Monday, March 1, 2010

The Warriors

When The Warriors came out in 1979 it was a modestly budgeted film made by an up-and-coming director named Walter Hill and featured a then-unknown cast. With its nightmarish vision of New York City, the film certainly wasn’t going to be used in any of the city’s tourism ads extolling the virtues of the metropolis. Like many films from the 1970s, New York is presented as a dirty, dangerous place filled with jaded, cynical people (see Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three). The Warriors performed decently at the box office but reports of gang-related violence at a few screenings caused the studio to panic and downplay promotional advertisements. But the film had left its mark and over the years it has quietly cultivated a loyal following thanks mainly to regular screenings on television and the occasional midnight showing at repertory theaters.

The film’s premise is pure B-movie hokum. New York City is dominated by gangs that hail from the various boroughs. One man named Cyrus (Roger Hill) dreams of uniting all of these different groups into a 60,000-strong army that will run the city and answer to no one, not the police and not organized crime. To this end, he convinces representatives from 100 gangs to gather in Van Cortlandt Park. However, much like Malcolm X before him, Cyrus’ call for revolution is shattered when he is killed by an assassin, a grinning maniac named Luther (David Patrick Kelly) from the Rogues. With their leader missing in action thanks to the ensuing chaos, Swan (Michael Beck) takes over a gang known as the Warriors. They find themselves trapped in Manhattan, framed for Cyrus’ death. They must fight their way back to their turf on Coney Island and go through several territories of other gangs out for their blood. It’s a chase movie broken up by several exciting fight scenes and commented on by a late night disc jockey (Lynne Thigpen) like a Greek chorus as she spins tunes that offer clues for what awaits the Warriors next. It is this simple yet effective set-up that makes the film work so well.

The tension between the Warriors’ stoic war chief Swan and cocky gang member Ajax (James Remar) is nicely done and gives an edgy quality to their group dynamic. Swan is the archetypal Hill protagonist: a laconic man of action and of few words, much like Ryan O’Neal’s no-nonsense wheelman in The Driver (1978) and Michael Pare’s soldier of fortune in Streets of Fire (1984). With a few notable exceptions, the Warriors are a pretty indistinguishable lot. You’ve got the inexperienced guy, the not-so smart guy, the tough guy, etc. Only Michael Beck and James Remar really stand out and it’s no surprise that they were the two actors that went on to illustrious careers, especially Remar who has had a diverse career that includes Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Sex and the City. That being said, the actors playing the rest of the Warriors do just enough to invest you in their plight so that you care about what happens to them.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh plays Mercy, a woman the Warriors cross paths with during their run-in with the Orphans. She is tough and oozes attitude and sexual appeal. She’s one of Hill’s quintessential smart, tough-talking women, like Amy Madigan’s soldier in Streets of Fire and Annette O’Toole’s long-suffering girlfriend to Nick Nolte’s cop in 48 Hrs (1982). There’s a telling scene near the end of the film where two couples get on the subway and sit across from a tired, disheveled and bruised Swan and Mercy. They are all roughly the same age but they couldn’t be more different. The two couples have just come from a prom and are a laughing and smiling while our badass heroes look exhausted but defiant having survived a tumultuous night.

The push and pull dynamic between Swan and Ajax enhances the relentless urgency that kicks in once the Warriors are on the run, fighting their way back home. Hill is only interested in constantly propelling the narrative forward as our heroes run the gauntlet of gangs. The closer they get, the tougher the gangs are that they have to face. And they are a colorful assortment, some are rather lame, like the Orphans whose uniform consists of nothing more than a plain t-shirt and blue jeans, and some look really cool, like the Baseball Furies, a bizarre-looking gang dressed up in Yankee pinstripes and oddly-colored face-paint. You would think that they would look ridiculous but there is something about them, maybe it’s their lack of speaking, that is creepy.

