The Warriors remains something of a curiosity. Its cult stature has only grown in the three decades since its original release, and the sense of young urban disenfranchisement that director Walter Hill tapped into remains as potent as it ever it was. That said, the film remains a bit of puzzle, and it is never quite sure what to make of its protagonists. Does the movie want us to root for the wayward Warriors as they navigate the urban jungle in a quest to get back to Coney Island, or does it instead remain passively amoral amid all the violence and nihilism? It’s hard to really say, but it remains a potent piece of cinema.
The Warriors is set in New York. It could be the New York of 1979, it could be the New York of today, it could be the New York of the hazily-defined-not-too-distant-future. Walter Hill imagines a post-apocalyptic urban landscape with one catch: it looks pretty much the same as it ever did. The cops still patrol the streets, the subway still runs on time and we even get the odd glimpse of the kind of regular people who inhabit this world.
However, The Warriors depicts a version of the city that seems to have descended into a teenage wasteland, the sort of anarchist environment where violent kids run around and engage in a wave of terror that is far outside the ability of law enforcement to contain or control. The Warriors is a version of the post-apocalyptic future as it must have appeared to those worrying about kids in leather jackets during the fifties, or conservative commentators remarking on urban decay and the collapse of the family.
Although the infrastructure of the city looks familiar, the social system has changed – if anything, it has regressed to a more primal state. Young gangs carve out sections of “turf” in the city like feudal lords, wearing gang colours as an emblem. Passage through another gang’s turf requires etiquette and tribute – negotiations are held by “emissaries”, and the flimsiest form of peace is maintained by “the truce” – which seems more like a medieval code of conduct than any written formal document.
Indeed, it seems like this version of New York is almost purely feudal – that there’s no higher over-arching authority with an greater legitimacy. The New York Police Department shows up repeatedly, but they’re treated as little more than a gang in a uniform. When the Warriors encounter the cops in a subway station, they are easy enough to evade and then the film movie on to the next hostile group – with a confrontation taking place right outside a subway station swarming with police officers. (And continuing into a park that is also, it turns out, packed with officers of the law.)
The cops are portrayed as brutal in how they deal with the kids – to the point where it’s hard to imagine that any version of the American Civil Liberties Union exists in this version of the city, or that the organisation is indifferent to brutality against the gangs. At one point, a cop throws a kid into the path of an on-coming train, hardly the most moral of acts. Barring an undercover officer (in a ruse similar to a scheme run by another gang), none of the police officers are especially well developed and it’s clear that The Warriors rejects the notion that they hold any broader moral authority.
Right isn’t governed by any moral principle, but by force. Rape and murder are seen as legitimate options, even by our protagonists – which marks the first of the movie’s strange moral questions. Despite the relatively amoral world around the protagonists, it seems that The Warriors does want its audience to empathise with the gang to some limited degree. The Warriors are, as a whole, presented as a relatively small gang fleeing through enemy territory and trying to get home.
Most of the cast isn’t that well defined, but the simplistic nature of their goal and the sense the world is weighted against them makes them seem vaguely sympathetic. The Warriors seems to take some comfort in the fact that the eponymous gang is at least more righteous than the violent nihilistic Rebels led by Luther. Luther murders the would-be gang messiah Cyrus, and blames the Warriors for the killing. “What you doing?” the Warriors’ leader demands of Luther. “Why’d you waste Cyrus?” Luther answers surprisingly honestly, “No reason. I just like doin’ stuff like that.”
If The Warriors is intended to grant some legitimacy to the gangs of disenfranchised young people in the late seventies and beyond, Luther is very much the embodiment of the aggressive nihilism that the establishment frequently fears in these sorts of groups. Positioning the villain like that suggests that The Warriors wishes to distinguish Luther’s nihilism from that of the gang just struggling to make it home for sunrise.
However, the eponymous gang still comes across as borderline sociopathic at times, making the movie seem a little uncertain about whether they are being positioned in such a way that we should be sympathetic towards them or whether they are being presented in strictly amoral terms – allowing for the audience to make their own judgements. The movie’s most well-defined member of the group, Swan, threatens to gang-rape the leading lady at one point. He suggests, “We ought to pull a train on you. You look like you might like it.”
When the group finds a lone woman in the park, Ajax rather pointed remarks, “I guess she don’t know parks ain’t safe after dark.” His intentions are fairly clear, and Swan’s only objection is that the group was other priorities at the moment. “We ain’t got time for that.”Throughout the film, Ajax is repeated presented as somewhat unreliable and unstable – the most violent of the bunch by a considerable margin, and the movie is never especially sympathetic to him.
The sequence is more interesting for Swan’s response, as the most well-developed of the group. In any other context, the exchange seems to suggest, a sexual assault in the park might by Swan’s perfect ending to a day of hard work in any other circumstance. The movie never really addresses that, and it never dwells upon those unpleasant suggestions. It’s easy enough for a casual viewer to completely miss Swan’s attitude towards rape, and – given how the rest of the film paints him as this archetypal war time commander struggling to get his men home – it feels distinctly uncomfortable.
Of course, perhaps that’s the point – but it feels a little bit muddier than it should be. The movie makes quite a few significant revisions to the source novel by Sol Yurick (including the name of the gang), and most of them seem intended to make the gang more sympathetic. Yurick’s novel was a lot more candid about their violence and their activities, as something of a deconstruction of Anabasis, the classic Greek story by Xenophon. The movie plays it all a bit straighter, which makes elements like that seem a little more ambiguous and uncomfortable.
