Formative 10: The Warriors

A figurine of Luther from the film The WarriorsI 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.

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15 Responses to Formative 10: The Warriors

  1. Brad says:

    Okay, a couple things here. This is a really interesting concept for someone like me, who has seen very very few of these “urban jungle” films. But I have some suggestions: if you haven’t already, watch “Brazil” (I don’t have a lot to say about it because I desparately need to re-watch it; it’s been far too long) & then read Salman Rushdie’s essay about it (I can’t remember exactly what it’s called, but it’s something like “The Location of Brazil” or something — it’s available in collections of his essays, I know that); there is a lot of fascinating insight there for its time.
    My other suggestion is for you to watch “Riki-Oh,” which is a Japanese kung-fu/gore movie that deals with this urban jungle aesthetic of the military state & martial prisons.
    Very awesome post, I need to see “The Warriors,” it was at Borders for like 8 dollars a few weeks ago. Should’ve jumped on that when I had the chance, I suppose!

  2. Andy Best says:

    I rewatched The Warriors, Escape from New York and Assualt on Precinct 13 within the last three months. I love the Warriors but where does it go from that amazing opening scene? The end of the film doesn’t give us any look into the realization of their revolution at all. It’s just a very cool looking chase movie after Cyrus is shot, and the only implied reasons for his slaying are that the shooter is nuts or something.

    What would the movie be like if the ending was the them realizing Cyrus’s plan and overthrowing the police to control the city? Would it have made it onto the screens?

    I think the quote you provide is just stating the obvious in big words and not touching on the real possibilities the film had.

  3. Shannon says:

    I meant to mention when we were watching the film that Cyrus’ rhetoric and the way he spoke did remind me of Obama.
    In any case, one reason (among many) I liked this film stemmed from the fact that it started out so promising, but it only takes on nut to screw things up and break the fragile bonds betweens the gangs that were just starting to form. This in turn leads to 60s-esque violence after a visionary leader is killed. The film is not representative a vast time period, but the immediate aftermath and chaos that often follows a tragedy.
    I think there is some hope in the end though when the Riffs show up and punish the Rogues for what they did. There is just a glimmer of hope as the Riffs let the Warriors walk away that there could be unity in the future.
    But then again, that is just my reading of it 🙂

  4. Reverend says:

    @Brad,

    Great recommendations, I will follow up on all of them. I saw Brazil a long while ago, but it is worth another viewing, especially in light of a Rushdie article. Additionally, I loved your gore post, I have to get back to that as well.

    @Andy

    No question the film fails at living up to any revolution, and while Jameson’s quote may just say the obvious in big words, but the obvious is never obvious to me 🙂 By the way, our movie tastes must be very similar, because I have ll those films recently as well, and Escape from New York is yet another of my formative 10.

    As to your idea about what the film would have been like if Cyrus’ vision was realized, or at least hinted too, well I thought of that as well. And I was thinking rather than a hack like Tony Scott remaking the film, what if some unknown took up the project and premised it on the development in Brooklyn happening right now in the Atlantic Yards that is displacing a whole group of people, small businesses, etc. The premise would be a gangs turf is being developed and gentrified, and their is a general concern amongst gangs and they start an offensive. Silly, I know, but these are the things I dream of 😉

    BTW, I love your blog, and tried to comment, but seemed I couldn’t log in, any help in that regard? Thanks for the comment.

  5. Andy Best says:

    Hi

    Yeah, our server (start logic) seems to get into trouble all the time. Annoying as I bought the more stable linux option. I think I’ll go in and just make commenting open without reg. If I end up with spam though, I’ll have to sort out the reg process or troubles.

    I used to blog for a Shanghai indymedia site called Shanghaiist but they started to go all tabloidy so I started my own instead.

    They shouldn’t remake The Warriors at all, especially not with Tony ‘Days of Thunder’ Scott. I agree fully. As for Escape, John Carpenter was such an interesting, subversive director. They Live and The Thing are right up there too. Alas, another favourite cultural icon of mine is being butchered by a hack director: Watchmen. Watchmen the comic book was an intelligent critique of the Thatcher/Reagan era that also redifined comics completely: they give the movie version to Zack Synder on the strength of his 300. Ouch.

    Watching 300 was like being kicked in the balls by Winston Churchill.

  6. Andy Best says:

    Ah, Rev – did you get a mail and do the verification? I just tested the whole thing and it worked so the server must have been playing up when you tried to log in.

  7. Reverend says:

    Watching 300 was like being kicked in the balls by Winston Churchill.

    Now that might be the quote of the year!

    P.S.-Just got your message, I’ll try logging in again shortly. And couldn’t agree with you more about Carpenter, The Thing is definitely in the formative 10, and perhaps my top 3 movies of all time. I loved it!

