I had the great pleasure of re-watching one of my favorite films of all time recently with Shannon during our lunch hour. We saw the The Ultimate Director’s Cut version of The Warriors (1979) released in 2005, which I had not yet seen —and I must say the digital transfer of the film is quite beautiful. Walter Hill takes a couple of strange liberties with his classic though, which add nothing in my opinion.
The first is an appended introduction read by Hill that presents the story of a band of ancient Greek soldiers trapped deep in Persia. They had to travel 1,000 miles through hostile territory to get home. Drawing an overt relationship between the mythical Coney Island gang and the the storied struggles of antiquity. Secondly, this version adds several comic book like transitions between scenes which unnecessarily reinforce the unreal elements of this near future urban jungle film. And while they did not cut or re-edit any scenes, the intrusive introduction and comic book animations are rather facile in their not so subtle insistence on Hill’s inspiration for creating the film (which in many ways seems more like a retrospective reading to me). The video below features two brief examples of the additions:
Shannon suggested my annoyance with the added features may have everything to do with an unhealthy attachment to the “original” or “true” version of the film I saw back in the 80s, and an essentialist insistence on some kind of purity….fair enough–she’s probably right, as she so often is. That being said, how do additions like these add anything to the narrative by so awkwardly insisting on these roots? I’m not sure, but the film itself stands up beautifully regardless (this print made me once again realize what a cinematic masterpiece many shots in this film are), but given the choice I would much rather see a print like this without all the slick comic transitions and overly earnest Greek frame —does everything have to be explicit to the point where the director feels the need to actually leave his reading on the frames of the film post-facto? The trend in Hollywood to cannibalize itself for ideas and inspiration seems to be moving forward at a breakneck pace, for like Escape from LA (that duck) The Warriors is set to be re-made in LA by none other than Tony Scott. [Wince!]
My bitching and moaning aside, seeing this movie again has inspired me. So much so that I will finally start the formative ten series I promised a while back, which will not follow any particular chronological order, strict posting time line, or generic logic. The Warriors is definitely part of my formative 10, and there were a few things that struck me watching it this time around that might help me think about why this movie was so remarkable to me growing up.
First a quote from a footnote in Fredric Jameson’s The Geopolitical Aesthetic, which while a bit dense when tracing a theory of cognitive mapping and the idea of imagining global space in cinema (I imagine the real point of the book 🙂 ), has a bunch of interesting readings of some great movies. I particularly liked Jameson’s reading of Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which might be a very interesting film to re-watch these days to think about the questions of media, power, control, and psychotropic conspiracy. He also has a great reading of the paranoia films of the 70s, with an intriguing discussion of filming the spaces of power and capital using Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) as a fascinating example. Anyway, the footnote in question is a throw away thought Jameson had, that I found interesting:
I have here omitted gang war films, which, at least during a certain period might well have been read as visions of internal civil war, see, for example Escape from New York (Carpenter, 1981), The Warriors (Hill, 1979) Fort Apache, the Bronx (Petrie, 1981). On my view these films shade over into what is called, in Science-Fiction terminology, ‘near future’ representations and this distinctive genre in its own right, its form and structure sharply distinguished by the viewer from ‘realistic’ verisimilitude or immanence. (The Geopolitical Aestheic, Pg 83 note 15)
I think this quote initially struck me because it references three movies that I loved. And more than that, it gathers them together as a particular genre with the suggestion that they may reflect a vision of “internal civil war” in urban centers like NYC. In fact, it is the idea of an internal civil war that Jameson suggests here, that has informed the way I think about much of the urban jungle films made from the 70s and 80s through the 90s and up and until now. They often reflect a kind of struggle at work within the invisible underworlds and subcultures of any given city, that is akin to a city at war with itself, factions of power (wealthy developers, the agents of gentrification, the minions of capital) versus those being marginalized, displaced, and dis-empowered.
In fact, this struggle brings me to one of the most important and powerful elements of The Warriors, and what I firmly think marries a revolutionary message with an unbelievably cutting edge and imaginative aesthetic that reflects the times. The gangs make this movie, when I first watched the Warriors in the early 80s (made available for multiple viewing for the entire family thanks to the VCR) we were all intrigued by the gangs and their crazy get-ups. There was something for everyone: the Turnbull ACs were the skinheads; High Hats played Soho artist thugs; the Gramercy Riffs married Black Panther militarism with some impressive kung-fu (long before the emergence of WuTang); the Baseball Furies whose psychotic face paintings were only outmatched by their Yankee pinstripes and Louisville Sluggers; and we shouldn’t forget about the Lizzies who were a band of badass chicks who my four sisters immediately related to and started imitating. The gangs’ outfits, their territorial presence, and the fact that the beginning of the movie brings them all together in one place, frames the hopeful, revolutionary moment of this internal civil war, just in case you forgot, let’s review Cyrus’s speech to the nine delegates from all of the cities gangs in Van Cortland Park.
Sixty thousand soldiers, and only 20,000 police in the whole town. This is a call for organized civil war, this is a grass roots movement to take over New York City, the disenfranchised of NY who “got the streets” realizing their power, an coming together under the great Cyrus who realizes the problem of the past, “the man turning them against one another.” It is a remarkably revolutionary moment in this movie, Cyrus as a political revolutionary hearkening back to the major political figures and orators of the 60s titans like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert and John F. Kennedy with some engaging rhetoric like “Miracles is the way things ought to be!” (which makes this video featuring the speech from Cyrus on top of images of Obama that much more intriguing).
There is also Cyrus’s insistence on counting, math, and the power of numbers, not to mention his ability to succinctly put his finger on the gangs’ historical problems of the past rooted in their limiting logic of turf, property, and those 10 square feet in front of them. What this scene also does brilliantly is recognize that figures who foment political transgression and social organization must ultimately be assassinated. I think this scene alone ranks this as one of the best films ever, as reference back to the real violence of the 60s (despite all the peace and love talk) and the mathematical argument that the street people could be more powerful than the institutions. An entertaining and revolutionary scene all at once, informed entirely by the uniquely different gangs that coalesced into a larger force of self-aware power.
But let’s face it, that self-awareness doesn’t last, and the struggle to get back home to Coney frames a majority of the action, the run-ins with various gangs, and the compelling narrative thrust to make it back to home base safe and in one piece. There are many great scenes along the way, and I could list a whole ton of them, but in fact Jameson’s idea of internal civil war, and the emergence of an organized network of disenfranchised working together to rule New York is in many ways a truly poetic moment. And while I’ll focus on that currently, I guess in the end the reason why I saw this movie so many times to reflect on that scene so often has everything to do with the gangs and their identities, reflected in everything from their race, ethnicity, gender, clothes, credibility and carriage. So before I end this one, let’s remember why we watch The Warriors again and again, it’s all about the gangs, as the trailer knew all too well at the time of its release.