CultureFilm / TV

in the city: ‘the warriors’ 40 years later

February 22, 2019
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Although I was raised in 1970s New York City, an era when punk and rap were both bubbling on fringe parts of town, by the time The Warriors was released in February, 1979, I was a high-school junior living in Baltimore. Every time the trailer played on television with the announcer proclaiming, “These are the armies of the night,” while showing bizarrely dressed gang-members — baseball uniforms, top hats, roller skates — roaming the gritty city streets after dark, I got all kinds of homesick for the grim and grime I’d left behind.

Sitting in the darkness of the Hippodrome Theatre on opening day, I was pulled instantly into fading beauty of the neon-lit city as the camera focused on Coney Island’s illuminated amusement park rides. There, a racially diverse gang calling themselves The Warriors, led primarily by warlord Swan (Michael Beck), Cleon (Dorsey Wright) and batshit crazy Ajax (James Remar), prepare to go to a street-gang summit in the Bronx where they’ll join many others of their ilk to discuss a plan of taking over the city. Moments later the film’s title, which looked as though it had just been tagged by a graffiti artist, flashed on screen and the audience erupted in applause as the flick kick-started into motion.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of The Warriors, a landmark film that movie blogger and pulp writer Derrick Ferguson has called “a masterpiece,” an assessment I would agree with, for better or worse. Directed by tough guy auteur Walter Hill, who three years later would strike gold with Eddie Murphy’s first flick 48 Hours, the film was based on a 1965 novel by New York writer Sol Yurick. A former social worker from the Bronx who had witnessed firsthand the late-1950s rise of street gangs in the city’s poorer communities, Yurick combined his scholarly passion for the Greek classic story Anabasis with a social studies examination of gang culture, to create the simple but suspenseful story.

The Warriors was originally written during the era when juvenile delinquent fiction was still a viable paperback market, with authors like Hal Ellison (Reefer Boy), Irving Shulman (Amboy Dukes) and countless other post-pulp writers contributing to a genre of kids “flying colors,” with gang names on their custom denim or leather jackets. Yurick, however, viewed himself as more of a literary writer than the genre boys writing for money. “I wanted to depict these kids as they really were,” Yurick said in 1979. “Life had become almost hopeless for them.”

Writer Andrew Nette, co-editor of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and Real Cool Cats (PM Press) says, “The Warriors has a distinctly dystopian flavor that most other juvenile delinquent books didn’t have. You also get a very clear sense of Yurick’s radical politics in the gang leader, Ismael Rivera [named Cyrus in the film], who realizes that if he can unite the various New York gangs, there is enough power to overthrow the authorities.” When that scene is shown in the movie, the camera pans to show the serious-faced “armies of the might,” as well as the quiet cops pulling-up outside the perimeter. However, when Cyrus, played with Malcolm X/Huey Newton-like bravado by Roger Hill, is assassinated while giving a passionate speech about street unity, all hell breaks out.

In the film, the killer Luther is played with psycho perfection by David Patrick Kelly. Certainly, it’s that “dystopian flair” that Hill, who co-wrote the script, latched on to in his vision, giving the film a futuristic feel with no time for sociological explanation, save for a few beat-down visuals and crumbling landscape. “The imagery of The Warriors has stayed with me for years,” says Janine Coveney, film critic and Words On Flicks podcaster. “Thinking about it years later, I can still remember certain images, especially the subway stations, that were just so vivid.

“It’s also amazing the number of young actresses who got their start in this film,” Conveney continues. “Especially Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy; I just loved her New York toughness, which was as close to a homegirl as we got in the movie. Also, although none of them became famous, the all-girl crew The Lizzies were interesting, because, not only were they the only gang packing guns, they also provided one of the scariest moments in the film.”

While the gang situation in New York had been very real a few years before the film was released in 1979, real-life gang activity in the Bronx had begun to be broken down by Vietnam, drugs and hip-hop. Former Bronx resident and writer Paul Price, who came of age in the Boogie Down in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s says, “I can remember when every housing project had its own gangs. There was the Savage Skulls, who were the most fearsome, The Savage Nomads, The Black Spades and The Casanovas. For a lot of young men and women, they served as surrogate families. At the time, the Bronx was fucked up, buildings were burning constantly and so many vets were coming home messed-up and addicted. But, around 1977, when Herc, Bambaataa and Flash started doing their thing in the parks was around the time heavy gang activity started to fade. Hip-hop changed the whole ballgame.”

Still, like me, Price was in the theater on opening day, having gone to Times Square to see The Warriors at the National. “I enjoyed it, but having lived through the era of real gangs, me and my friends thought it was comical parody than the real thing.”

40 years later, The Warriors has become iconic enough to have been made into a video game and sampled on more than a few rap tracks. Yet it’s the film itself that I return to every few years, and it still rocks as hard as it did that first day.  

As my Brooklyn-born brother from another, Derrick Ferguson, wrote about The Warriors on his film blog The Ferguson Theater: “Walter Hill took equal parts of the western, comic books and Greek literature, threw them in a blender and poured this movie out onto the screen. It’s a tribute to his skill as a director that the movie is still as well known today as when it first had its original theatrical release.”