On the other hand, Walter Hill’s film remains an interesting exploration of teenage disenfranchisement, as the Warriors and their fellow gangs seem like a bunch of kids failed by the establishment. There’s only a passing reference to a “youth worker” working with the Warriors, and she hardly seems especially efficient. These kids are barely literate, unable to read even the subway maps. One struggles to make sense of the patterns as another assures him, “It’s all right, nobody can read these maps anyway.” The world they inhabit is hardly the most glamorous. Surveying his kingdom, Swan muses, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” Still, it’s clear that it’s all they know.
Mercy suggests that there are alternatives to the gangs, that kids can go on to live regular lives. It’s just that – of the options presented – gang membership is the least bad option:
I see what’s happening next door and down the block, belly hanging down, five kids, cockroaches in the cupboard. I’ll tell you what I want. I want something now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean?
The only option is to fade away into poverty and nothingness, or to try to make your mark on the world. Without condoning the characters, Hill’s movie does provide some sense of explanation for what they do. Given the violence they so casually dish out, Hill is perhaps a tiny bit too romantic, but he does seem to have something to say about a generation of kids who simply don’t see a future for themselves. There’s a lovely moment where a bunch of obviously wealthier and more conventional kids get on the subway, and Swan refuses to let Maria feel ashamed of herself.
As the gang prepares to take a trip across New York, one confesses, “I ain’t been to the Bronx before.” These are kids who really have no experience outside the gang. “You know I like travelling,” Mercy tells Swan at the climax of the film. He counters, knowing from experience that nobody who left their world would return to it willingly, “Where you ever been?” She admits that it’s nothing but an aspiration, but a powerful one at that. “I ain’t never been anywhere. I just know I’d like it.”
We get no sense of who these kids are as individuals, only as part of the gang – it’s the closest thing that any of them have to a family, or to a job, it’s the only life that exists outside themselves. In that respect, it makes sense that the characters are little more than archetypes defined by their contribution to the group dynamic – they only really exist as part of the gang, so it makes sense they have little characterisation outside of it.
Their frustrations seem rooted in a society that doesn’t care or understand – all they seem to have faith in is their own gang, in their quest for validation. In the case of the Orphans, Sully links his own self-worth to the notoriety of the gang. He carries press clippings around with him. “Our raids are in the paper,” he boasts, as if the gang’s violence somehow legitimises him. (His masculinity also makes him easy to exploit, particularly by Mercy.)
The Warriors aren’t that much more secure. They plan to mark the city with their graffiti to ensure that the other gangs acknowledge them. “I want everybody to know that the Warriors were there,” the leader instructs his followers, and perhaps that’s the best that these kids could hope for – the notion that they may be able to leave a mark on the city so great that they would be remembered past the end of their inevitably too-short lives.
Cyrus is aware of this sense of listlessness among the youth. Cyrus also seems to see that the power that this disenfranchised youth have. “I say the future is ours!” he declares, and it’s no coincidence that Cyrus is the only character with any long-term planning. All the gang members are preoccupied with immediate concerns. For most of the movie it’s getting home, but characters like Ajax are also distracted by more short-term objectives. The villainous Luther can’t even see past his own current amusement, and kills Cyrus for absolutely no reason – despite the fact that Cyrus was the only person on the planet who cared about Luther’s (and the other gang members’) futures.
The scale of this disaffected generation is simply astounding. Despite the film’s limited budget, Walter Hill conveys an impressive sense of scale. “60,000 soldiers!” Cyrus informs his would-be followers. “There ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town!” Cyrus imagines all that power harnessed and driven to a particular goal or purpose. The fact that these kids are locked in perpetual cycles of violence against one another is the reason that they remain unable to affect any substantial change:
We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because we got the streets, suckers. Can you dig it? Right on! The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We’ve been unable to see the truth, because we’ve been fighting for ten square feet of ground – our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers. The turf is ours by right because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory, secure our turf, because it’s all our turf.
Cyrus’ rhetoric suggests some sort of grass-roots movement that could find a way to bring these disenfranchised individuals together for some greater purpose – the notion that the kids could organise and take their place in the world. It’s a powerful moment, and it’s almost tragic. The death of Cyrus all but assures that the petty squabbling and violence will continue, and things will only get worse.
Walter Hill does a fantastic job with the film. It actually looks stunning in high definition, with Hill’s colours popping right off the screen. The whole film has this vaguely hallucinogenic quality, and one definitely gets the sense that it’s unfolding in that weird early-morning ethereal period in New York City. Everything seems sort of hyper-real, with lights shining strongly and primary colours standing out against an otherwise grey urban wasteland.
The gangs themselves look delightfully strange, as if they wandered out of some fevered dream. Produced on a relatively low budget, it looks great. Things like the baseball gang chasing our heroes through the park suggest that the film has escaped from some drug trip gone horribly wrong. Hill shoots New York as it is, and yet he’s able to take the familiar cityscape and suggest this massive sense of decay and waste. I don’t think Coney Island has ever looked as decrypt as it does towards the end of the film, as a new dawn beckons.
The Warriors is a fascinating slice of cult entertainment. I’ve actually seen it a couple of times now, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. I mean that, entirely sincerely, as a complement.
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