I’ve never been to New York, but I would like to. The Statue of Liberty, 30 Rock, The Empire State building… so many movie locations to see. I would love it. The city today seems a long way from the city of the 1970s and 1980s when it was officially one of the most dangerous places on Earth to visit. Back then gangs were a big deal, both in reality and in movies like Death Wish. Other movies didn’t shy away from this, movies such as:

The Warriors (1979)

Directed by Walter Hill and based on the book by Sol Yurick, with the screenplay by Walter Hill and David Shanber. It stars Michael Beck, James Remar, Terry Michos, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly, plus many more, including some real-life gang members of New York. More about that below.

The Story

The plot breaks down as :

In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.

A simple story, but so well executed. Cyrus is the leader of the biggest gang in New York and he plans to take the entire city as all the gangs collectively outnumber the police. If only they can stop the turf wars and work together. Each major gang is instructed to meet for a conclave, with only 9 members per gang and no weapons. While the meeting is on there is a truce.

He is then shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly) and all hell breaks loose and the gangs try to flee, not knowing the police had heard about the meeting and were waiting. Cleon (Dorset Wright), the leader of the Warriors, is caught and blamed, by Luther, for the killing of Cyrus. He is murdered.

The Warriors, now leaderless, have to run, hide or battle their way across New York, to get back to home turf on Coney Island. Each part of New York is run by a different gang. All are intent on bringing them to justice or killing them.

A tense thriller, from start to finish, the gang seems to go from bad to worse with each step closer to home. There is a lot more to the story, but you can find it out on your own. It’s worth it.

The version I saw was the 2005 Directors Cut, which adds a comic book style opening and comic book-like transitions between some scenes. The opening has Walter Hill’s voice (which was supposed to be Orson Welles, but the studio refused to pay for him) explain how the movie was loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabais. This is the account of an army of Greek mercenaries who aligned themselves with Cyrus the Younger in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BC) in his attempt to seize the Persian throne. They found themselves isolated behind Persian enemy lines. The voice-over states :

“Battle of Cunaxa 401 BC. Over two millenniums ago, an army of Greek Soldiers found themselves isolated in the middle of The Persian Empire. One thousand miles from safety. One thousand miles from the sea. One thousand miles with enemies on all sides. Theirs was a story of a desperate forced march. Theirs was a story of courage. This too is a story of courage”.

The original story, by Sol Yurick, was a rebuttal to the movie West Side Story, which seemed to romanticize the gangs in New York, making them all finger-clicking singers who enjoy a good dance-off. Yol knew the ‘real’ side of New York and the issues with the gangs since he worked as a welfare worker for a time.

The Cast

Literally a cast of thousands in this movie. In the opening meeting with Cyrus, a lot of real gang members were used, with off-duty police officers to keep the peace, there were 1,000 people in total.

Swan, the newly self-appointed leader, played by Michael Beck is excellent. Some in the gang only want to fight, others only think about women, Swan knows if they are going to survive, they are going to need their wits.

Ajax, played by James Remar, doesn’t think Swan should be the leader but reluctantly follows the chain of command. He shows honor among thieves. The rest of the gang are all very good. They each have their own personalities and ways of dealing with the situation. One thing they do all show is loyalty, even if it puts them in harm’s way.

Along the journey, they end up with Mercy, played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh. Initially, she wants to see them fight, but that feeling does fade and she sees how tough they really are, but also how compassionate Swan is. He’s physically tough, mentally tough, but not psychopathic.

Luther, played by David Patrick Kelly, is the leader of The Rogues. Now he is just a plain psycho! He is a little typecast in these roles. I imagine for the gang having Luther on their side was much like Begbie in Trainspotting…he’s a mate, but never get on the wrong side of him.

His “Warriors, come out to pla-i-y!” is creepy, and apparently improvised. The script wasn’t working that well, so Walter told David to just make something up. David said it was from a neighbor that used to intimidate him as a child.

