“The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… secure our turf… because it’s all our turf!”
– The “One and Only” Cyrus, The Warriors (1979)
Recently, a reader of this blog asked me in an e-mail to name my “dream” or “fantasy” double feature of the immediate post-Star Wars film period.
I’m not sure if this is precisely what she had in mind, but almost immediately, my mind seized on two great action fantasies which perfectly capture the unsettled, anxious vibe of that span: Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).
Wouldn’t you love to sit down in a darkened auditorium, and watch these two films back-to-back? I know I would.
Both of these classic action movies are born from of the same historical context: a period of extreme urban decay and blight in the Big Apple.
And — as great science fiction films often do — both movies project that considerable societal problem into the immediate but unknowable future. In the case of The Warriors, that future date is intentionally left unspecified, but New York is a city overrun by gangs. And in the world of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), Manhattan becomes a government-run maximum security prison in 1997.
So how did the American fantasy film arrive at this weird, dark juncture…where the criminals are running the prison, so-to-speak?
Well, if you recall, the mid-1970s was not really a terrific time for big cities in America, specifically NYC. Much of the metropolitan infrastructure had fallen into disrepair and neglect, and there was a growing sense of disenfranchisement, politically-speaking.
Alarmingly, crime rates were sky high and trending higher.
Poverty was also an enormous problem because of economic stagnation and high unemployment (Carter’s age of malaise and America’s “crisis of confidence.”) New York City teetered dangerously near bankruptcy in 1975, and President Ford famously refused to bail it out. This task was left to the Teachers’ Union and, utilizing pension funds, it rose to the challenge…to the tune of a then-whopping 150 million dollars.
Then, in July of 1977, a city-wide power outage shone another light on the social unrest burdening the great city. During a 25-hour period of black outs, there was a city-wide outbreak of looting and crime, and over 3,000 men and women were arrested. Prisons virtually overflowed…
In that day and age, no one could have imagined so quick an end to this urban nightmare (which was also featured to great effect in the terrific early eighties flick Wolfen . However, via the corporatization/Disneyfication/Giuliani-fication of the Big Apple in the early 1990s…the problem was resolved in New York, at least to a very large degree.
Yet filmmakers of the day, like J.C. and Walter Hill, imagined in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the Big Apple would only sink further into crime, into gang-warfare, into blight, and into despair. The city became a dark, apocalyptic landscape in their highly-visual, action-packed productions.
That’s the critical context underlying both The Warriors and Escape from New York. I’ll be reviewing the latter for John Carpenter Week in October, so today I want to gaze specifically, and in detail, at The Warriors, a film by Walter Hill and based very loosely on the 1965 novel by Sol Yurick of the same name.
In his landmark book, Cult Movies, film scholar and critic Danny Peary does a terrific and thorough job of comparing and contrasting the novel and the film, but long-story short: the book de-romanticizes the gang members that serve as its protagonists, while the Walter Hill film of the disco-era purposefully mythologizes The Warriors and firmly places them in a fantasy-styled (if dystopic…) landscape.
Taking a Ride on the Wonder Wheel; Or History Repeats Itself
It is a well-known fact that The Warriors (book and film) is loosely based on an event from human antiquity, the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 B.C.
There, north of Babylon, a leader named Cyrus the Younger led “The Ten Thousand,” — an army of Greek soldiers — into enemy territory against the Persian Army, which reportedly numbered over a million-strong.
Cyrus was killed in the battle, leaving his men stranded deep inside enemy territory with no ally, no sanctuary and no supplies. Clearchus, a Spartan general, assumed command of the fugitives, but there was danger, intrigue and betrayal at every turn.
For instance, a local satrap, Tissaphernes, invited the Greeks to feast with him…and the leaders who accepted the invitation were captured and decapitated. The remaining Greeks fought superior numbers all the way back to their land, near the Black Sea. And when they saw the familiar shore-line, they shouted — famously (and with great relief) — “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The Sea! The Sea!“)
The events of the battle at Cunaxa, the subsequent retreat and the return home were assiduously recorded by the Greek soldier, Xenophon in his famous chronicle, Anabasis.
This historical work is explicitly the source of the adaptations by Walter Hill/David Shaber and Yurick, but the location has been updated to the near-future, to gangland New York sometime near the dawn of the 21st century.
A gang called “The Warriors” travels deep into enemy territory from their home-land (Coney Island) to attend a “conclave” in the Bronx. The gang then faces enormous odds (and enemy gangs with names like The Baseball Furies, the Lizzies, the Electric Eliminators, the Moonrunners, the Orphans and the Gramercy Riffs), to return home safely following the assassination of a messianic gang leader.
