Entertainment Weekly at one point named The Warriors (1979) as the 16th greatest cult film ever, and the 14th most controversial film of all time. I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I think you had to be there. Over on RottenTomatoes, it currently carried as Tomatometer reading of 93 percent. It doesn’t make sense to me. One critic described it as “visually stunning and emotionally gripping.” I’m at a loss to even understand that sentiment.
During pub trivia last week, a few slightly to somewhat older friends of mine were talking up and quoting The Warriors, a movie I suppose I should be ashamed of saying I’d not heard of up until that point. As is often the case when you hear about something for the first time, it began cropping up online and in conversations all week. So I decided to check it out.
I don’t get it. Maybe it’s a film that capitalized on the era. Maybe it was visually ahead of its time. Maybe scripts weren’t important in 1979. Or decent performances. Or realistic fight scenes. Or interesting narratives. Or maybe I’m simply too dim to appreciate The Warriors, but I found it a mundane and laughably dull experience.
A certain amount of reverence, I suspect, is paid to The Warriors because it came from Walter Hill, who produced Aliens and directed the two 48 Hours movies, in addition to Schwarzenegger’s equally terrible Red Heat. I am led to understand, moreover, that it had some important cultural implications, in addition to having elements from Anabasis, written by the Greek soldier Xenophon. That account was of 10,000 soldiers who had to march long distances through enemy territory in order to find their way back to the safety of their own land.
Such is the case in The Warriors, too, after thousands of gang-leaders are brought to a central meeting place in New York City. There, Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the most powerful gang in New York City, the Gramercy Riffs, calls a truce among all of the gangs, which he does by yelling, “Can you dig it?” several times. However, before the truce is firmly established, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rogues, uses a smuggled gun to shoot Cyrus. During the panic and mêlée , after hundreds of police officers arrive on scene, the nine leaders of The Warriors gang are blamed for the murder of Cyrus. And so, the nine of them have to travel overnight through enemy territory — the neighborhoods occupied by the hundreds of other gangs — while also fighting off the police, to get back to their own territory, Coney Island.
In their efforts to do so, they pick up a prostitute after fighting off The Orphans; they do battle with a gang that wears pinstripe baseball uniforms and facepaint; they ward off lesbians; and they even go toe to toe with a gang that wears rollers skates and overalls. All the while they also have to contend with the police, as well as the Grammercy Riffs, who are tailing them all the way back to Coney Island.
That actually sounds more exciting than it is. Mostly, The Warriors entails a lot of walking in silence. And running. In fact, there are running sequences that last five or six minutes, complemented badly by a screeching score. The acting, save for that of Marcelino Sánchez — the tag-along hooker — and James Remar — who at one point takes a time-out to try and rape someone — is dreadfully wooden, while the dialogue (or at least, what little there is) is painfully banal. It’s also one of those low-budget movies where the editing is done so poorly that the fight sequences look like bad WWF matches between scrawny gang members in fey leather vests.
How this movie is linked to a rash of vandalism and at least three murders back in 1979 is beyond me, unless the moviegoers were so bored that they had to take their frustration out on the sides of buildings and faces. It’s a tedious film, and I’m at a loss to find the underlying social message that Ronald Reagan was so taken with at the time. Like I said, I think you had to be there.
I’m sure The Warriors will be remade soon (In fact, Tony Scott is attached to such a remake). And the premise is actually compelling enough that, in the right hands — not Tony Scott — I could envision a better contemporary movie, visually impressive movie with updated dialogue and a better fashion sense, a statement that I’m sure represents some sort of sacrilege to the movie’s following.
Yet, while I don’t understand the appeal of The Warriors, I know who it appeals to. It’s one of those “guy” movies, one of those films that you watch a certain young age that sticks with you for decades. Like Jason and the Argonauts. Or Beastmaster. Or Excalibur. Or the original Conan the Barbarian. Or one of the many low-budget mythology movies of this milieu that would air late nights on TBS in 1983. (I personally swung the other way, toward Valley Girl or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but I can guarantee with 92 percent certainty that TK at least liked The Warriors and that Drew Morton probably appreciates something historically important about its visual style). I’m not knocking the attachment — and the poor attempt at comic-book panels in the movie probably endeared it even more to its fans — I’m just saying that The Warriors is not a movie that would appeal to anyone who watched it for the first time in 2010. Not unless you’re amused by vicious mime gangs.