“If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere.” These lyrics were sung by none other than Frank Sinatra in his classic ode to the City That Never Sleeps, “New York, New York.” And for many New Yorkers, those who were born and raised there and those who were born elsewhere and decided to call it home, those words still remain true to this very day. But back in the Seventies, those words meant something else. Because New York City in the Seventies (and also the Eighties) truly was something else.
People who would fly into New York City from elsewhere would be given safety pamphlets entitled “Welcome To Fear City: A Survival Guide For Visitors In New York City,” which was sort of like the city’s version of a green book, minus any White privilege, mediocrity and mansplaining being rewarded by its peers simply because it provides easy comfort. The economy was an absolute catastrofuck, which resulted in an increasing crime rate, and many locations around the city, particularly Times Square, being populated by pimps, sex workers, homeless individuals, and many other people trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Robberies and murders were committed that would go on to be adapted for film and become the stuff of legend, whether it was John Wojtowicz holding up a bank in order to pay for his partner’s gender-confirmation surgery, or nearly six million dollars in cash and jewelry being stolen from Lufthansa at JFK Airport by Henry Hill, Jimmy Burke, and Tommy DeSimone, or the “Son Of Sam” murders committed by David Berkowitz. And there was no social media or Black Lives Matter hashtag back then, but there were more than enough cases of police misconduct that would make such a hashtag necessary. And as the Seventies ended and the Eighties began, as Ronald Reagan made his way into the Oval Office, and AIDS and crack cocaine spread through many (African-American) communities like wildfire, it was clear that things would only get worse (and stay that way for quite some time) before they would start getting better.
So it wasn’t too difficult for New Yorkers and the rest of the world to find it believable when they see a movie that portrays New York City as a near-hopeless wasteland that is ruled by street gangs on every corner and raising all nine circles of Hell. And that movie, which opened in theaters on February 9, 1979 was The Warriors.
Based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel of the same name which itself was inspired by Xenopon’s book Anabasis, The Warriors tells the story of Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs, who calls together each major street gang (with each gang represented by nine unarmed members) for a meeting in the Bronx at Van Cortlandt Park to give a rousing speech and to make them all an offer: come together as one and join forces against the NYPD so that they can take over all of New York instead of just fighting each other over a few city blocks. And it’s an offer that nearly all of them are open to considering. But when Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the psychopathic leader of The Rogues, shoots and kills Cyrus, and then blames it on The Warriors, one of the other gangs in attendance. And as The Warriors, led by second-in-command Swan (Michael Beck) after their leader Cleon is killed in the resulting melee, attempt to escape from the Bronx and head back to their home turf of Coney Island, they must deal with the Gramercy Riffs putting a bounty on all of them and causing nearly every other gang in New York such as the Turnball ACs, the Furies, and the Lizzies to hunt them down and do whatever it takes to keep them from getting home before this night is over.
When The Warriors opened in theaters, it was far more effective in portraying gang life and life in New York City than even the filmmakers themselves expected. Starting with this poster.
Despite the fact that it was an illustrated poster for a film and not an actual photograph taken of every single gang member in all of New York, there were many New Yorkers who complained about how intimidating it was to see this one-sheet being displayed with all of these gang members staring them down (and accompanied by the equally disturbing tagline) while walking down the street or waiting on a subway platform for a train to arrive, which soon led to a change in the film’s advertising.
As for the actual film itself, The Warriors did a fantastic and convincing job of showing how absolutely brutal and dangerous New York can be at night with each battle that The Warriors find themselves in. (The fight choreography by stunt coordinator-turned-director Craig R. Baxley definitely helped in that regard) From the moment that Cyrus is murdered in the Bronx to when The Warriors arrive back home in Coney Island but still find themselves in danger, there is never a moment’s rest for the characters or the audience as we see Swan and company constantly in motion as they struggle to get back home while dealing with dozens of police officers looking to arrest them and hundreds of gang members looking to kill them acting as obstacles they must fight to overcome. (And many of these fight sequences are quite brutal, as neither side is willing to give any quarter whatsoever) Granted, it’s easy to remember that we’re being asked to cheer on and empathize with a street gang going up against other street gangs, and who we would likely cross the street to avoid if we saw them outside, but the film gives us enough characterization for many of them to have us caring about their fate.
Seeing Swan go from second-in-command (or “war chief”) to leader of the Warriors is very much reminiscent of Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks in Aliens, in that taking over a leadership position and doing so under dire circumstances is clearly not something he’s happy about, but he’s still willing and able to step up and do everything possible to look after his people and keep them alive.