The Warriors ultimately know they have reached home, not coincidentally, when they spy the shore at Coney Island. Thalatta?
There’s even a figure in the film named Cyrus — the aforementioned visionary gang leader assembling an “army” — who dies early in the proceedings.
By connecting the odyssey of the Coney Island Warriors explicitly to the story told in Anabasis, director Hill successfully casts his unconventional, even criminal protagonists as epic heroes; thus casting them in a romantic, mythological light. These men are not just street toughs; not merely small-time thugs, but heroes undertaking a terrifying and dangerous journey.
The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island is the first shot of the film and it’s almost as though Hill is using the concept of the wheel itself to take us back in time…to an almost mythological past. The point is simply to note that, perhaps, unconventional times demand unconventional heroes.
Throughout the film, Hill returns to this important idea of myth making. First, he cannily utilizes familiar character names to suggest famous figures/characters from history and myth. It’s important to remember, these character names are quite different from those highlighted in Yurick’s novel, which sought to reveal gang members as ignorant and foolish, not as heroic, comic-book, fantasy figures.
In the movie, then, we get a gang leader named Cleon (Dorsey Wright), who leads his Warriors to a “peace” gathering in the city. In Greek history, Cleon was actually a noted critic of the aristocracy, and the film character takes on this particular trait, at least to some extent. He sees the power and righteousness inherent in Cyrus’s vision of gang unity. It’s a way to change things; a way to alter the established (and morally corrupt?) order that has created the desolate, urban landscape.
Another Warrior is called Cochise (David Harris), and he adopts the guise and characteristics of a famous Apache war chief in American history. Cochise’s name means, literally “the strength of oak,” and accordingly, in the film, Cochise is one of the Warriors’ greatest fighters.
Yet another Warrior from Coney Island is named Ajax (James Remar), and this moniker derives from Greek history/myth too, specifically from Homer’s The Iliad.
Then there’s Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez), the gang’s graffiti-artist…named for the Dutch painter, and Snow (Brian Tyler) — an African-American who is one “cool” customer.
Even the man who eventually takes over for Cleon, Swan (Michael Beck) is named explicitly for myth. In Finnish tales, a swan is known as the bird of the underworld, and the “swan song” widely remembered as the “song of death.” Ultimately, it is Swan who takes on the Orphean task of safely leading his fellow-gang members (and a beautiful woman named Mercy…) out of the underworld of New York City, back to the safety and relative sanctuary of Coney Island.
The characters and situations encountered by the Warriors in Hill’s 1979 film also relate specifically to stories recounted from Greek Myth; stories that remain well-known today. For instance, Ajax falls prey in a park to an undercover police officer, a beautiful woman, sitting on a park bench. She hand-cuffs the impulsive Ajax to that bench, and soon the police have arrived in force to take him into custody. He does not make it home.
After a fashion, Ajax’s tragic fate is a reflection of the “Procrustean Bed” in Greek legend. An evil man named Procrustes set up — on a sacred path, no less — an iron bed. He would then invite innocent passersby to rest upon it. Finally, he would ruthlessly make his occupant fit the bed…even if that “fit” required amputation, dismemberment or other tortures. Eventually, Procrustes met his fate at the hands of the hero Theseus.
But the underlying point of the myth was Procrustes’ enforcement of conformity…everybody had to fit his bed…or die trying.
In The Warriors, Ajax — an outlaw gang member — is captured by the police, who enforce conformity to the law. In this setting (and rather subversively, I might add…), the police represent the corrupt and powerful authority of the land, and the gang members represent an escape from/protest of the establishment
In another important scene in The Warriors, Cochise, Rembrandt and Vermin are lured from the safety of a train at Union Station by a beautiful all-female gang called “The Lizzies.” On one hand, the Lizzies may be an allusion to the Tissaphernes interlude in Anabasis…the promise of a sumptuous “feast” of sorts that actually leads trusting warriors to their mortal doom.
Or perhaps, the all-female nature of the gang, and the tantalizing promise of sexual seduction refers to the famous Sirens of Homer’s The Odyssey: dangerous female creatures who lure sailors to their doom with beguiling music. Certainly, the latter idea fits well here. The Warriors are drawn out of the train car, and led to an island of sorts – a locked room — with the promise of sex. Only Rembrandt seems to sense the danger.
My favorite scene in The Warriors involves the heroic gang engaging battle with another dynamic gang, the Baseball Furies. These Furies are armed with baseball bats and dressed in baseball uniforms. Most terrifyingly, they wear war-paint: face-make-up. You might be tempted to laugh at these characters in broad daylight…but at night — and in perpetual, relentless motion — these guys are pure nightmare fodder.
