The thing that impresses me most about The Warriors is how its gritty, pre-Gulliani New York becomes almost a sort of fantasy world. The setting of The Warriors is not the same New York that Taxi Driver takes place in. The urban setting becomes more of a brutal jungle that must be survived, rather than a place that at least seems livable.
This allows the film to add another level that would not be present. Normally, when I hear about an update of an ancient Greek tale, I tend to sense that the filmmakers wish to be pretentious. Surely, updating such themes are impossible. But in this case, that retelling works because the filmmakers wish to tell a story, not of New York, but of courage and community.
The film opens with all of the gangs in New York (which apparently numbers at least twenty thousand people) meeting for a truce. A man named Cyrus calls for the gangs to unite and take over the city, pointing out they have the numbers to do so. The gangs seem to agree, but Cyrus is killed at the rally. A gang called the Warriors is immediately blamed for the murder. They must try to make it back to their hide out (in Coney Island) with no weapons and with every single gang looking to kill them.
Now, the film is based on a Greek story about mercenaries caught behind Persian borders, but the film can be applied to many historical situations. Cyrus’ impassioned speech reminds me of rhetoric that Malcolm X used to use, and his assassination is very similar to Archduke Ferdinand’s. The various gangs also still carry a hint of counter culture. The Warriors themselves are dressed as though they are about to audition for the latest off Broadway version of Hair, while the rest of the gangs carry the slightest hints of punk. The point is that the film transcends whatever material it came from and speaks to a very large audience indeed.
Of course, the film is not perfect. It is a B movie, and as such, is not quite a timeless classic. The worst part of the film is the acting. Honestly, none of the characters stood it for me. I cannot even really remember The Warriors’ individual names (except for the leader, Swan). They just seemed to wish to be that anonymous. In some cases, their delivery helps redefine clumsy – the camera pans onto the person about to speak, he says a line, and that is it. It is as though each of the actors were aware that a camera was on then. Even the villain comes across as hopelessly hammy, speaking like Jeff Spicoli after some very power narcotics have been introduced into his system.
But then the spectacle is so great that this admittedly tragic flaw does not destroy the film. The characters can at least emote the fact that they are in danger. Besides, these are gang members – maybe the wooden, inhuman delivery was part of the point. That is, they are no longer individuals but rather parts of a larger whole. They are all still memorable, even if it is only due to the costumes and make up they all have to wear. Besides, there are some gleeful moments of camaraderie amongst the gang members whenever they have outfoxed an enemy.
So the film works as a typical behind enemy lines story. Then it goes one step beyond, commenting on the nature of alliances and the political atmosphere that has dominated civilization. “Why can’t we all get along” is what Cyrus is basically saying at the beginning. I lost count long ago as to how many people have said that. I am also reminded of the old adage about how “people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” That’s what this film is – an examination of such a repetition.
The Warriors is one of the the all time great B-movies. It features a wonderful set up and terrific execution. The acting is not the best, but it does not detract from the overall picture. Whenever someone tells you they are a fan of B-movies, this is the sort of film they are talking about.