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History Lessons from 'The Warriors'

The gang film 'The Warriors' caused a great stir upon its 1979 release that may have obscured its more meaningful qualities both as a historical analogy and a meditation on anarchy.

Thanks to its cast of eccentric characters, great dialogue, and high-powered action, the 1979 gang movie The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill, has maintained, if not increased, its cult film status.

Its reputation for inciting violence in its day—putting it alongside A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Natural Born Killers (1994)—may be more legendary than true. Watching it now, however, one understands how it could have sent colors and fists and baseball bats flying inside and outside movie theaters.

The film is loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, which details his role among The Ten Thousand, a group of mercenaries hired by Persian leader Cyrus the Younger to help overthrow his brother in a military coup.

After Cyrus is killed in a battle during which a Greek general disobeyed his command, the Greeks are trapped deep within the interior of the country, and must undertake an arduous journey through hostile territory toward the Black Sea and escape.

In The Warriors, gang leader Cyrus (Roger Hill) of the Gramercy Riffs fares no better than his historical namesake. But instead of Greeks fleeing Persia, the movie is based around the titular Coney Island gang, The Warriors, escaping the Bronx to get back to their home turf.

The Warriors’ leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), also has a historical namesake: a fifth-century B.C.E. Athenian statesman and general killed during the Peloponnesian War, two decades before the Greek mercenaries were trapped in Persia. This is not the first of several intentional references to ancient history in the details of the film.

The plot of the film is simple: Cyrus has a grand vision to unite all the gangs of New York City. As he implores the thousands of members of various gangs assembled in the park, his speech rings out with a refrain: “Can you dig it?”

In the film, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the gang called the Rogues, assassinates Cyrus during the crescendo of his speech, just as he has the thousands of gang members ready to join his accord. Luther then accuses Cleon of murdering Cyrus just as the police raid the big gang meeting, and the members of the various factions scramble to escape. In the confusion, according to a trivia note on The Warriors’ IMDb page, Cleon is killed.

The other Warriors escape and regroup in a cemetery. Before they can make a move, there is a struggle for leadership of the gang because Cleon is absent. One of the contenders is Ajax, whose namesake is one of the greatest Greek warriors depicted in The Iliad, and the film’s Ajax bears some resemblance to the mythological warrior.

In The Iliad, when Odysseus and Ajax compete for possession of Achilles’ armor, they fight to a draw and the contest is decided on the basis of speaking elegance. Ajax loses and becomes furious over it, resenting the entire Greek leadership. The Warriors’ Ajax, trash-talking and belligerent, does not accept the gang’s decision to make Swan (Michael Beck), silent and soft-spoken, the leader. Ajax, like his mythical counterpart, ultimately follows a self-destructive path leading to his arrest in Riverside Park.

When the Warriors leave the cemetery, they are unaware that they’re marked for death. The Gramercy Riffs have called on every gang of the city to be on the watch for the boys from Coney. The film is punctuated by close-ups of the deep red lips of a connected deejay (Lynne Thigpen), who broadcasts updated reports of successive attacks on the Warriors as they fight their way back home to Coney Island:

Here's an update, the Turnbull A.C.'s missed their chance, so there's still time for a big hit. More news later.

As all ancient peoples knew, ventures outside of one’s homeland were undertaken only judiciously. The Ten Thousand were cornered in hostile territory; there were no alliances, only unfriendly faces. In the opening sequence, one of the Warriors checks the subway map on the train wall and gives us an indication of how far from home they are headed.

On the long journey back to Coney Island, the Warriors meet New York City’s unfriendliest gangs, like the Turnbull A.C.’s, the Boppers, and perhaps everyone’s favorite, the Baseball Furies. As the Furies surround him, Ajax utters one of the most memorable lines from the film:

I'll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.

In this respect, The Warriors follows the themes of Walter Hill’s next several movies: The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), and 48 Hours (1982). One or several individuals are placed in circumstances in which one of the following two things, if not both, occur: men are drawn far from their home base or territory and must fight they way back or escape from extreme circumstances in a limited amount of time. In most cases, Hill’s characters have, purposely or not, invited the antipathy of hostile forces.

In 48 Hours, Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) is more limited than most of Hill’s heroes: beside the fact that he’s forced from his home base (prison), he must accomplish his task in two days. The James Gang in The Long Riders is destroyed in Minnesota, far from their Missouri homes. The National Guard soldiers in Southern Comfort are lost in a Louisiana bayou and must contend against hostile Cajuns.

The historical resonance of The Warriors emanates from its source material. Hill’s subsequent films show how he has honed a particular motif and theme, also present in one of his best scripts, like The Getaway (1972). However, the deeper historical lesson in The Warriors comes not from its origins in the Anabasis but from a less likely source. 

Luther wants to make sure the Warriors cannot testify to their own innocence and, with several members of his gang, goes to Coney Island to kill them. The Gramercy Riffs exact their revenge on Luther on a Coney Island beach, certainly for his crimes—but Luther must be exterminated from the gang scene even more for foiling Cyrus' grand unification plan.

Even in a world of unified gang violence, the looming specter of an even more terroristic, greater nihilistic element—someone who would make a suicide attack on this outlaw element—seems the most unacceptable alternative of all. Consider this exchange when Swan confronts Luther:

Swan: Why did you waste Cyrus?
Luther: No reason... I just like doing things like that.

Why people perform selfless or selfish acts can perplex us forever. “No reason” cannot satisfy us as an answer. Meaninglessness does not make for readable history. We prefer interpretations (history) and conspiracies (paranoia) to this truth. 

Luther, who goes rogue (even from The Rogues), speaks to the ghosts of Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald, Josef Stalin and the Menendez Brothers. His (theirs) is an innate hostility toward order and amicability, a violence-prone narcissism that cannot admit to any form of authority, which often mistaken as independence and not the sociopathy to which it belongs.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ned Bulmash October 17, 2012 at 07:35 PM
When The Warriors came out , I was living in NYC. The violence was not gratuitous, it was realistic. I didn't own a car and used the subway. The subway was expansive , about 25 lines running 24/seven. Many of the subway lines, were grafitti strewn, dirty and prone to crime. The Warriors was lambasted for too violent. I thought it was realistic.

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