Importantly, they take their name “The Furies” from another facet of ancient Greek lore.
There, the Furies or “Angry Ones” were known as beasts who exacted brutal punishment against those who had sworn a false oath. In other words, the Furies punished…liars. In the film, the Baseball Furies come out of the woodwork to punish the Warriors, who are believed to have broken the city-wide truce; and who (against orders) brought a weapon into that truce at the conclave. Of course, the Warriors are not guilty of murdering Cyrus, or of breaking their word, but the Furies don’t realize that.
Again and again in The Warriors, Hill explicitly links the journey of the Coney Island gang to mythological, events, personalities and scenarios. The end-game is to suggest that they — like the heroes of antiquity — are larger-than-life, romantic figures who, one day, will be remembered by history for their great accomplishment.
The movie’s myriad comic-book touches — specifically framing and captioning — likewise add to this underlying feeling of myth making. This is no small matter. I remember reading as a kid an interview with George Lucas in which he derided the lack of “real” heroes for children in 1970s pop-culture. He named Dirty Harry and Kojak as role-models I believe, and saw Star Wars as a more innocent and appropriate alternative.
The Warriors in Hill’s film represent another such alternative, even if a little unconventional. They boast such heroic qualities as loyalty, strength and honor…and they are steadfastly trying to make a better life for themselves in the corrupt, urban blight of a city out of control. “sometime in the future.”
By depicting the gangs of New York City in this strange future landscape as colorful, dynamic and interracial (in the spirit of John Carpenter’s Street Thunder in Assault on Precinct 13 ), director Hill reminds the audience that this film does not occur in depressing, kitchen-sink reality, but rather in a heightened, fantasy reality where people — even gang members — can still make heroic choices, and behave in honorable fashion. In a future where every young person seems to be in a gang (or in a network of gangs, as it were), it’s not hard to believe that one gang may be more heroic than other.
That’s why The Warriors is not the incitement to violence that some culture warriors mistook it for way back in 1979. It features gangs to be certain, but the landscape is purposefully classic — mythological — and the gangs themselves are fantasy-inspired villains, bearing almost no resemblance to real-life thugs or common gangs.
I mean, how many gangs do you know that dress up as…mimes?
Can You Dig It? The Magic of “The One” in The Warriors
In some highly-intriguing fashion, The Warriors is not merely a comic-book fantasy about heroes on a “desperate, forced march” but a subversive commentary on its post-counterculture times, on the Crisis-in-Confidence America of the 1970s.
Here, representatives from warring gangs in peace (and unarmed, even…) attend a conclave in the Bronx. They go to listen to the inspirational words of a messianic leader, “The One and Only” Cyrus…an African-American visionary and revolutionary.
Except for one bad apple (David Patrick Kelly’s Luther), these gang members stand and listen respectfully to Cyrus, and “nobody is wasting nobody.”
Believed to possess a “whole lot of magic,” Cyrus is the leader of the biggest gang in the city and he preaches a Gospel of unity…and, importantly, numbers. “Can you count, suckers?” he asks repeatedly. Then he provides an entirely logical argument using mathematics as his primary rhetorical tool.
There are 60,000 gang members in blighted New York, and only 20,000 police he reminds his audience. “One gang could rule this city,” he deliberately suggests.
What Cyrus promises is a new order. Instead of short-sightedly battling over “turf,” over a few hundred meters of territory, these gangs could effectively control the entire city if they just cooperated. They could control infrastructure, resources and yes, even crime rates. The city could not move without the okay of the gangs, Cyrus observes. Power is within reach, but the gang leaders must not be selfish; must not be distracted by the “small” things.
What The Warriors never makes clear, or specific, is how exactly Cyrus would utilize his new found power were he to gain control of New York City. Would he cause a reign of terror, of lawlessness? Doubtful, I think.
Given the comments by the Warriors (especially Cleon…) regarding Cyrus, as well as Hill’s honorable, classic presentation of these fantasy outlaws, there’s ample reason to suspect that Cyrus is the real deal, and that his motives are pure.
The character thus represents political optimism…the belief that, as foot-soldiers for change, we can each help shape the future to our liking. If only we all row in the same direction. What’s daring about this vision is that Hill seems to suggest that it isn’t just the marginalized who recognize the corruption of the system…but actual criminals. Those outlaws become, ironically, the hope for a more equitable future.
It’s downright fascinating how this fantasy movie positions an outlaw gang-leader as the rightful heir to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960s, and how this so-called criminal (as well as his people) openly embraces high moral ideals, like interracial equality and unity of purpose.
But there’s an important idea here: Yes We Can. We have the numbers, if we vote, to unseat those responsible for the status quo; responsible for — in the era of the movie — the city that is falling down and failing its citizenry.
