Director Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) is a contemporary urban drama with all the traits of a western. Hill adapted the screenplay from the novel written by Sol Yurick in 1965. The film follows a group of nine gang members from Coney Island who trek up to the Bronx where thousands of other rival gang members have gathered for a summit held by a man known as Cyrus, the head of the most powerful gang in the city who plans to unite all the New York City gangs together as a crime syndicate.
The opening of the film is a series of montages that follow the Warriors as they take numerous subways from Coney Island to the Bronx. Other gangs are also shown as they too make their way to the meeting. Once the Warriors arrive at Van Cortlandt Park, the Warriors make their way to the front where Cyrus delivers a speech where he plans to unite all the gangs in an attempt to control New York. Cyrus demands that all the gangs put aside their differences and secure each city borough, and then create a collective organization that can battle not only the police, but the mafia as well.
Unbeknownst to the crowd and to Cyrus’s bodyguards, a shot rings out and Cyrus is murdered. A rival gang known as the Rogues executed Cyrus in an attempt to thwart the plans of one unified gang. One of the Warriors “Fox” (Thomas Waites) sees the gang leader of the Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly) who took the shot. All of a sudden, hundreds of riot police storm the park and begin arresting hundreds of rival gang members while others flee. The Warriors warlord, Cleon (Dorsey Wright) is accused by the Rogues as the one who shot Cyrus. Members of the Gramercy Riffs beat Cleon down in retaliation.
The remaining members of the Warriors escape from the park and regroup in a cemetery in an attempt to find the subway. Swan “the war chief” (Michael Beck) assumes command over the gang since Cleon is missing and believed to have been seized by the police. Ajax (James Remar) challenges Swan in an attempt to become the leader. The other members are unanimous that Swan is in charge and is the only one who can successfully get them back to their home turf in Coney Island. But their night has only just begun. The word is out that the Warriors are the ones responsible for Cyrus’s death and a citywide manhunt is underway. The right hand member of the Gramercy Riffs wants the Warriors dead or alive.
Waiting for a subway, the Warriors spot a rival gang, The Turnbull ACs. The Warriors are unaware that the Turnbull ACs are looking for them. The Warriors hear the elevated train above them and make a quick dash for the station while the Turnbull ACs chase them in an old school bus. The Warriors make their way to the platform and escape. Rejoicing in their escape, the Warriors relish in the fact that within the hour, they will be back home. Swan tells the gang that once they reach Coney Island then they know they’ve made it.
The film is superbly paced and Hill’s direction of the film was to originally play out like a comic book layout. Due to the film’s production going way over cost within a few short weeks of filming, the idea to trace over the stills wasn’t cost effective according to executives from Paramount Pictures. Hill wanted to create a western. Hill has always considered all of his films to be westerns with specific reoccurring themes in all of his films. The Warriors has always been a favorite of mine for many reasons. The dialogue, action, plot, acting, and execution of the story are flawless.
One of my favorite parts in the film is when the Warriors are waiting on a stalled subway. One of the members Vermin (Terry Michos) is aggravated that they have been waiting for a long time. The others begin hearing footsteps on the track outside and see a uniformed police officer. The Warriors make a run for it and are surrounded by two dozen cops who are waiting to snatch up any gang members (probably members who escaped the summit meeting earlier that night). Several members make it to another subway headed for Union Square, which is where they are to change trains for Brooklyn. Swan, Ajax, Cowboy, and Snow emerge onto West 96th street where they encounter the baseball themed gang known as the Furies who chase them several blocks into Central Park. The Warriors face off against the Furies in a well-choreographed fight of fists and baseball bats. The Warriors emerge victorious.
Released in February of 1979, the film didn’t have a great marketing campaign and did fairly well grossing over three million dollars in its opening weekend. The film however sparked violence at screenings in major cities like Los Angeles and Boston where crowds got over worked while watching the film. Certain theaters called in police to make sure that the crowds didn’t get out of hand. Many critics bashed the film while others admired it for its representation of modern street gangs, unlike those depicted in earlier 1950s films like Blackboard Jungle or Rock Around the Clock.
Many actors in the film did extensive research and hung around with actual New York City gangs to immerse themselves in their characters. David Patrick Kelly’s psychotic character of Luther was modeled after a man Kelly knew from his old New York neighborhood who use to make fun of him. James Remar hung out in Coney Island to find the inspiration for his character Ajax. According to Hill, all the actors got along well with one another and that they all bonded with each other off camera too.
The Warriors has gone on to become a huge cult classic that has midnight showings across the country where people show up dressed as their favorite characters. It’s like Rocky Horror, with a lot less signing and dancing. A screening at a film festival in Seattle, Washington reported that the theater was oversold and that many people were sitting in the aisles. Former President Ronald Reagan was rumored to be a huge fan of the film and informed actor Michael Beck that he held a private screening of the film at his Camp David retreat.
The film holds a very high rating among Rotten Tomatoes at ninety four percent and is ranked number 14 out of 25 of the most controversial films ever made. The film was re-released in 2005 on DVD as the Ultimate Director’s Cut in which Hill was finally able to present the film in the version he intended audiences to view it.
The Warriors is available on DVD and Blu-Ray disc thru Paramount Home Video and can be streamed via Netflix and Vudu.