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The Warriors (1979)

June 2nd, 2008 · 15 Comments

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Synopsis
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.

Production history
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Opinion
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.

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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.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Based on novel · Cult favorite · Famous line · Psycho killer · Train

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Jun 3, 2008 at 6:44 am

    Thankfully, it sounds like the proposed remake has stalled. I love how the energy in The Warriors starts from the opening credits, it’s a great pulsing introduction with the credits coming right at you. Before I saw this, I never liked that Joe Walsh song, but when set against the final scene it just feels perfect.

  • 2 moviezzz // Jun 3, 2008 at 7:16 am

    I’d probably rank this among my favorite action films of all time.

  • 3 sir jorge // Jun 3, 2008 at 9:44 am

    this one is definitely one of my favorite films.

  • 4 Kim // Jun 3, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    I just randomly found your site. It’s really great. Great collection of movie posters. I use those as desktop backgrounds.
    Hey have you ever noticed in Warriors, when they’re in the subway station, running down the stairs…well, the stunt double they used for Deborah Van Valkenburg…you just have to see it. It’s so obviously NOT her..the hair and body are completely different. Hilarious.
    Come out to plaaay—ayyyy.

  • 5 Bill // Jun 5, 2008 at 4:35 am

    Joe

    I have not checked your site in awhile. It is lookig like there is a lot of great new stuff. You keep the material coming pretty steady… good job. I have not seen The Warriors in so long I forgot a lot of little parts of it that your essay brought back. I will try to get a copy and recheck it.

    I always did like that song too by Joe Walsh and for a long time did not know it was from the film. I recall I was lukewarm to the film when I saw it but my perspective on films has changed a lot since then and I wonder how I would feel about it these days.

    I’ll be back… Bill

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jun 5, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Adam: I have strong feelings about the remake culture in the film industry right now. Whether you want to attribute it to lack of originality, greed, fear, or all of the above, none of the excuses are good ones. It’s a sad state of affairs when it’s easier for Rob Zombie to get $20 million for an unnecessary remake of Halloween than it is for him to get $10 million to do something halfway original. None of this bodes well for Hollywood at all.

    Ahem. You’re right, when the Joe Walsh tune kicks in before the end credits, it’s a pretty flawless marriage of music and image. Thanks for commenting!

    Moviezzz: No argument there. What makes the movie unique isn’t particularly big action set pieces or even suspense, but the universe that was created.

    Jorge: Of all the films I’ve written about on my site in the past, the one that continued to get more comments than any other was The Warriors. Guys of all ages just love this movie. I’m not necessarily in that cult, but am blown away that this little B-movie from the late ’70s continues to endure to people whose parents hadn’t even met when this came out.

    Kim: I rarely catch details like that. If I’m involved emotionally in a movie, I probably wouldn’t care if a scene switched from clear skies to clouds, or the lighting didn’t match. However, filmmakers do lose sleep over things like that, so it’s good that people like you are paying attention. Thanks for visiting and if you like what you’re reading, tell a friend!

    Bill: Thanks for coming back. I upload a new article every 72 hours, some better than others. The Warriors is a lot of fun to write about because there’s so much love for this movie, much like Big Wednesday. Joe Walsh rules. Who his contemporary would be in terms of guitar virtuoso and personality I could not say.

  • 7 AR // Jun 6, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I wish I could say I liked this movie as much as you do, but I guess I do get why it has such a substantial cult following.
    The costumes are nifty.

  • 8 Jeremy // Jun 9, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Funnily enough I just posted a long look at Hill’s Johnny Handsome where I praised The Warriors as one of his key works…great film and terrific look at it.

  • 9 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jun 9, 2008 at 10:45 am

    There are a lot of unbelievable and downright stupid things about this movie, but it really works. The “United We Stand: Divided We Fall” mentality was perfect for the time. The scene on the subway when the prom couples get on and Mercy reaches up to straighten her hair and Swan’s subtle, but powerful, reaction to that gesture is priceless and memorable. This is one I can watch over and over and still like.

  • 10 Joe Valdez // Jun 9, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Jeremy: Johnny Handsome is one of the great lost movies of the ’80s. As a Mickey Rourke fan I don’t have to tell you how cool it is, but unfortunately, it hasn’t been released on DVD in any decent format. Peter Biskind should write a Mickey Rourke book. I’m sure it would be an educational read. Thanks for commenting!

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: Thanks for highlighting that scene. I almost totally forgot about it. The prom kids are the only real people we see in the entire movie. When they show up, it’s like color is suddenly added to this stark, black and white movie.

  • 11 robert // Nov 27, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Best movie ever!Even in 2008. I wonder who will be second in command now since Swan is the first leader I think Snow will be second in command because I had noticed the connection between Swan and Snow and out of everybody they are the closest.Good names it matches them I like all of the Warriors but my favorite was Ajax,Cleon and Snow but since Ajax and Cleon got taken from the movie Ajax got arrested,Cleon died because of the Gramercy Riffs.But now its Swan,Snow and Cochise that are my favorites.And who will be the scout since Fox died.Maybe Cowboy or Rembrandt.

  • 12 Tyrik // Dec 14, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    i love dis movie its the best so is the game u guys rock bye

  • 13 Welyun // Aug 3, 2009 at 10:33 am

    @ 34, I still have yet to watch a movie w/as much toughness, grit, originality and great one liners as The Warriors. It has had a profound impact on my life and I’m sure my friends and family would concur. Naturally I say “No!” to a remake (unless I could have a costarring role). I grew up watching my parents VHS tape w/ The Warriors, Enter the Dragon, and Easy Money on it, with two very funny cartoon intermissions. It was like a bible to me; very sacred. Now, and I am a good father, my 3 yr. old daughter has got Cyrus’ monlogue down. It’s just who we are. Thanks for letting me vent.

  • 14 gabriel da silva santana // Sep 7, 2012 at 7:02 am

    adoro

  • 15 Paul Edwards // Jan 3, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    This movie is THE best movie of all time. I dont know if its because of my backround or what but its one of the best films ever recorded. The truth the reality the actors I wish I was head of the Oscars this movie would still be relevant remade remastered and taught in film school. No disrespect but the acting was not all that great but there isnt another group of guys who could have made this movie. THANK YOU FOR YOUR WORK. PERIOD. I APPRECIATE IT. WOW WHAT A WODERFUL MOVIE. Im watching it right now. January 4th 2013. 34 years my age.

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