Hill directs the action sequences in a clean, straight-forward style so that there is never any confusion about who’s fighting who and where. He uses editing to help convey the kinetic action in these scenes so that they’re always exciting to watch. The film’s score features ominous electronic rock music comparable to what John Carpenter was also doing at the time (see Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween). The pulsating score matches the rhythm of the editing. The music also enhances the tough, street vibe as it chugs along much like the subway that runs through the city delivering our heroes to safety.

The genesis for The Warriors came about when producer Lawrence Gordon sent director Walter Hill the screenplay along with a copy of Sol Yurick’s novel. Hill was drawn to the “extreme narrative simplicity and stripped down quality of the script.” As written, it was a realistic take on street gangs but Hill was obsessed with comic books and wanted to divide the film into chapters and then have each chapter “come to life starting with a splash panel.” Gordon and Hill were originally planning to make a western but when the financing on the project fell through, they took The Warriors to Paramount Pictures because the studio was interested in making youth films at the time.
Gordon and Hill did extensive casting in New York City. Originally, in Yurick’s book there are no white characters but, according to the director, the studio did not want an all-black cast for “commercial reasons.” Hill had screened an independent film called Madman (1978) for Sigourney Weaver whom he ended up casting in Alien (1979). The film also featured Michael Beck as the male lead. Hill was so impressed by his performance in Madman that he cast Beck in The Warriors. In order to depict the many fights in the film realistically, Hill had stunt coordinator Craig R. Baxley put the cast through stunt school.

Hill shot the entire film in New York City with some interiors done at Astoria Studios. The shooting schedule consisted of shooting from sun down to sun up. It wasn’t the easiest shoot. For example, while shooting in the Bronx, bricks were tossed at the crew. One of the cast members remembered filming a scene on Avenue A being canceled because there was a double homicide nearby. For the big gang summit at the beginning of the film, Hill wanted real gang members in the scene and they also had off-duty police officers in the crowd so that there would be no trouble. Actual gang members wanted to challenge some of the cast members but were dealt with by production security. The production fell behind schedule and went over budget.

Originally, at the climactic Coney Island confrontation at the end of the film, David Patrick Kelly wanted to use two dead pigeons for his now famous line but Hill did not think they would work. Instead, Kelly used bottles and improvised his famous line, “Waaaaarriors, come out to plaaaaaay!” This came from a man the actor knew in downtown New York that would make fun of him.
Hill was unable to realize his comic book look due to the low budget and tight post-production schedule because of a fixed release date in order to get it out in theaters before a rival gang picture called The Wanderers (1979). It opened on February 9, 1979 without advance screenings or a decent promotional campaign. People tend to forget the notorious reputation the film had back in the day. The next weekend it was linked to accounts of vandalism and three killings – two in Southern California and one in Boston. As a result, Paramount removed ads from radio and television entirely and display ads in newspapers were reduced to the film's title, rating and participating theaters. In reaction, 200 theaters in the United States added security people to curb any potential trouble. In addition, theater owners were relieved of their contractual obligations if they did not want to show the film, and amazingly Paramount offered to pay costs for additional security and damages due to vandalism.

After things calmed down somewhat, the studio expanded the display ads to take advantage of reviews from reputable critics like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who gave it a rave review. She wrote, “The Warriors is a real moviemaker’s movie: it has in visual terms the kind of impact that ’Rock Around the Clock’ did behind the titles of Blackboard Jungle. The Warriors is like visual rock.” However, the film was panned by many critics. The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold felt that, "none of Hill's dynamism will save The Warriors from impressing most neutral observers as a ghastly folly.” In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, “another problem arises when the gang members open their mouths: their banal dialogue is jarringly at odds with Hill's hyperbolic visual scheme.” Time magazine’s Frank Rich wrote, “Unfortunately, sheer visual zip is not enough to carry the film; it drags from one scuffle to the next ... But The Warriors is not lively enough to be cheap fun or thoughtful enough to be serious". Yurick expressed his disappointment in the film version and speculated that it scared some people because "it appeals to the fear of a demonic uprising by lumpen youth", and appealed to many teenagers because it "hits a series of collective fantasies.”

