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Film Reviews

The Warriors (1979) Can you Dig it?

Written by Oliver Campbell

The Warriors (1979) is unequivocally my favourite film of all time.  So much so that I have a tattoo of one of the characters, albeit a minor character, but a visually striking character.  That’s how much I love the costume, the art design, the mis en scene, and generally just the whole ‘look’ of the film.  In fact, I distinctly remember the visuals as the reason as to why I noticed it at all.  My dad had a copy on VHS and I remember seeing it as young as 8, wanting to watch it.  Maybe because there was such an eclectic mix of characters on the front cover, consuming the whole area of the cover.  There was literally no more room for anything except the title of the film at the of the image. 

Based on the Sol Yurick novel of the same name (1965), the story is set in a somewhat dystopian New York, in which colourful gangs populate each borough, even outnumbering the police in the city. 

The gangs dress very loudly, and each seem to have a theme.  For example, the title characters have a native American style outfit, with a leather vest top and beads, and fabrics etc.  One such character is named ‘Cowboy’ due to his distinct cowboy hat.  Other gangs include the Turnbll AC’s, who seemingly are influenced by skinheads and white supremacists, despite having many black members.  The Baseball Furies are a fusion of American baseball team wear and the rock band KISS.  The High-Hats are mimes.  I’m not joking.  The list goes on and on and many of them are seen in the opening montage.  The largest gang are the Riffs, inspired by a sort of karate/kung-Fu style. 

The premise of the film is that the Riff’s have called a meeting in their territory, the Bronx, at the top of the Manhattan island.  They propose a truce for the gangs to usurp control over the city, effectively ushering in martial law.  At the meeting, which is effectively a massive congregation of people dressed in all sorts of weird colours and fabrics, held in a public park, the leader of the Riffs – Cyrus is shot dead by Luther, the leader of a gang called the Rogues.  The Rogues are like the Sex Pistols mixed with hippies.  Luther blames the death on the Warriors, of whom are unaware of such false accusation as they escape the ensuing brawl and arrests.  The film follows there travelling back down to Coney Island, which is filled with incidents with other gangs, and police. 

‘Cowboy: Okay what are we gonna do now?  Swan: We’re going back.  Vermin: You mind telling us how? Fuckin Coney Island must be 50 to 100 miles from here!’

The film explores such themes as brotherhood, belonging, poverty and the idea of safety relating to a geographical location.  The indication is that none of them have jobs, and that almost all the members of the gang’s city wide do not earn an honest income.  Through other forms of entertainment that have expanded the world, such as The Warriors video game, we learn that they all live in the same abandoned warehouse, making them effectively homeless.  We also learn that they have youth worker and that only 2 of 9 members can read the subway map, showcasing that their literacy and numeracy are severely underdeveloped.  They are the disadvantaged within society.  Throughout the film certain members die such as Fox, other members get locked up, such as Ajax due to an attempted sexual assault of an undercover police officer, and other members are presumed dead, or possibly arrested, such as Cleon.  The film could possibly be exploring the notion of mindless vandalism and violence through the main antagonist – Luther.  It is never revealed why he shot Cyrus, other than the fact that he “just likes doing things like that”.  He also gets excited by the prospect of violence rather quickly and is motivated by nothing but boredom.  This is true of other characters also, including many of the Warriors, most notably – Ajax.  This has led many viewers to characterise this narrative about an angry youth, wrestling with their identity in the face of poverty and boredom. The Director Walter Hill sought to mix grit and realism with a comic book overglaze.  Hence the outlandish, colourful, fruity costumes and bright colours in an abundance of scenes (despite most of it being set at night).  This causes the viewer to re-evaluate the seemingly brutal fight scenes, as overtly choreographed dance numbers, making it akin to something you could see on the West End or Broadway.  The mix of gritty realism and the comic book style is intriguing since they appear to cancel each other out.  It is unsure whether the world these characters inhabit is our own, since there’s not anything specifically ruling out the fact that this world could be our own.  Except possibly the prevalence of these ‘bright’ gangs?  But it is clear Hill is exploring social issues, by creating a world that is wholly pitted against our protagonists.  Or perhaps it is deserving, since they are organised criminals?  The producer Lawrence Gordon has stated that it wasn’t about creating a realistic depiction of New York gang culture, but rather about encapsulating what it feels like to be in a gang, to have a sense of belonging to a unit. 

“Lawrence Gordon’s production of The Warriors, was not an attempt to depict a real-life gang or actual incident. The aim of the film was to capture the flavour of what it has always meant to be a member of a gang – the tribal feeling of going into battle together, of loyalty, of support and shared goals”

I argue that the whole design of the costumes, the locations, and names etc are chosen to mythologize the narrative for the viewer.  Although there are numerous references to the social problems facing New York at the time of the films release, making it very contemporary, the subsequent design and packaging of the film is an attempt by Hill to get the viewer into a space where these characters aren’t just small-time thugs, and this isn’t just a film about gangs in New York.  These are heroes, taking on a huge task and embarking on a perilous journey.  The placement of the wonder wheel at the start of the film, coupled with the hypnotic trancing music is an attempt by Hill to take the viewer back in time.  The names such as Cyrus, Cleon and Luther are utilised as familiar names in Greek Mythology and the comic book panelling characterises their plight as a story.  A myth.  A Legend. 

This is because Hill wants to portray to the audience the feeling of being in a gang, the brotherhood.  By conveying how they would feel, as heroes on a journey, and not just some small time criminals, it puts into perspective their story.