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Made during New York’s highest-profile lowest-of-low-points, The Warriors held up a funhouse mirror to the city’s oppressive and inescapable crime, filth, and chaos. Noticeable only in hindsight when watching The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, or even Saturday Night Fever, Hollywood is just now meditating on that particular NYC nadir with the forthcoming 1981-set drama A Most Violent Year. Created at the striking point, The Warriors turns its own historical moment inside out.
Adapted from a gritty, realistic 1965 novel about a New York City street gang that was, in turn, based on the ancient Greek saga Anabasis, director Walter Hill’s The Warriors bum-rushed movie screens in 1979 as a surreal, explosively colorful adventure of archetypal heroism and what Roger Ebert accurately labeled “a ballet of stylized male violence.”
By exaggerating the specifics, The Warriors embodies the truth of life and death (so often hard to distinguish) in the worm-run late-’70s Rotten Apple. I remember it vividly. I was ten years old when The Warriors came out, and I was there.
Specifically, I was growing up in Flatbush, two D train stops away from Coney Island, home turf of the street gang for whom The Warriors is named. In cultural terms, the distance separating 1979 Brooklyn from 1979 punk/disco/Warhol Manhattan may have been a million miles and/or a million years away.
The notion of what Brooklyn has become in the 21st century—the global shorthand for cool/hip/fun/where you want to be—back then could only have existed as a punchline. Just consider TV’s best-known sitcom representations of outer borough NYC, All in Family and Welcome Back, Kotter. Funny? Yes. Because they were true? Absolutely.
As a chubby, film-obsessed, bookish art-spaz staring down life among real-world Archie Bunkers and Arnold Horshacks—not to mention the myriad muggers and miscreants Charles Bronson defended us against in Death Wish—I really did have to laugh. The Warriors, though hardly devoid of humor, threw light on a more serious way out, beginning with frame one.
From a black screen intro, the movie opens with an eerie, silent night shot of Coney Island’s neon-lit Wonder Wheel, pointedly signifying its (dark) time and (shiny) place. Summoned to the Bronx for a street gang summit, the Warriors get wrongly accused of murder. They’re then forced to battle their way south through Manhattan, desperately and cunningly making their way home. It’s one hell of a trip.
Along the way, the rag-tag, multiracial Warriors contend with gangs who pay a lot closer attention to stylistic cohesion than they do. Among them are mimes, lesbians, losers, savage cops, overall-clad roller-skaters, African-American martial artists, and the nightmarish Baseball Furies—mute marauders in baseball uniforms and war paint who communicate exclusively by way of Louisville Sluggers. The gangs are the stuff of both epic poems of yore and epic fears of their own era.
Further honoring The Warrior’s literally mythic origins, Lynne Thigpen deftly handles Greek chorus duties as a radio DJ who broadcasts updates on the gang’s progress and comments via song choices (“You’re Movin’ Too Slow,” “Nowhere to Run,” etc).
Beyond just the radio, though, music pulsates throughout The Warriors’ soul. Renowned critic Pauline Kael even likened The Warriors to “visual rock,” and compared its incorporation of songs to that 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle, wherein hardscrabble juvenile delinquents detect liberation on the other side of Eisenhower-era repression via “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. For the Warriors, the cue is visual.
Their breakthrough occurs as the gang stands atop an elevated Coney Island subway platform, home again after the adventure of a hundred lifetimes. Hill’s camera slowly spins 360 degrees, mercilessly surveying the Brooklyn misery as far as they eye can see. “We fought all night,” marvels Michael Beck as newly risen leader Swan, “to get back to this?!”
The feeling evoked is akin to what friends from small towns have described upon hearing what Bruce Springsteen was wailing about in the endlessly misunderstood lyrics to “Born to Run”: there must be something better, and now that you’ve had a glimpse, drop everything and hurl yourself toward it.
Whether you bolt from the Midwest for Brooklyn (or, like me, do the exact opposite), what The Warriors, the movie, really fights for is to hammer home rock ’n’ roll’s most salient advice, the same truth so powerful that the Ramones—another bunch of far-flung ’70s NYC rejects done up in leather and long-hair—used it as the title of the first album they didn’t name after themselves: Leave Home.