As the loudest, meanest, and (in his eyes, at least) toughest member of The Warriors, Ajax doesn’t know the meaning of the word “restraint,” whether it involves fighting other gang members (and threatening to shove a baseball bat up their asses and turn them into Popsicles while doing so) or hitting on a woman sitting alone on a park bench. It’s that same lack of restraint from Ajax that helps make it possible for him and his friends to survive their battles, but it’s what also leads to his downfall, due to the fact that he refuses to take “no” for an answer.
When Mercy first lays eyes on The Warriors as they stroll through her neighborhood, which happens to be the home turf of The Orphans, she sees them as nothing but a nuisance and a potential threat, and she’s enough of a troublemaker that she’s willing to instigate a fight between both gangs just so The Orphans can come out on top. But she ends up finding herself drawn to The Warriors and to Swan, who refuses to show any kindness to her at first despite his own attraction to her, and she is soon fighting and running alongside them to get to Coney Island. Which is just one more way for Mercy to prove that she has no interest whatsoever in living the same kind of domestic life as the other girls in her neighborhood.
All it takes to destroy Cyrus’ master plan of unity amongst the gangs and an eventual takeover of New York City is a single bullet fired by Luther, and as he eventually reveals to The Warriors in his final confrontation with them, he doesn’t need a reason for killing Cyrus or for killing anyone. Because just like Latarian Milton and his fictional counterpart, Lamilton Taeshawn, he likes doing bad things because they’re fun. Which makes it all the more pleasant and rewarding when Swan not only defeats Luther in combat, but when the Riffs discover the truth about who really killed Cyrus and proceed to take their revenge on Luther.
And yet, despite the fact that Luther is a murderous weasel who deserves everything he gets, we have him (and the improvisational skills of actor David Patrick Kelly) to thank for this classic line of dialogue…
Much like Judge Dredd, we don’t get to see The DJ’s face in its entirety, nor do we get to learn anything about her other than what she does for her job and how she does it. Which involves playing music, and giving vague but informative warnings and updates about what’s happening with The Warriors and with all of the gangs pursuing them all over the city. It may not sound like much, but Lynne Thigpen does a terrific job of making her presence felt throughout the film and making us understand why her voice is one that is deserving of all these ‘boppers’ to listen to.
The Warriors opened in theaters to many mixed reviews from critics, who were not impressed with what they saw onscreen (with the notable exception of Pauline Kael from The New Yorker). Audience reaction, on the other hand, was the complete opposite, as younger filmgoers helped make the film a box-office success. Which certainly helped Paramount pictures breathe a huge sigh of relief, due to the fact that during its second weekend in theaters, three murders - one in the Boston area and two in Southern California - and numerous acts of vandalism took place in relation to people going to and coming from movie theaters showing The Warriors, causing Paramount to understandably freak out and completely minimize the film’s advertising. At least two hundred theaters nationwide were provided with security and movie theaters were given authority from Paramount to decide whether or not they wanted to show the film. As director Walter Hill explained in a 2014 interview with Esquire:
“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.”
The film’s popularity only grew from there thanks to home video and cable, and there have been very few limits to the influence that The Warriors has had on many facets of pop-culture. It was referenced in the remix for “Flava In Ya Ear” by the late Craig Mack, the late Notorious B.I.G., Rampage, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes.
And in the video for D-12’s “Fight Music” with Ice-T playing Cyrus and legendary New York City radio host Angie Martinez as the D.J.
And thanks to the success of The Warriors, Walter Hill became the director of choice for many other projects afterwards. His biggest and most successful film being an action/comedy that made Eddie Murphy an international superstar: 48 Hrs.
His next film, Streets Of Fire, wasn’t nearly as successful as 48 Hrs., but much like The Warriors, it found new life and greater popularity thanks to home video and cable, and has become a cult classic since then.
Hill directed many more films, including Brewster’s Millions, Extreme Prejudice, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill, and one of his most successful accomplishments was when he directed the pilot for the HBO series Deadwood, which won Hill an Emmy for Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series.
In 2005, Rockstar Games (the developer behind the Grand Theft Auto series, and Red Dead Redemption 2) released a video game adaptation of The Warriors for PlayStation 2, which not only gave players the opportunity to be a part of the action depicted in the film, but also expanded the film’s universe by introducing a lot more mayhem as result of all of the gang warfare
And in 2015, several of the film’s cast members reunited with each there for a fan-organized Warriors-themed celebration, starting with the actors getting on the Q train that would take them to their destination: Coney Island (or as the film calls it, The Big C.I.), where they were greeted by many fans, including motorcycle clubs who were inspired by what they saw in The Warriors.
The Warriors remains a classic to this day, and is also a brutal but well-made reminder of what New York City used to be and still is to a lesser degree. So if you want to watch something that will keep you entertained and will take you back to the days when you wouldn’t even dream of displaying your watch, let alone a brand-new Apple MacBook, while riding the subway during any time of day, The Warriors is most definitely for you.
Can you dig it?!
Header Image Source: Paramount Pictures