The Real Deal

The Warriors (1979)

The Warriors (1979) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I don’t know with absolute certainty if The Warriors is a kids movie, but it’s a movie about kids that I saw as a kid myself. So let’s start there. The premise is simple enough: a New York street gang from Coney Island, the titular Warriors, must get from the Bronx back to their home turf after being framed for a murder they didn’t commit. It’s a survive-the-night feature—a premise much scarier and realer to me as a child than as an adult.

As a kid, I was afraid of the dark and by extension, the night. Raised on several pieces of pop culture likely too scary for me—on one hand, Buffy The Vampire Slayer was one of the most crucial shows in my upbringing, and on the other hand, seeing the episode “Hush” as a 9-year-old (A NINE-YEAR-OLD) gave me nightmares for years, plural—I could think of little worse than being awake through the night. Night was when all the bad shit happened. I have countless memories of working up the courage to run and grab a glass of water before falling asleep, an effort that would take anywhere from two to 20 minutes, before sprinting out of my room so as to best evade whatever was out there, whatever could take me.

I was not afraid of any particular thing. No monsters, no ghouls, no creaking staircase. No demon trapped inside the mirror. It was mainly the agonizing feeling that it was not right to be awake at this time. That something was wrong. So, The Warriors was both perfect and terrifying: a movie that captures the feeling of sprinting back to one’s bedroom in the middle of the night, unsure if something is out there to get you. The first time I watched it, at age 9 or 10, I watched through my hands.

The Warriors packs a slightly different punch as an adult. First of all, it’s silly. Really silly. Maybe even a little campy. Though I do not think Walter Hill intended to make a film where every character looks like a different type of lesbian, that’s often how it reads in the year 2019. I’m struck by the stilted dialogue and the goofy outfits. The effect it has now is like the end of an episode of Scooby Doo, when the monster was just someone nearby dressed in an elaborate costume. The fear—the tension—is a masquerade. In the abstract it may be frightening, but in reality, it’s a light show. They were always going to make it home the whole time. But the memory lingers; we don’t think of Scooby Doo as a show about people dressing up, we think of it as a show about monsters. I tell a friend I’m watching The Warriors, and he says, “Oh, that movie is violent.” Is it? My brain flipped through a small rolodex of movies I’d watched lately, some a lot more violent than The Warriors.

Maybe for kids, I tell him. He shakes his head. “For adults,” he said, “it’s a scary one.”

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So is it a kids movie or an adult movie? Does it matter? No. But also—maybe? Petty distinctions in genre, favoritism for one over the other, all of that is beyond me. Beyond us. It’s not what I stand for and it’s not what I like. And yet—which is it, I wonder. Or: where do they overlap?

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The Warriors (1979) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

The Warriors are supposed to be kids, but in fairness, they don’t look like kids. The youngest actors in the film are in their early 20s, but many were in their late 20s or even early 30s at the time of shooting. That’s movies for you, baby. We don’t come for realism—we shouldn’t, at least—and we especially don’t expect it from a movie like this. One that levitates a few inches off the ground of the world we live in. So these are both boys but more than boys, men but not quite men. Their jaws are chiseled, their stomachs exposed. Leather vests are draped over their chests, and each member sports a distinguishing accessory of choice. Their getup, no doubt inspired by Native American culture in a desperately vague and moderately Urban Outfitters sense, would look ridiculous to an outsider, “a normie,” as we call them these days. 

But Hill provides us with context for our antiheroes, a prologue. In what may be one of the best opening credit sequences of all time—following a haunting shot of iconic Coney Island landmark, the Wonder Wheel—we’re introduced to the Warriors’ New York City in a montage set to a frantic, glowing electronic score by Barry De Vorzon. This New York City is not entirely unlike the New York City of 1979: a dirty, rambling, urban landscape, gilded with graffiti and grime. 

And this New York City has gangs, of course. Seemingly wayward youths (I’m 100 years old, by the way) united in aesthetic and beliefs and proximity. Loyalty to a vision and a chosen family. But the gangs of The Warriors are not like the gangs you think of when you think of gangs: their outfits are flashy, if not bordering on fully ridiculous. There’s a gang of mimes. A gang of ghastly baseball players. A gang in camouflage, a gang in overalls and rollerskates, a gang in gold jackets called the Electric Eliminators. I don’t mean to harp on looks so much—it’s not an essay about fashion (or is it?)—but there’s a reason the opening of the film is so striking. This is dress-up. It’s make-believe. (It’s an illusion, Michael.) The costumes are literally costumes. It’s not that it’s not meant to be funny. Hill himself has said, “It was meant to be a lot of fun and have humor in it. The humor has always played.” And it does play. It is, in so many ways, play itself.