I’m still on the fence about the comic book panel framing device imposed by Hill for the Ultimate Director’s Cut DVD. The new tweaks to the film are obvious right from the get-go as the director narrates an opening scrawl featuring parallels to some nonsense about what we are about to see with Greek mythology. Some of the scene transitions are now done in a more overt, comic book style a la panels featuring stylized frames from the film. I understand that this was Hill’s intention all along, acting as a homage to his love of comic books as a kid but it undercuts the nightmarish vibe of The Warriors that made it so powerful in the first place. This is glaringly apparent at the end when the triumphant Warriors stand on the beach at Coney Island as Joe Walsh’s “In the City” plays and the stylized comic book panel motif ruins the poignancy of the moment.
The Warriors is set almost entirely at night and presents the city as a dark, foreboding labyrinth fraught with danger that lurks around every corner and in every alley as the Warriors not only evade the cops but also rival gangs that hold them responsible for killing Cyrus. John Carpenter would take this dystopic vision to the next logical level with Escape from New York (1981) by re-imagining the city as a walled-in prison guarded by an army. Even though Hill claims this to be a comic book-like film, it really doesn’t feel or look like one despite his recent tinkering. The gritty setting, the ominous music and the constant danger that our heroes are in doesn’t evoke a comic book vibe at all. And this is what fans of The Warriors like about it.


SOURCES

Barra, Allen. “The Warriors Fights On.” Salon. November 28, 2005.

Ducker, Eric. “New York Mythology.” Fader. October 3, 2005.

21 comments:

  1. great writeup. i really love this film!

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  2. MrJeffery:

    Thanks! Yeah, I'm a HUGE Walter Hill fan and this is definitely one of his best films.

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  3. Great look back at this, J.D. I'm glad you brought up the issue of the Ultimate Director's Cut disc and that it's not the theatrical cut. I agree that the changes take away from the original experience. I, too, am a big Walter Hill fan. But, it would have been better if the Ultimate disc had had both the DC and theatrical cut offered. The OOP 2001 disc is still available, used. I think it's worth having for fans of the film, along with the DC. And that scene you highlight (the one image you lead with) remains a poignant one, even 30 years later (IMO). Wonderful review, my friend. Thanks for this.

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  4. le0pard13:

    Thanks for the kind words. And yeah, I really think I need to pick up original theatrical cut on DVD. While, I like the extras created for this new version, I really am not crazy about the comic book paneling framing device. It really distracts from the film. It is this kind of revisionist attitude that boggles my mind and makes you wish director's would leave well enough alone. At least in this case.

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  5. I haven't seen the new cut for the reason I don't think it need be there. WE get the film is a comic-book the same way Carpenter's films are, the panel is the screen.

    But this is still my favorite Hill film, for all the reasons you mention.

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  6. J.D.

    A great review of what is, perhaps, my all-time favorite cult film (and definitely my favorite Hill film).

    The Warriors -- with the mythic touches balancing the seventies touches -- is a fantastic film that I return to again and again.

    Actually, I had been meaning to review it on my blog -- and lo and behold, I click here and there it is!

    Excellent retrospective. And, as a side-note, I like RADIATOR HEAVEN's new layout too.

    best,
    JKM

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  7. christian:

    You said it! That is exactly why the new cut of the film makes obvious what we already sense and feel just from the tone of the film.

    This is definitely right up there as one my fave Hill films. Altho, I have a soft, nostalgic spot for STREETS OF FIRE so that will probably always be #1 fer me.


    John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the compliments! It was high time that I took a look at another Hill film and this one just edged out THE DRIVER which I've been mulling over for some time.

    I certainly agree with you re: the mythic and '70s touches that make this film work so well. I really dread the upcoming remake and hope that it dies somewhere in development hell. It just doesn't need to be remade. But we'll always have this one to enjoy.

    I would really love to read your thoughts on this film, esp. as you are also a fan of Hill's films.

    And I'm glad you like the new look of my blog. It felt like a change was needed and I finally took the initiative.

