A multi-ethnic street gang from Coney Island known as the Warriors sends nine of its members to a citywide gang summit in the Bronx. The chosen few include their leader Cleon (Dorsey Wright), a cool headed “war chief” named Swan (Michael Beck), and the cocky Ajax (James Remar). A truce enables the Warriors to move via the subway through turf controlled by rival gangs. At the rally, the charismatic leader of the Gramercy Riffs makes a plea for the gangs to unite and take control of the streets. Before he goes into specifics, a sociopath named Luther (David Patrick Kelly) shoots him dead.
Amid the confusion, Luther blames the assassination on the Warriors. The gang flees and finds themselves far from home in hostile territory. A radio DJ (Lynne Thigpen) keeps a running tally as the Warriors cross the turf of other gangs. The Orphans are so sloppy that one of their members, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), joins up with the Warriors. The skinhead Turnball ACs prove more ferocious, as do a female crew, the Lizzies. After being chased by the sinister Baseball Furies, the surviving Warriors make it back to Coney Island to find Luther waiting for them.
Producer Lawrence Gordon was browsing the discount rack at a bookstore in the mid-1970s when he came across a paperback called The Warriors. Published in 1965 and authored by a former employee of the New York Department of Welfare named Sol Yurick, the story was inspired by The Anabasis (loosely translated: The March Upcountry), an account by the Greek general Xenophon of 10,000 mercenaries stranded in Babylon circa 401 B.C. To reach the safety of the sea, the Greeks battled through a thousand miles of hostile enemy territory in Persia.
Yorick’s novel concerned a night in the life of a Coney Island street gang called the Dominators who face a similar peril when they venture to a peace summit in the Bronx and have to fight their way back to the ocean. Gordon liked the concept enough to option The Warriors. David Shaber adapted a screenplay. To direct, Gordon had Walter Hill in mind. Gordon had produced Hill’s two films – Hard Times and The Driver – and was prepping a western Hill had written with Roger Spottiswoode called The Last Gun. Financing fell through on the western eight weeks before shooting was set to begin.
Gordon had shown Hill the paperback and his script for The Warriors. An aficionado of terse dialogue and hard hitting, stylized action, Hill’s response to the material was, “I thought it lent itself to a very pure, chase kind of atmosphere. I think the immediate attraction was that kind of purity and simplicity.” With its lack of roles for marquee stars, Hill didn’t think any studio would be interested, but Gordon informed the director that Paramount was looking for youth oriented fare, and if he could be ready to shoot right away, they could make The Warriors instead.
Hill rewrote the script. “At the very beginning, I said, ‘Look, to do this properly and to do the vision of the novel, it really only makes sense if you do it all black and Hispanic. And the studio was not very keen on that idea.” Instead of doing a realistic take on street gangs, Hill went in the other direction. “And I later came to realize that the studio forced me into the comic book idea, I think, because it was about the only way I could make it all make sense to myself. You had to create a different kind of reality.” Hill encouraged costume designer Bobbie Mannix to go more and more extreme in her wardrobe ideas for the various gangs.
After casting in New York – David Patrick Kelly and Lynne Thigpen were discovered performing on Broadway in Working – shooting commenced in June 1978. The romantic leads were to be the characters of Fox and Mercy, played by Thomas Waites and Deborah Van Valkenburg. Waites’ attitude didn’t endear him to Hill, who rewrote the script to have Fox thrown under a subway train. Michael Beck’s chemistry with Van Valkenburgh prompted their relationship to become a focal point. Other than the brawl in the subway men’s room – which was done in Astoria Studios in Queens – the film was shot on the streets of Coney Island, the Bronx and Manhattan over four months.
Paramount vetoed a number of Hill’s ideas; a title card reading, “Some time in the future” was deemed too much like Star Wars, while post-production was too rushed for the director to insert comic book splash panels as the action progressed from chapter to chapter. Orson Welles had been approached to give an opening narration on The Anabasis, but the studio didn’t feel that a lesson in Greek history was necessary to the film either. Released in February 1979 without press screenings – the same weekend as six other films – The Warriors was panned by The New York Times, The Village Voice and most of the newspaper critics of the day.
Audiences had a different reaction. The film opened number one at the box office with blockbuster returns of $3.5 million. In some cases, audiences got too wild. In its first weekend in Southern California, a fatal stabbing in Oxnard and a shooting at a Palm Springs drive-in were linked to The Warriors. So was a stabbing in Boston a week later. Paramount responded by pulling TV and radio ads, and notified exhibitors that they were free to cancel bookings out of concern for security (at least six theaters did.) Two weeks without incident – and a rave from esteemed film critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker – resulted in a renewed advertising blitz.
By 2005, The Warriors had spawned action figures, a video game in Xbox and PlayStation 2 formats, a couple of fan websites and an “Ultimate Director’s Cut” DVD in which Hill was permitted to insert his opening narration and animated splash panels to heighten the comic book effect. Lawrence Gordon commented on the film’s enduring popularity by saying, “In the business, all the young screenwriters, all the young directors, everybody was just always … one of their favorite films. As far as I was concerned, we made a cartoon that people would not take seriously. I was way off base.”
At first glance, The Warriors lacks the craftsmanship to overcome its dumb bell characters and dialogue (my favorite bad line comes from Mercedes Ruehl: ”Whoa, look at those muscles. I bet the chicks love all those muscles!”) There have been far better action movies, but that said, The Warriors stands out as a classic because of its creative panache. By wiping the real New York right off the screen – along with anything that would indicate the film was shot in 1978 – The Warriors achieves a very basic, yet highly stylized feel.
For a breakneck 93 minutes, we enter a nocturnal universe whose parks, subway stations and streets belong to gangs with names like the Boppers. Everyone has an insignia or affiliation. There are few guns. Combatants wail on each other with fists and bats, but no one gets injured. It’s a visceral, hypnotic and even addictive vision from Walter Hill, certainly on the short list of greatest “guys movies” ever made. Joe Walsh performed a sensational theme – “In The City” – co-written by Barry DeVorzon, who also composed the electric, frequently eerie synthesizer score.
Keith Breese at filmcritic.com writes, “There are certain films that by some unforeseen circumstance tap into a generation, a culture, a time, perfectly. The Warriors is just such a film. It is by no means a perfect movie. It is well crafted and dramatic, but what moves it beyond cult adoration and fanboy drooling is its epic storyline and intensely rendered narrative … It’s an archetypal tale of survival, of revenge, of power and corruption and the human spirit. Sounds like a load of over-educated under-paid horseshit, I admit. But The Warriors really does have that kind of power.”
“Despite being corny and dated as hell, The Warriors is a film fondly remembered by many, possessing an odd sense of timelessness, even by the harsh and modern standards of action films today. A quarter of a century later, and The Warriors remains as tense, as action-packed, and as entertaining as ever. Unfortunately, in this climate of cinematic unoriginality, this makes it ripe for a Hollywood remake … I suggest writing a letter to your congressman now, and beat the postal rush,” writes Adam Arseneau at DVD Verdict.
The Vocabulariast at Movie Cynics says, “The Warriors is an almost perfect movie. Sure some of the lines are corny and you’ll laugh out loud. Yes, some of the gangs are stupid. I’m thinking of a particular gang fond of dressing like mimes. Of course, the cast is fairly terrible except for a few exceptions, but that is what makes cult movies great, they manage to overcome all of their shortcomings and transcend the nature of their parts to create one classic experience that connects with moviegoers across all cross-sections of society. In this sense, The Warrior is the cult movie.”