The film begins, formally, with a truce, or the idea of a truce. A timeout. Cleon (Dorsey Wright), the “war chief” of the Warriors, explains the reason for the pilgrimage. Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, the largest gang in the city, has called together all of New York’s gangs for a peace talk. The Warriors are skeptical: no weapons, foreign turf. (Who among us has not felt slightly off-kilter in the Bronx? Anyway, go Yankees.) Cyrus is apparently the real deal. These words are drawn out, milked, as if to suggest he might not be. But I believe he is, and as he speaks, it’s as if a tremor rips across Van Cortlandt Park. Cyrus is safe. He’s a nightlight in a world gone wrong. What he preaches makes sense: the enemy is not each other, but the Other. The cops. The grown-ups. Anyone standing in the way of the streets and the boys. The men. It’s blurring together now, who is what, all while Caaaan youuuuu dig it? echoes in the back of my skull.

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I have a distinct memory of a class prank I pulled with some other students in sixth grade. We were taking a practice version of a standardized test when our teacher left for the bathroom. The second she was gone, we bolted. We ran out a set of double doors, out onto the field behind our middle school. There was no plan beyond that. We just wanted the freedom. The fresh air, the sun. It was only after about 20 seconds outside that we started to panic. We started to run in every direction and then suddenly, there she was. Our teacher. And as she pointed at all of us—the universal symbol to get back inside if we knew what was good for us—we started pointing at each other.

What I’m saying is that it never surprises me that the Warriors get blamed for Cyrus getting shot. I remember the shock and terror I felt as a finger was pointed at me. Sometimes just being there is the wrong thing.

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Cyrus is shot. Cleon disappears. There’s an immediate need for a new war chief, and in a dire moment of necessity, the position goes to Swan (Michael Beck). Swan is what he sounds like: something of a beautiful, delicate bird. He looks like Harry Styles and it’s easy to see why the other Warriors aren’t exactly quick to trust him. He’s too pretty. Too clean. He’s a 1979 version of the 2005 Robert Pattinson that my friends and I used to stay up all night and talk about. But if you’re making a movie about gangs and this is your gang leader? This guy with a jawline you could open an envelope with? Maybe your gang is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be a laugh. 

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Forgive me for robbing you of plot details, but there are very few of them to disclose. Like I said, it’s a survive-the-night movie, so the question at hand is, “Do the Warriors survive the night?” And the answer is, most of them. More do than don’t, but some still don’t. I saw this at the age where everyone in movies usually made it. I remember watching for the first time, asking aloud, “They all get through it, right?” and being met with silence in my family sitting room. 

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The Warriors (1979) | Paramount Pictures

There’s a girl. Of course there’s a girl. There’s always a girl. We do this these days too. There’s a movie with a bunch of fellas and then there’s the girl. It really is just one, only one, who matters in any way, which is to say she barely matters at all. Mercy, though initially accused of being a sex worker, is merely a girl who feels comfortable harassing the Warriors until they let her tag along. She ingratiates herself—yells, throw things, teases—until she seems to gain some type of honorary status among the Warriors.

Mercy is brave, willing to get down and dirty with the worst of them. Pauline Kael wrote in her 1979 review of the movie: “In this vision, cops and kids are all there is, and the worst crime is to be chicken.” Mercy is no chicken. She’s an emblem of a type of girl that became The Type Of Girl when I was growing up. If you were a girl who hung around a group of guys—forced your way in by simply not going away, as I often did—you could not ever be chicken. No matter how big your eyes or pink your tank top, you had to take it. The dirt, the mud, the woodchips, the asphalt. 

But the world is scary for Mercy-types. Just because she can hack it out there doesn’t mean the world bends to her will. Watching Mercy, I am reluctantly reminded of a phrase I always hate, which is when someone is given the opportunity to “recapture their inner child.” This is typically meant as a net positive. Like I said, “the opportunity.” We want to be children again. We experienced joy in a less complicated way. I would argue that we also experienced fear in a less complicated way back then, by which I mean the fear felt more real and immediate (versus the nebulus dread I experience as an adult). To watch The Warriors—and by some extension Mercy, though she is in no way similar to me as a child, beyond the fact that we both had bad attitudes—allows me to “recapture my inner child,” sure, but not the kind I necessarily want recaptured. To bury the fear of the chase is good, to muddy our ankles in the dark of night is not a memory worth conjuring.

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The villain of the Warriors—besides the night, the world, the city, the everything—is Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rogues. Luther, and the Rogues by extension, are cruel and erratic. There’s a loosely democratic feel to the Warriors, even if it’s a put-on. They carry something of a Robin Hood-esque mentality. But the Rogues are the real (bad) deal. They don’t care. They’re nihilists. They’re motivated and excited by violence. Seeing it, causing it. And what’s scarier than that? 

As both a child and an adult, I can barely stand to watch Luther. His creased face, his tangled mop of blonde hair. He even looks like an evil version of Swan. I watch now and I cannot help but think, “What is this guy’s fucking damage?” But there is no rhyme or reason to Luther. He’s a cruel asshole. Senseless and terrible. A stark reminder that some people are bad—they want bad things, they do bad things. There’s no effort made to portray him as anything other than two-dimensional. This both lends itself to the cartoonish, mythical nature of the film, as well as teaches the stark lesson that there are bad people who will want to cause harm for no real reason.