  8. Reverend says:

    @Shauser

    I would buy that reading if Swan wasn’t so dejected upon returning to Coney Island. His comment that all that bopping for this, for Coney? The idea being he is going to leave and get away. That said, he also said in response to the head Riff’s declaration that “the Warriors are good,” Swan;s response is that they are “the best.” So maybe you’re right, maybe there is hope.

    I don’t know, but evn though it is ll chase and mace after the beginning, I love this film with all my heart.

    PS -Where is that blog post on The Day After?

    @Brad

    One more thing, if you are diving into this make shift genre, here is a list of possible titles I put together some years ago:

    “The Urban Jungle” Film
    New Jack City
    Boyz in the Hood
    Menace II Society
    The Wanderers
    C.H.U.D.
    State of Grace
    Black Out
    Bad Boys (with Sean Penn)
    Suburbia
    Repo Man

    Some are arguable, like C.H.U.D., State of Grace and Repo Man, but I think I could make n argument for them 🙂

  9. Brad says:

    Wonderful! I’ve never seen any of those movies, though I know about a handful of them. Boyz in the Hood? Really? I was imagining movies that dealt with a dystopic vision of the future, such as Warriors & Escape from New York (& Riki-Oh, for that matter). I figured it was something of a sci-fi-type genre, but this is a shift that makes sense as well. There are a ton of movies like these, they seem to come out every year — Fight Club, it seems, fits in there as well. Or even something like A Bronx Tale. It seems to be a bit broader than I had thought, but I’m still game!

  10. Reverend says:

    Brad,

    I guess I am broadening it from Jameson’s idea to fixate on the politicized city through a kind of urban violence. I think you are right to draw the line a bit around the scifi, near future context, and that makes a lot of sense to me. One film of the three from Jameson affords me this opening, Fort Apache, The Bronx –it isn’t really scifi or near future, it is more akin to a kind of Blaxploitation film starring Paul Newman. It always reminds me of the gangster films of the 90s, and I think my generic loosening is more about tracing the moment of gentrification in urban centers from the 70s through the 90s, so forgive my sloppiness. And now that I got you, another one, which is an utter classic, is the 1980 film Times Square: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Times_Square_(film)

    Well worth a watch, has one of my favorite songs of all time, you’ll know it when you hear it, can;t repeat it here, out of context would make it dangerous.

    Thanks for keeping me honest.

  11. Brad says:

    Okay, that seems to make more sense to me, though I don’t mean to pigeonhole the thing in the first place. I’m all for broadening & tightening genres as seen fit by any separate perspective, it keeps things interesting & keeps debates alive & plausible. This is a very interesting concept for film, though, & it would be especially fascinating to trace it through film history. I don’t know if you’ve seen “Freaks,” but it’s possible that could fit in there! Or even “Superfly”!

    Thanks for introducing me to this stuff, there ain’t nothing like beefing up the ol’ “To Watch” list.

  12. Mikhail says:

    Not sure I’d include Suburbia even Repo Man on THAT list. There are several others better suited for that one.

    To your list of urban jungle flicks I would also add “Fresh,” a little known film where chess + street smarts = ghetto survival.

    Also, Rev, whata re your thoughts on Rockstar Games’ adaptation of The Warriors? In my mind, this is the rare instance where a video game adaptation is indeed an adaptation, rather than simply a tie-in.

  13. Reverend says:

    Mikhail,
    So many good things here. Let me make an odd case for Repo Man based on a recent viewing. I saw the director’s commentary, and for the most part is was basic chatter with a whole lotta noise and not much of interest. The dude who played Kevin wouldn’t shut up, quite annoying. That said, I found it interesting that the plot was changed, originally it was going to end with Otto heading to South America to join a leftist band of guerilla. Which ties in with th scene in the film were the Ramirez brothers are all decked out in strange military garb, the were actually “freedom fighters.” The movie never went that direction, but the punk rock mind set, tied in with Alex Cox’s other films like Walker and Highway Patrol makes me think you can actually argue for a kind of urban jungle film LA style circa the mid 80s. A unique strain of the music, but still consistent with many of the themes. The acme food labels, hippie god loving parents, the whole nine yards.

    As for Suburbia, it is a natural, burnt out LA suburb with no territory, nothing, the logical extreme of The Warriors, no community to even come home to. The true greek tragedy writ large in suburban culture, what’s worse than living in a decaying city, well an empty, burnt out suburb.

    As for the video game, I couldn’t agree with you more. It is so smart because it develops the gangs in even more detail. The Soho Top Hats come alive in the video game, as do the Saracens. It is a gem, the video game was a ball to play, yet the aesthetic is so paltry comparatively. We still have far to come in that regard.

  14. dantel says:

    Ah, Rev – did you get a mail and do the verification? I just tested the whole thing and it worked so the server must have been playing up when you tried to log in.

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