The Warriors (1979 USA)

a film posterThey look a bit like the Village People. Little did they know they would end up as an Xbox video game. Or that people in the future would view the savage brawl in the public toilet as not The Warriors against a rival gang of young thugs, but what appears to be some kids’ TV presenters (one of whom chooses to fight in roller-skates). You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man dressed as a toddler hurled, upside down, through a wooden toilet door. But to give credit, this was a spot–on portrayal of New York in the 70s. The city was a mess, on the verge of bankruptcy. Many neighborhoods that are now full of $5 million apartments were war zones. One did not ride the subway at night and the gangs ruled most of the city’s turf.

This is a nice time capsule of an era that was in decay and when people just didn’t give a shit. They were OK with being mugged every eleven seconds, unlike folk today who are so uptight. Release this film in any other decade and it would be torn to shreds. But the 70s? No way. Back then hacks made great films, and even crappy films oozed a kind of electric immediacy. This was the oddball age of American cinema, when the social cocktail was such that a guy like Walter Hill could turn a wacky plot into some kind of kinetic, comic book masterpiece.  “The Warriors” revolves around a street gang who find themselves stuck in the Bronx as they try desperately to get back to their home turf in Coney Island. The problem is, every gang in the city is out to get them, not to mention thousands of cops. Sounds juvenile? It is.

But the film also oozes ambiance. Shot on location and almost entirely at night, Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo create a world of dark shadows, fluorescent bulbs, rain sodden streets and moody nightmare. Elsewhere Hill uses careful compositions to evoke comic book panels and the splash designs of graphic novels. These panels are emphasized in the DVD director’s cut of the movie, much to the anger of the film’s fans. But these changes are essential in undercutting or highlighting the film’s juvenile appeal. Walter Hill recognized that “The Warriors” essentially plays out like an adolescent fantasy in which wannabe tough guys roam the streets at night without parental supervision, doing as they please.

an imageUnsurprisingly, the film was based on “Anabasis” by Greek writer Xenophon. Both aim to resonate on a mythical level, both striped down hymns to bloodshed and bravery. In Hill’s case he charters the gang’s Spartanesque battle from the Bronx to Coney Island, the director ratcheting up the tension at every opportunity. Of course the majority of Hill’s films are Western’s in disguise, and so here he likewise tries to have every line of dialogue, every shot, boom with a kind of mythic weight. But what’s interesting is that literally every line in this film fails completely, none of the actors (all of whom seem amateurish or camp) able to project themselves into that archetypal space…and yet the film still works. I’ve never seen a film have every line of dialogue ring this false, and yet, due to the bare-bones nature of its plot, pared down dialogue, script and compositions, still resonate on the level of legend.

When it was first released, people initially linked it to such “urban violence” movies as “Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry”, or such nostalgic gang movies as “The Lords of Flatbush”. But in reality “The Warriors” ends the 70s by mirroring the existential road movies that began the decade (Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Easy Rider, Electra Glide in Blue etc). And so it begins with men emerging from a dark tunnel and then watches as they battle their way from ugly urbanism to idyllic beaches, gazing into infinity. Rather than salivating over urban violence, or fighting, the film’s central metaphor is “running.” Flight rather than fight. Our gang members end up finding no value in what is being fought over. The inner city a cesspool in which its wide-eyed dreamers hope to escape, just like the drug-fuelled hippies of “Vanishing Point”. Today, this kind of dreamy existentialism is now a turgid facet of modern noir; our heroes all hoping to escape to some non-existent fantasy land on the horizon.


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