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  8. Great write up JD. One of Hill's best, though I must admit I prefer the severely underrated Southern Comfort, and The Product Of Meat Loaf's Nightmares "Streets Of Fire".

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  9. I recently picked myself up a poster for this from the Alamo Drafthouse. It's very nice. And another great write-up.

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  10. Bryce Wilson:

    Thank you for the kind words. I do like SOUTHERN COMFORT as well. I recently watched it for the first time (I know, mea culpa!) and was really impressed by it. The ending is especially filled with tension. I hope to take a look at that one some day as well.


    Mark Salisbury:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the encouraging words. I wouldn't mind picking up a WARRIORS poster at some point myself.

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  11. Great backstory on the film J.D.

    I always had mixed feelings about “The Warriors.” I am old enough to remember the controversy the film caused at the time of its original release. It’s visual impact certainly keeps you going which is what Hill does best, but I agree with some of the critics at the time who complained about the dull dialogue. I also thought it becomes a bit repetitive after a while. Deborah Van Valkenburgh was very good. She had an offbeat beauty about her. There was that tough exterior yet you felt there was something genuine underneath. I always wished she had a bigger career.

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  12. A fine writeup, J.D.! I'm a huge WARRIORS (and, of course, Hill) fan. A ginormous poster of the eponymous gang adorns my living room wall, and I have been known, on occasion, to place my empties on my fingers and recreate David Patrick Kelly's infamous taunt.

    I gotta say that the comic book panels in the 'director's cut' really rubbed me the wrong way, too, but it still couldn't impede my enjoyment of this awesome fucking movie.

    And this was the start of my James Remar fandom- and Hill has always made terrific, memorable use of Remar, even in bit parts (like 'the knife fighter' in THE LONG RIDERS). Hopefully, his rumored involvement in vague, forthcoming Hill projects will come to fruition, as they've not worked together since WILD BILL in '95, I believe.

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  13. Sean Gill:

    Thank you for the compliments, my friend! Good to see more love for this film. Watching this film again was just another reminder of how awesome David Patrick Kelly is... even in teeny tiny roles like the one in WILD AT HEART. And Hill must've liked him as well, giving him a memorable role as a weaselly snitch in 48 HRS.

    You are right about the awesome-ness of the film rising above the clumsy comic book framing device of the new DVD edition. Despite its presence, the film still kicks ass three ways from Sunday.

    I dig James Remar too. I remember first seeing 48 HRS and his character scaring the crap out of me. Remar really brought a nasty intensity to the role and was formidable villain to go up against Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy. You m mentioning WILD BILL reminds me that I really need to watch that film again. It's been too damn long. As always, thanks for stopping by.

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  14. John:

    Thanks for kind words.

    I will agree that for the most part, dialogue is not film's strong point but then I think Hill understood that and compensates with some pretty amazing kinetic action. You could say the same for some of his other films. I mean, the dialogue for STREETS OF FIRE isn't anything to write home about but it does have its own pulpy charm which THE WARRIORS does as well.

    I agree with you re: Deborah Van Valkenburgh. It was nice to see her pop up in the cult film FREE ENTERPRISE where she gets to romance William Shatner (?!) but she has remained under the radar for the most part. She needs to do another Hill film, pronto!

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  15. James Remar has proven to be one versatile actor. His heavy roles certainly garner well deserved attention. But, I as well remember his non-villain roles. He was great as Gen. Omar Bradley in the TV movie IKE: COUNTDOWN TO D-DAY, and gave a touching performance in a decidedly chic flick, BOYS ON THE SIDE. He's also done a fair amount of voice work. He was the first audiobook narrator of a Robert Crais novel, VOODOO RIVER. And him and James Sloyan have done the voice overs for Lexus commercials.

    One of my regrets from last year was I couldn't attend a WARRIORS screening at our revival theater here in L.A., The New Beverly Cinema. And, Deborah Van Valkenburgh was scheduled to present it, and do a Q&A afterwards. Family-life can be tough that way.

