” and a few pushed for the film to be banned.

The controversy was certainly overblown by the media, but this is also a time when Death Wish and Dirty Harry were juggernauts. Crime was a major problem in numerous U.S. cities and gangs a growing part of that problem – especially in New York City. The Warriors was filmed in New York at night and had constant problems and interactions with various gangs. The film was perhaps a fantasy, but its roots and creation had an unintended partnership with the real thing.

It certainly didn’t help when actual gang violence became a part of the story. There are at least three documented murders directly related to the movie’s screenings and numerous more reports of fights between gangs during shows. Provisioning of security personnel and theatres refusing to run the movie out of fear of violence became common stories. Critics didn’t like it much either and a cloud of mediocrity surrounded The Warriors. A cynic might say the studio perhaps pushed most of this hype. Yet even though it had hardly spent anything to market the film, Paramount soon halted any marketing of The Warriors and really tried to quell the outrage. The movie made a healthy profit, but its status as a cinematic hand grenade stood stronger.

Perhaps all that may feel oversold. So here is another reason to watch The Warriors. The influences it had on later entertainment culture is obvious, especially to gamers and comic book fans. And it’s fun to watch. The setup is straight-forward, the characters don’t become too complicated and and yet the situation creates a rich, gritty world. Today it all seems pretty unreal, maybe what the film intended to do all along. Stripped from the controversy, The Warriors is just that kind of cool movie everyone has to see.

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It took ten years for the book by Sol Yurick to be turned into a movie. At first the studios had no appetite for such an edgy topic as urban gangs and even Walter Hill could not see it being greenlit. But eventually it was funded, though several changes were made. For example, the book features no central white characters but the studio refused to produce the film with a largely black cast despite Hill promoting the idea.
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The Warriors has been noted for giving a rather realistic look at gang culture during the Seventies in New York, though the various extravagant gang costumes were a product of Walter Hill’s love for comic books. But it certainly couldn’t escape its theme: numerous gangs had to be paid off during the shoot and some even trashed sets. In one event the production had to pay a gang after painting Warriors graffiti over their tag. The crew also enlisted the protection services of a local gang for the movie trucks. When The Warriors was released, it led to sporadic violence at movie showings – usually rival gangs running into each other at the same theatre. Much of this scared off theatres and movie goers – Paramount eventually withdrew most of the marketing due to all the bad press.
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The comic book-style chapters were part of the original film plan, but budget and time limits saw them eventually dropped. Hill added them in the controversial 2005 director’s cut. Though the comic style was welcomed by fans, some felt the new cut changed the dynamic of the movie and the versions have been divisive. It definitely interrupts the narrative in one or two spots, yet also serves to reinforce the movie’s more fantastical qualities.
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One of the movie’s most famous lines was ad-libbed. The character Luther taunts the Warriors by tapping three bottles together and chanting “Warriors, come out to play!” Actor David Patrick Kelly made the line up on the spot. He also had to improvise the three bottles – originally Kelly wanted two dead doves for the scene, but Walter Hill shot the idea down.
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The opening scene of the movie is clouded with a lot of myth. Walter Hill wanted both actual gang members and undercover police in the crowd scene – though it is not clear if this ever happened. Another legend holds that the actor playing the main gang boss Cyrus was to be an actual major gang leader of the time, but he failed to appear on the day of the shoot. Yet other accounts say Cyrus was always meant to be played by Roger Hill.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: March 9, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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