I also have to mention Cyrus, played by Roger Hill, his opening speech reminded me of the speech Morpheus gave to Zion in Matrix Reloaded. It is very similar tone, style, and delivery. I wonder if Laurence Fishburne based that speech on this movie?

The rest of the gangs are very well done, they aren’t the sort of people you would like to meet in a dark alley. The design of the gangs is excellent, some are a little dated, but overall really well done. The war paint some of the used certainly has the scary effect intended. The Baseball Furies faces were actually based on KISS, whom Walter Hill was a fan of.

There were a few real-life gang members in some of the scenes. On some of the filming locations some gangs weren’t happy about it, so they were offered small background roles or just paid off.

Production

The production of the movie wasn’t easy. Almost the entire movie was shot at night on the streets of New York. A very limited number of scenes were filmed on a set. During the production:

  • One night someone urinated on the crew since they were making so much noise.
  • The filming trucks were protected by a real gang during the day, costing $500 each day.
  • The Warriors tag was placed on a few places, which real gangs didn’t take well too.
  • Some of the production crew were sent death threats.
  • One real gang tore through the set one lunch break and ruin thousands of dollars of equipment.
  • A gang from Coney Island didn’t like another gang on their turf (even though they were actors), so the wardrobe dept had to make sure none of the cast left the set in any gang colors.
  • Some of the filming had to be halted because of noisy onlookers and the production crew had to remove some people.

Sounds like fun, right? The movie was shot on a meager $4 million but made most of that back in the opening weekend.

Problems in the cinemas

The entire movie still had problems after it was made. The original tag line on the posters was:

“These are the armies of the night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City.”

A lot of people got upset and tried to get the movie banned, fearing real gangs might actually do it!

The film was a hit, especially with gangs and younger guys. There are reports of cinemas being vandalized since a lot of gangs would go and see it, enjoy it, only to have the lights come on and see another gang sat three rows behind them. This would usually end in violence. These occurrences resulted in 3 killings! Why they couldn’t just sit down and discuss the movie is beyond me. Then again, I am not in a gang.

This caused Paramount to remove advertising, radio, and TV commercials for a time and 200 cinemas had to employ security staff. Due to safety concerns, theatre owners were relieved of their contractual obligations if they did not want to show the film, and Paramount offered to pay costs for additional security and damages due to vandalism.

Conclusion

The film is an amazing piece of work. Very well directed and beautifully shot. Although the actual locations weren’t exactly beautiful, you get a real sense of being in New York’s underbelly. The actors all do an amazing job.

I haven’t even mentioned the score or soundtrack, both of which are excellent. The score, by Barry De Vorzon, is incredible during the chases and some of the more intense moments of the film. He pushes you to the edge of your seat.

The soundtrack is very ’80s Rock, just as the music was starting to come out around the time of it’s creation in 1979. It was the first movie, bar the film’s closing song, to feature an entire music score of synthesized rock ‘n’ roll music and it is really good.

It’s one of those movies that uncomfortable to watch, but you are rewarded by a really well-made movie.

Apart from, I will say, the ending. I’m going to spoiler it, in case you haven’t seen it.

*SPOILER*

Luther and the Rogues, follow them to Coney Island and it’s going to kick off. Swan wants to fight, one on one, but Luther is carrying a gun. A character called Masai has taken over from the murdered Cyrus and learned that Luther was the one that killed Cyrus, not the Warriors. Masai turns up, stops the fight, lets the Warriors go and Luther pays for his crimes.

It was a satisfying conclusion, but I would have liked a big fight, so I felt a little letdown. However, none of that detracts from what is a great movie!

*END SPOILER*

Is The Warriors worth watching? Very much so. It has a cult status and it is a brilliant movie. It is well directed by Walter Hill, has a great cast, a convincing story and it is edge of your seat in places. It makes you never want to go out at night, especially in New York in the ’80s.