    See what you started, J.D. ;-). Thanks.

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  16. le0pard13:

    Wow, I had forgotten Remar was in BOYS ON THE SIDE! One of the few times he's played a good guy. He seems to get typecast often as the heavy.

    Ah, I wish I coulda seen THE WARRIORS on the big screen. Never had the chance and to have Deborah Van Valkenburgh in attendance? Wow. That's a bummer you missed it but what are you gonna do?

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  17. One of my all-time favorite cult films, films of the '70s, films, action films, comic book films, Walter Hill films...well, you get the picture. It is amazing to see how ubiquitous the film has become in the last 10+ years in the form of music video and commercial tributes, video games, the inevitable remake, in hip-hop lyrics, fashion, retrospectives in hip magazines, etc.

    I discovered the movie for myself when I got a Rick's Movie Graphics catalog in the mail in the early '90s, when I was about 13, and the poster was pictured prominently. The artwork was so striking that I just had to see the film. This was pre-Internet and at a point when the film was not so popular with younger audiences--it hadn't yet had its revival. I loved it and thus tried to turn on as many of my friends to the film as I could. I remember trying to show it to friends of mine and it was laughed off the screen as "some lame '70s movie." It was around that time that I lost all respect for these "friends." Of course, when I go to a packed midnight show like the one I went to at the Sunshine in NY last summer, I know I was RIGHT!

    Agreed on the insertion of comic book frames and poorly narrated Hill intro. I loved how the original cut was very clearly an updating of the Xenophon myth without outright TELLING us. The new additions are just too on the nose. I've kept my original DVD of the theatrical cut and now have the Blu-ray of the "Ultimate Edition" or whatever they're calling it. It looks absolutely stunning...it's just a shame they couldn't use some of the ample space on the Blu-ray disc to include the theatrical cut. Ajax's "Holy Shit!" line at the sight of the Furies is ruined in the new cut!

    For those in NYC, there are a couple of discount DVD shops, one is on 6th and 21st, that had a bunch of the original 2001 DVDs for $6. Haven't been in a couple months, but it's worth checking for those of you who don't yet own it.

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  18. Ned Merrill:

    Thank you so much for sharing some of your memories about this film. As always, I appreciate your comments.

    It really is quite amazing how much of a cult film THE WARRIORS has become, spawning a mini-cottage industry of stuff. I have the video game and it is pretty amazing, if only for the fact that at one point or another you get to play all of the Warriors. Plus, the attention to details from the film is phenomenonal. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they got a lot of the cast back to reprise their characters.

    I really do need to track down a copy of the old DVD before it gets too astronomically high in price.

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  19. THE WARRIORS is almost unprecedented among cult movies in terms of ubiquity--in some ways I enjoyed it better when it wasn't so familiar to everyone in my age bracket. In other words, before it became a phenomenon. Check out the forum on the Warriors UK movie site--it's nice to see so much devotion, but it begins to get a little ridiculous and repetitive.

    Have never played the video game, but it would be one that I would probably get a video game system for. Unfortunately, you can't play it on PS3. I understand David Patrick Kelly was one of those who did not return for the video game...too bad.

    I can swing by the aforementioned DVD shop and see about picking one up for you. I'll let you know what I find and you can shoot me your shipping details if there are any left.

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  20. Ned Merrill:

    "Check out the forum on the Warriors UK movie site--it's nice to see so much devotion, but it begins to get a little ridiculous and repetitive."

    Thanks for the tip.

    The video game is really great and along with THE THING video game sequel was the tipping point for me finally giving in and buying a gaming system.

    "I can swing by the aforementioned DVD shop and see about picking one up for you. I'll let you know what I find and you can shoot me your shipping details if there are any left."

    That's mighty nice of you, my friend! Wow! Many thanks. I look forward to hearing from you.

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  21. J.D.,

    Got a DVD with your name on it. Sent a PM to you thru Google/Blogger, but I don't know if it got to you.

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