One of the best things about Walter Hills work is that he leaves ample margin for people to read into. This is upheld in The Warriors where allusions are made to several existentialist concepts, social constructs, Greek myths and Arthurian legend. It’s a densely packed movie and yet it manages to remain minimalist and unpretentious. This is probably one of the reasons why it ranks as one of the top 20 cult films of all time.
The movie tells the story of a group of nine gang members from Coney Island in New York called The Warriors. They all go to the Bronx for a meeting called by ‘the one and only’ Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the largest gang in New York called the Gramercy Riffs. Enigmatic and revolutionary, he asks ‘can you count, suckas?’ Upon which he expands and reveals that there are five gang members to every policeman in New York and that their strength lies in numbers. The sole chink in the armour is their lack of solidarity, saying ‘one gang could run this city.’ He calls for a general truce between all the gangs of New York so that they can work towards a common goal without selfish and petty distractions. And so conveniently, as it is with visionaries, from Martin Luther King to Harvey Milk, he was assassinated.
His killer is a slightly demented and sociopathic man named Luther (David Patrick Riley) from a rival gang called The Rogues who blames The Warriors for it. This too, ironically and unanimously, gives the gangs of New York a common goal to work towards; hunting down The Warriors. Egged on by a pair of voluptuous lips on the radio, the Baseball Furies, the Lizzies, The Turnbull AC’s, Orphans, Punks, The Rogues are the gangs that The Warriors have to confront as they try to make it back home to Coney Island.
The film does not take itself too seriously, unless there is some profound meaning to a gang of mimes and men on rollerblades. The dialogue is slightly forced and Swan (Michael Beck) seems to be the Kristen Stewart of his time, it’s an actual relief to see him smile in the film. The most realistic performance was given by Ajax (James Remar), but he’s the Warrior you are prone to dislike the most.
I found broad allusions to another cult gem Vanishing Point (1971) which shows a speeding, drug abusing, ex-police officer who was dishonourably discharged from preventing a colleague from raping a woman. However, the disc jockey in the older film is helping the protagonist escape the police that are chasing him, whereas in The Warriors, while the audience is similarly sympathising with criminals, the disc jockey is working against our heroes. The film has been said to be responsible for many acts of violence, vandalism and even three killings.
This film displays masculine aggression at its most primitive. It’s an amalgamation of pack-mentality, testosterone, domination, alpha male, and all around over the top machismo which really makes the film quite endearing. To do a feminist reading of this movie is just making some extra effort to get angry, which is something I make no secret of enjoying. The female lead in the movie, beautiful Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) makes her entrance dressed in a flesh coloured top, so thin that you could tell what the weather was like during which scenes. She is dressed to look undressed and despite the warriors consistently slurring her reputation and slandering her person, she tags along with them on their journey back to Coney Island. To yours truly, it appeared as though when she was marked as Swans love interest, the newly appointed warlord of our gang, she gets to wear a jacket. Of course the real, pragmatic reason is that a stuntman broke her wrist while pulling her along during a chase scene and the jacket is provided to hide her wrist in a cast. When Swan and Mercy walk in the tunnel together, Mercy quite profoundly trashes the American Dream for a more Kantian outlook. However the other female representatives were portrayed in an inferior light as well. The Lizzies are seductresses, an allusion to the Sirens, perhaps? Additionally it is the only gang in the film that does not have a uniformed mark or ‘colours’ that distinguishes them as a one group. It’s entirely possible that this is a means to show that they are not seen as a more significant gang or threat.
Despite the misogyny, you end up rooting for the anti-heroes as they fight their way back to reach home. ‘Home’ is shown as the sea shore, another direct allusion to Anabasis, a famous work by Xenophone. Even though they are gang members and criminals [one of them even tries to rape a police officer], they are wrongly accused and brave and so build a relationship with the audience on that basis. This is definitely a ‘guy’ movie. It’s rough around the edges, aggressive and violent and admittedly it makes you curious about what it would be like to get into a fight.
Dawn.com is including a Cult Classics section to its Weekly Classics to bring to our readers the joys of the obscure.