Adapted From: The Warriors by Sol Yorick
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Harris
Written By: David Shaber and Walter Hill
Directed By: Walter Hill
The Warriors, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has its roots in classical Greek philosophy as Sol Yurick based his narrative structure on that of Xenophon's Anabasis. Xenophon recounts his experiences with the Ten Thousand, an army of mercenaries that were brought together by a leader called Cyrus the Younger, who was intent on taking the Persian throne for himself. However, Cyrus is killed, along with several of his generals, leaving Xenophon elected as one of the leaders who had to guide the Ten Thousand as they battled their way to the Black Sea and the relative safety of the Greek settlements there.
Yurick spins this story into one of the gangs of New York that dominated in the 1950s and were the subjects of much social anxiety. In the book, the gang are known as the Coney Island Dominators, becoming the much simpler Warriors for Walter Hill's adaptation. They attend a huge meeting of all the gangs led by Ismael (who returns to being Cyrus in the film) who proposes that they band together to take the city for themselves. It seems like a grand idea to most, but during his speech, Ismael/Cyrus is killed and the gang from Coney Island are framed for it. They have to battle their way back across the city to their turf on Coney Island, with their rivals ready to attack them every step of the way.
It's hardly surprising, given its classical roots, that the film adopts a mythic quality itself, becoming a cult legend that its fans remain devoted to, to the point where there was recently a celebration which recreated the Warriors' journey through Manhattan. In his novel's Afterword, Yurick reflects that this was something already occurring in reality during the rise of the gangs: "The media inflated the gang-phenomenon to mythic proportions" and it wasn't long before he struck on the idea of basing a tale on the Anabasis, paralleling it with "an 'army' of social outcasts" as well as making it a rite-of-passage tale.
It's a heady mix for what superficially looks like a simple story of gang warfare and survival and the result is that both the film and the book are operating on many different levels, for the most part successfully, but not without the occasional muddle along the way. Yurick seems intent on highlighting the struggle and the outside conditions that have brought these gangs into existence. It functions as a criticism of social work, parenting and a mid-twentieth century society that seems ill-equipped to deal with that scale of rebellion. There are class issues at play here too; Yurick points out in his Afterword that much of the media anxiety surrounded the working class gang violence, conveniently ignoring the presence of middle class gangs that resided in the same world.
Though he focuses in on the Coney Island Dominators solely, there's little hints in the characters' interiority that confront the various social criticisms and observations that weave throughout the narrative. Chief amongst it is the notion that these gangs become a kind of safety net for kids who are neglected or ignored by their parents. Yurick introduces the Coney Island Dominators through their leader, the swiftly-killed, Arnold, who set up the gang to function as a family:
"When Arnold formed his Family [...], he had two mottoes in mind. He had taken them from subway posters. One was, 'When family life stops, delinquency begins"; the other was, "Be a Brother to him." If they were a family, Arnold reasoned, then they couldn't be delinquents; so he became a Father to all of them. The second in command became the Uncle; the others became brothers. They were closer to one another than to their families; this family freed them. [...] Arnold's woman became the Mother, and the other women in the inner-circle were daughter-sisters. Members of the outer circle were cousins, nieces and nephews. When they were taken into the Family, they swore oaths of belonging."
The hierarchical structure of the Family becomes key to how the Dominators function throughout the story, particularly when it comes to the almost immediate leadership struggle that results from the death of Arnold. Although Hill doesn't quite establish the same familial link, his Warriors are still clearly within a hierarchy and entirely reliant upon one another to make it through the city and back to Coney Island. The film loses something by not being able to convey that idea of family within the gang and in doing so, loses some of the social criticism that is woven throughout Yurick's story. It's a difference on the most basic linguistic levels; Uncle Hector is elected Father in the book whilst his cinematic counterpart Swan is elected 'war chief'. The Dominators feel a part of an altered and dangerous world, but one which is built entirely out of social anxieties recognisable in reality.
In contrast, the cinematography of Andrew Laszlo and Hill's direction closes off the Warriors and their rivals from the rest of the world; their New York is a grimy alternate reality, covered in graffiti with its boundaries marked by gang territory and a land of perpetual youth where adults are a distant threat. These kids get to live a life away from authority and structure, doing what they want when they can. They're the Lost Boys, resisting growing up and taking only the responsibility they want rather than the duties forced upon them. The simple structure of the other gangs pursuing them through the city until they can reach their own territory makes it feel like a game, albeit one with deadly consequences. It's a conflict that is at the heart of both the film and the book; these kids have a certain freedom, but at what cost?
As the Warriors make their way through the city, the lighting, provided by street lamps and shop signs, acts as a spotlight on their activities making them both inextricably linked with their environment but also purposefully set apart from it. The light functions in the same way that Yurick's book does in highlighting the struggles and dangers of gang culture for the young people who get caught up in it. Both Yurick and Hill seem to be concerned with this, but manifest it in different ways. As with the idea of family, Yurick has the freedom of prose to expand and describe, whilst Hill uses the short, sharp shocks of the film's imagery to do it for him.
Yurick's background as a social worker who dealt with kids in gangs on a daily basis gives us a unique and graphic insight into this culture of near constant violence. Rape, assault and death are depicted with a detachment that fits with the way the kids in the gangs treat them. They are acts without real consequence for them because they exist on the outside of this world that doesn't seem to know how to control them. There's a moment in which the gang stop to have sex with a woman in the park, who seems more than willing at first, but quickly turns on them when it all starts to get violent. There's a hypocrisy in this scene that would make many people bristle now, I'm sure, but three of the boys attempt to assault her once she begins to refuse.
The same moment begins to occur in the film, but isn't allowed to be carried out or go to far; the would-be perpetrator, Ajax, is caught by the police before he is allowed to attack the woman he has selected for his prey. It is the outcome of his action that is allowed the most screentime as the woman handcuffs him to the bench and Ajax is immobilised. In this sense, the violence is ever-present within the Warriors' world, but Hill skates around showing most of it (apart from a couple of choreographed fight scenes) by instead depicting the consequences of said violence. Ajax's sexual assault is stopped before it can get going and he's arrested, disappearing for the rest of the film. Elsewhere, we see a boy, Fox, thrown onto the rail tracks and run over by a train whilst tussling with a police officer. The moment is swift, but all the more brutal for it.
Though both Yurick and Hill depict these consequences with astonishing brutality, it can't get away from that sense of myth and legend that the classical structure brings with it. The violence of both is at all times undermined by a sense of glorification of what the gangs are doing. After all, what teen doesn't dream of the kind of freedom the Warriors get to experience here? An obvious literary comparison is to be had with William Golding's Lord of the Flies, but Golding is clear in his attempts to condemn the violence within human nature. Yurick wishes to condemn his society on some level also, but can't help but exalt his teenage heroes as they make their way across the city.
The cult following that The Warriors has picked up over the years is another such example of creating a kind of mythology all of its own. At the time, it struck a chord with the gangs and incidents would break out in theatres when they realised they were sat with the opposition. Since, we've had action figures of the characters produced and a video game in which you could live out your own fantasy of becoming a Warrior. Yurick himself expressed his disappointment in the film, stating that "it appeals to the fear of demonic uprising by lumpen youth" that his book tried to counteract. Ultimately though, the book itself carries that same inherent contradiction between vilification and that mythic glorification of his heroes, despite Yurick's best intentions at criticising the society that had created them. It's hardly surprising this carried over into the film's considerable legacy.