Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s the final week of the year, so we’re dispensing with themes and just recommending some movies we love.
Xenophon’s Anabasis, from which Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel The Warriors is adapted, is an ostensible history with all the qualities of a myth. In turn, Walter Hill, working from Yurick’s initial adaptation of Anabasis, creates a fancifully gritty alternate universe New York City, transposing and downscaling the journey of the Ten Thousand to the post-Civil Rights movement late-1970s. The Persian king is replaced by a Cyrus equal parts Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesus Christ, a Grammercy-based gang leader who seeks to unite the gangs of all five boroughs as a political bloc against police oppression. “Caaaaaan youuuu dig iiiiiiit?” he asks them. And most of them can; for one brief moment of solidarity, it looks as though Cyrus’ vision might be realized, until he’s shot through the heart by a gang that has smuggled a gun in.
The Warriors, the film’s protagonists, are blamed for the assassination in the ensuing confusion. They are thus faced with making their way from the Bronx, one end of New York City, to their home Coney Island turf, the literal other end, with every gang in the city and the cops on their trail. The idea that this is scaled down from Anabasis is highly questionable, and refuted at every end by the meticulously rendered depictions of class structure in the film. A lot is made of the colorful and wildly theatrical gang uniforms in The Warriors, most notoriously the Baseball Furies, who dress in pinstriped baseball uniforms, wear makeup, and wield bats as weapons, though it’s interesting to note that with very few exceptions, the gangs with the goofiest costumes tend to be from the least destitute neighborhoods of the city (the comparatively flamboyant Furies, for example, hail from Riverside, then as now hardly the depths).
The Warriors, whose flash is mainly in posture and deed, are portrayed as relative innocents in their journey through the city, unfamiliar even with large parts of the subway map (which can also be read as a joke on the way the movie tosses geographic accuracy out the window for the sake of drama in plotting the Warriors’ subway route). The subway features heavily in the story, being the one means of travel open to anyone (especially at 1979’s fare of 50 cents), and lends itself aesthetically to the film’s insistence on regarding the gritty as beautiful. Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo use the diagonals of subway rails, trains, and pillars to slash through the screen, both perpetuating the forward momentum of the Warriors’ journey and recalling the swords of the Ten Thousand. The amount of composition done within frame calls back to another element introduced by Yurick and realized fully by Hill and Laszlo, the heavy influence of comic books. One disastrous re-release of The Warriors on home video, now thankfully suppressed, foregrounded this influence even more, by dissolving the action to literal drawn and lettered comic panels, a jarring and redundant touch.
Linking comics with classical mythology is a common enough thing, so rather than belabor the link itself it should be noted that The Warriors is the best and most direct means to do so. It has the literary and historical context to be a rich viewing. Additionally, as Pauline Kael put it in a comparison to Blackboard Jungle, “The Warriors is like visual rock,” which is an apt way of getting across how it’s constructed in simple, loud riffs, adorned with theatrical flourishes, preoccupied with both swagger and mythology, and ultimately a brief, exhilarating burst of pure energy.
Availability: The Warriors is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix.