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.