Walter Hill. When people mention Walter Hill, most would think of any of the ‘Alien’ films that he produced/wrote (all of them), or possibly even Prometheus. For me, Walter Hill is the genius behind two of my favorite films – ‘Streets of Fire’ (a la Willem Dafoe, in one of his finest roles), and more notably, ‘The Warriors.’
Released in 1979, many people don’t realize that ‘The Warriors’ is actually based off of a book – Sol Yurick’s 1965 ‘The Warriors.’ Yurick’s book, though Wikipedia will inform you that it is inspired by the book ‘Anabasis,’ written by a Greek soldier sometime around 400 B.C., Yurick’s “adaptation” (if you could label it as such) is more dependent on the case work he did – with teenagers in New York City gangs. Some character names and events from ‘Anabasis’ are used, certainly, but the imagery, the grittiness, and the attitudes embodied by the characters in Yurick’s novel are heavily influenced by his own personal case work.
Upon release, Yurick did not attempt to hide his hatred. He believed the film was trashy and sentimentalized, moving away from his original inspiration. Aside from trivializing all of the case work he did (no mention at all), the races of characters are changed (the studios were to blame behind the multi-ethnic gangs – the gangs in the novel are entirely Latino and/or African American), and the violence is mythologized and made to look appealing, even celebrated. Yurick’s intentions were to display these street gangs, widely seen as a manifestation of social dysfunction in underprivileged neighborhoods, that he believed instead gave a structure of loyalty and a sense of community to these poverty-stricken teenagers. Personally, I like to separate the versions of the story (film and novel) as two distinct works, with very different ideologies and inspirations (respecting both author and auteur).
The reason ‘The Warriors’ has become such an infamous cult classic, aside from the film itself, can be traced back to the its initial release. Paramount, who distributed the film, after reports of vandalism and violence in theaters that premiered the film(between rival gangs who went to see the movie), completely suspended their advertising campaign and allowed theater owners to stop showing it, dropping all contractual obligations. However, despite these negative inaugural reviews (not for the film itself, but rather for the social response it caused), the film’s cult fandom grew massively.
‘The Warriors’ depicts the two most obvious characteristics of Walter Hill’s films – first, that they are action-oriented and inherently violent; and two – they are westerns that don’t ‘look like’ the classic westerns audiences are used to. Not needing to delve further into the first point (obvious? if not, here’s a clip!), the film’s similarities to the Western genre may go deeper than you’d imagine.
The Warriors are a gang from Coney Island who attend a massive gathering of all gangs, hopeful that some sort of treaty can be formed and the plethora of New York gangs can rule the city. However, after Cyrus is shot, the film’s narrative quickly changes to the Warriors’ path back to their native Coney Island. This simple story – meeting in the Bronx, guy gets killed, have to fight their way back to their homeland – is a common thread throughout the Western genre. Incredibly simple narratives, usually centering around a journey through hostile territories to reach a promised land, is shared between the Western and ‘The Warriors.’ The gangs in the film can be compared to Native American tribes, with clear outfits and territories, a quick draw at the beach can be compared to a quick draw in the desert (though literally “bringing knife to a gun fight”), and a street code between gangs serves the purpose of some defined ‘code of honor.’ There are also countless references to the revisionist western, including a focus on lawlessness, critical views of government bodies (the police, in this case), overly masculine figures, anti-heroes, empowered women, and a shadowy, cynical tonality.
Although its similarities to the Western are clear, as a film ‘The Warriors’ is an incredibly singular movie. Only being able to conceivably be compared to ‘West Side Story,’ ‘The Warriors’ is an incredibly stylized movie, some combination of gritty realism and fantasy that evokes a feeling of nostalgia for the “old” 1970s New York. With superbly choreographed fight scenes, comic-book transitions, and dozens of quotes ready to be recited, this glossy fantasy version of gang life in New York City will forever live in infamy.