That’s what’s waiting out there at night.

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What’s strangest to me about The Warriors is that I always block out the sexual violence, and upon every rewatch, I’m inevitably struck with a moment of terror where I wonder: is there a rape in this? Is there something horrible here that no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I somehow always forget? There’s not, but there’s a world in which there is.

Take, for instance, the source material: the film is based on Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name, written about 15 years prior. Yurick’s vision of gang violence is less white-washed. Less playful. In fact, not playful at all. And it’s not dystopic, either; it’s now. It’s then. And they’re not the Warriors. They’re the Dominators. Their survive-the-night is not just about losing a game of chicken. They’re as cutthroat as the Rogues. Their girl—“debs,” they’re called—is nameless, and though she flirts and jabs, the Dominators turn on her. They assault her.

But we’re talking about the film so let’s talk about the film. Take, for instance, the woman at the food stand: the way in which the Rogues whip snacks at her, scream at her. This is played for laughs, and I do think it’s a little funny. Luther is so achingly pathetic, desperately manic. It’s hard to imagine, even in a heightened version of reality, a character who would be this on all the time. He joneses for a reaction, her look of fear, and he gets one.

Take, for instance, Ajax (James Remar): horny and stupid and violent and irrational. Every time I look at him I’m reminded, bafflingly, of Ashton Kutcher (specifically Michael Kelso, for better or worse). In the middle of the journey home, Ajax decides to split from the group to pursue a young woman sitting on a bench alone. His actions with her are never reproachful, sympathetic. He aggressively comes on to her, forcing himself, only to be handcuffed to the bench and arrested. This is played for…laughs? Sort of? It’s funny to see someone go down for being too horny, until it’s not at all, of course. Until it’s played for real: Ajax doesn’t make it back. And though it’s about the folly of his masculinity—a game of chicken gone too far—it’s tough not to think of what would happen if the woman wasn’t a cop. It almost doesn’t matter that she is.

Take, for instance, the Lizzies: the one female gang of (presumably, ideally) lesbians who nearly take down three of the Warriors. Now those chicks are cool.

Take, for instance, all of these factors: because I am a woman, and because everywhere I look I seek the women, I am forced to reckon with the role of women in The Warriors. Some are victims, some are perpetrators. Only one is a little more than either. It’s neither satisfactory nor wrong-headed. It doesn’t leave me any more frightened than I already am of the night. It’s always a gamble, taking a stroll past sunset.

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What The Warriors captures best about nights is how tedious they are. There was a brief glimmer, back in the heyday of slumber parties, when the idea of staying up all night was a treat. But you learn, in time, that the night is not actually special. It is long and awful and fucking dull. Even if you’re running for your life across nearly 30 urban miles of New York City, there’s a boredom in it. As a kid, I’d anxiously toss and turn throughout the cursed hours of 1 and 5 in the morning. It wasn’t until the sun started to rise that I would feel safe again. The world would reset.

But the Warriors—most of them, and Mercy, too, for good measure—make their train and there, they briefly encounter the world. Not just the world outside of theirs, but for a second, I think, our world as well. Two couples board the train, giddy and reeling from a night out at prom. The girls are in awful, fringed dresses, and the boys are in even more awful and fringed suits. A couple sits down across from Swan and Mercy, and for a quiet moment, these two couples stare at each other. The prom couple: pale, desexualized, energized. Swan and Mercy: tanned, filthy, exhausted. Possibility is reflected back at each other. What could be, what might have been. Neither wants what the other has, but it’s painful to see that there’s another way. Here we have the sharpest, most painful part of night: when it stretches out so long that your mind bends in on itself. Here’s where the slow realizations, the haunting self-discoveries occur. I still hate being awake in the middle of the night as an adult, but it’s not so much because I think something or someone will come and get me. Now I worry about what will happen if I’m alone with myself for too long.

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The Warriors (1979) | Paramount Pictures

The night ends. Thankfully. That’s one thing it gets right. As the sun rises, the Warriors make it back to Coney. Though the Rogues trail them, their final showdown is unremarkable. The Gramercy Riffs show up to collect Luther. The sun reveals all. The sun catches the culprit. It’s safe, it’s bright, we know it, we like it.

A long night, no matter how long, eventually ends, but the effects linger. No beam of sunshine can bring back those lost along the way, nor refract past dangers and traumas into something that glimmers. It’s just daylight, that’s all. Nothing special about that either. Just a little less scary when it comes down to it, and there’s almost as much of it as there is the night. An eye for an eye. A real deal. The Warriors is about living with—through, during—the night, a lesson we all learn as kids, and carry with us as we sleep. It’s not so much about the fear of what’s behind, but about running as fast as possible toward what’s on the other side.