Why I Love… #62: The Warriors

The Warriors come out to play
The Warriors come out to play

Year: 1979

Director: Walter Hill

Stars: Michael Beck (Swan), James Remar (Ajax), Dorsey Wright (Cleon), Brian Tyler (Snow), David Harris (Cochise), Roger Hill (Cyrus), David Patrick Kelly (Luther), Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Mercy)

Genre: Action / Thriller

There term ‘midnight movie’ was coined and is still used to describe a certain subset of films which attained cult status playing a run of movie theatres in a regular witching hour time slot. They’re films which built up reputations and remain the poster children for a particular brand of counter-culture thinking. Titles like Eraserhead and Pink Flamingos, championed for their wanton weirdness or deeply skewed reflections of the world.

The Warriors wasn’t particularly part of that phenomenon, and it doesn’t quite fit the description above, but it does hold a special place for me as one of my own ‘midnight movies’. Allow me to explain a little.

I watch a lot of films. This isn’t exactly news. And as much as I have respect and interest in the many different forms a movie can take, there are a certain special collection of titles which I often return to when its past midnight. When I’m for-all-intents-and-purposes calling it a day, but I want a good bit of background to focus on. Films with a particular feeling. They’re not all of one genre. Titles in this bracket include the previously-featured Coffy and Vanishing Point. You can throw in anything directed by John Carpenter between ’76 and ’86 too. Films that possess a certain intoxicating, dangerous energy. Why I find them comforting right before bed? I’m not certain. But you can add Walter Hill’s The Warriors to that list. This film comes alive in the dark.

Set in a not-inconceivable near-future (and don’t you just love the near-futures of the 70s and 80s?), The Warriors positions itself as a refashioning of the Spartans’ clash with the armies of Xerxes. Popping out of the screen like a comic book brought to life, Hill’s film immediately conjures the rough and ready underdog attitude that it will sail on.

Indeed the opening of the movie is one of the great attention-drawing collages of its time. From the propulsive Barry De Vorzon score, the whip-smart, kinetic editing and those blood-red credits zooming toward you, Hill sets the tone and hits the preliminary story points with great economy and style. Brief interchanges of dialogue set up a New York overrun with gangs of youths, gangs uniting for a purpose, as all the while trains shuttle through the city’s innards like blood pumping in the veins.

“Can you count suckers? I say the future is ours! …If you can count…” Cyrus’ speech (which I was tempted to include here in full, but I’ve exercised a little self-control) is as impressive as the crowd gathered before him. His speech to unify the street gangs resonates as a rallying cry for the 99%. Watched now, in light of the civil unrest of recent years, it makes The Warriors feel oddly prescient, as if it were beamed from a not-too-dissimilar alternate dimension.

Of course The Warriors doesn’t just make a gallant attempt to key in on the future, it pricks provocatively at America’s history too. Cyrus’ assassination – which jump-starts the film’s story – feels like a pained echo of JFK and Martin Luther King, those special representatives of a better society, icons made martyrs for their ideals. Cyrus’ revolutionary rhetoric is genuinely invigorating, emblematic of the two-tiered us-vs-the-world story being told.

Firstly there’re the gangs, set as outcast against the sleeping city, where regular society closes its eyes. And then there are The Warriors themselves, marked by Luther’s false claim that they are responsible for Cyrus’ death. The lion’s portion of the film charts their journey back to the safety of their home turf on Coney Island. The Warriors is, essentially, a chase film. With our young pack of heroes, dressed in their colours, outmatched and on the run, trying to dodge possible attacks from all sides as Cyrus’ truce crumbles.

Vanishing Point is recalled in the voice and music selections of the pirate radio DJ who acts as commentator to their journey across the city. Unlike Vanishing Point‘s Super Soul, however, The Warriors‘ DJ isn’t exactly on their side; even ‘God’ has forsaken them.

With its cast, the night setting and its turnstile-vaulting action, The Warriors pulses with the vitality of youth and possibility. Ever had a wicked, rambling, thrilling night out? One that lingers in the memory for how combustible it could’ve become (or maybe did)? The Warriors connects to that sense-memory and channels it into its own narrative. Hill’s film evokes danger.

The cast themselves may not be exemplary, but they do the job just fine. There are some standouts, naturally. David Patrick Kelly’s Luther is a sneering, detestable villain. His bottle-clinking call out (“Warriors… come out to play-ay”) has become cult-movie gold. While Michael Beck imbues Swan with dignified bravura. The Warriors have a code. Swan’s steely front makes them feel like honourable heroes. Certainly enough to make those vests seem like wicked-cool armour, because – let’s be honest – those outfits could’ve gone either way.

The design touches through feel just right, even now, decades on. That witching hour magic makes it all work. Hill presents us a slick, grimy vision of the city at night via graffiti-strewn train cars filled with cool neon lighting. The carnival of gangs bristle with menace. Listen to the bleeping urgency of the soundtrack as the Baseball Furies chase The Warriors through the park, their painted faces fixed like grimacing gargoyles. The Warriors’ foes feel otherworldly. All forces are against them… even themselves.

James Remar’s Ajax, for instance, isn’t exactly a choirboy. When he gets jacked by the police it’s not wholly undeserving, not after his rough approach to Mercedes Ruehl’s undercover policewoman. Hill isn’t afraid to pick at his heroes’ righteousness. Of course they’re not saints. This is a tale of street gangs after all.

But their quest for sanctuary is a universal one. We all want safety. And so their trials to get it makes The Warriors not only a great midnight movie but a cult favourite that seems to register in all pockets of society. There’s a strange, enduring quality to The Warriors. I’ve met a lot of people who haven’t seen it – fair enough – but I’ve never met anyone who’s seen it and doesn’t think fondly of it. “Oh man, I love that movie” is the most common response.

It’s unlikely to ever be considered among the great films… but that’s not the point. This is about being the underdog, about struggling to find your place despite everything, about standing up against the elements and saying “fuck you, this is my spot, these are my people.” And it plays all the better after midnight.

Sweet dreams.

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