Unfortunately, in the tradition of inspirational real-life leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, The Warriors’ Cyrus is brutally gunned down before his Utopian new order can come to pass. At his death, those formerly in unity turn on each other, and foster only deeper disunity. Without the leadership of The One, the gangs turn on their own kind.
So, let’s sum up here. A film that begins with great political optimism (the belief that a better world is possible if we work together) ends with great cynicism about the entrenched political process. Even the media itself (a New York City radio station) is prophetically used throughout the film to “spread the lie” that the Warriors assassinated Cyrus.
The Warriors become convenient scapegoats, pursued not just by law enforcement authorities, but by their fellow citizen gang-members and by the powerful media that holds sway over their dangerous world. In one of the movie’s many great moments, the radio DJ marshaling gang forces “in code” against the Warriors plays the song “Nowhere to Run.” It’s essentially a rock-and-roll death sentence.
America itself keeps reliving this very cycle of optimism/pessimism/cynicism in our national politics. With overwhelming numbers, we vote for change. Lately, Reagan, Clinton and Obama all owe their presidencies to “change”-oriented campaigns.
Yet very early into these periods of “change,” powerful (and rich…) voices in the mass media re-assert the power of the entrenched establishment and scare voters about the very change we so enthusiastically and resolutely voted for. Instead of believing we can work together to make things better for everyone, we soon become mired in convenient scapegoats and ignorant beliefs (like, say, that our President is, you know, the Anti-Christ). What’s worse, sometimes the people “pulling the trigger” on the future – on men like Cyrus — do it simply to be oppositional. When asked why he killed Cyrus, Luther answers “No reason. I just like doing things like that.”
In The Warriors, like in life, alas, nothing seems to change fast. Cynicism supplants optimism, and the problems of the city don’t get solved. The Warriors heroically return home, but even home isn’t so great. “This is what we fought all along to get back to?” Swan asks, upon leading his people successfully back to Coney Island. A nearly abandoned world of graffiti, boarded-up shops and empty roads?
Is this the promised land that it could have been, in Cyrus’s vision? Or simply the last place the Warriors can fight the system, their backs literally braced against the ocean?
In its conclusion, The Warriors suggests a kind of desperation and yearning for change, since even the criminals — not exactly a future-oriented crowd — see that something must change, that revolution must come, to make things better in the City.
I want the people to know that the Warriors were there: Change Begins with One Person..or Maybe Two.
I don’t want to make it sound as though The Warriors is a serious movie all about political systems and cycles.
On the contrary, this is a visceral, action-packed thriller, and there’s a real uplifting, inspiring side to the picture too.
One fetching and memorable character in the film, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenbergh) joins up with the Warriors, and returns home with them. After circling each other suspiciously for a time, Mercy and Swan take the first steps towards trusting…and loving…each other.
In a dark train tunnel in the city, at the height of the action, Mercy talks convincingly and meaningfully about the established world; about the world she was born into and hates.
“I see what’s happening next door and down the block,” she tells Swan. “…I want something new. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean?”
There is such yearning expressed in those words; and such power in the (truly great) performance. It’s authentic, it’s hungry…its questing. For Mercy, happiness is still possible, but you have to keep looking for it.
Like Cyrus, the Warriors (and by extension the audience itself) must have the vision to imagine what a better world could look like…and pursue that vision no matter the cost. For Swan and Mercy, perhaps, finding each other is the first step towards that unseen Utopia.
This idea is reinforced at the film’s end, with the surviving Warriors and Mercy standing together before the timeless, beating waves of the unceasing ocean. The soundtrack goes to song (“In the City”) and the lyrics suggest that “Somewhere out there on that horizon, out beyond the neon lights, I know there must be somethin’ better…”
As these lyrics play on, the movie goes to freeze frame, with the Warriors standing heroically on the beach, a beautiful sun hanging low in the morning sky. Our last view of them shows these heroes unbeaten, unbowed. Still wearing their colors (holding onto their ideals, in other words) and standing at the precipice of eternity, literally, at the dawn of life beyond the soul-deadening City.
I’ll be honest and completely unguarded here. This momentary conjunction of subject matter, theme, song and film technique represents what is for me a perfect movie moment, one of those inexplicable but wholly magical grace notes that always gives you goosebumps and leaves you on an emotional high.
In part (personally speaking), this is what the exploration of cinema is for…for finding and excavating such moments.
The whole movie comes together gloriously in this final burst of energy, and, well, you can’t resist it. The Warriors have survived the day, and, because of their experiences, can imagine what a better tomorrow looks like.
Or, to put it in the lingo of the flick, the Warriors will...come out to play. Another day.