40 Years Ago: ‘The Warriors’ Come Out to Play, and Real Life Violence Ensues
UCR: Movies and Culture
The Warriors was never meant to incite actual fights so much as stylize the gang culture then sweeping parts of New York City. Director Walter Hill's film unfolded like a spaghetti western-style odyssey, more than a gutsy docudrama. Still, violence broke out all over the country after it premiered on Feb. 9, 1979.
A teenager was killed at a drive-in showing a few days later in Palm Springs, Calif. Another 18-year-old bled out after being knifed inside a darkened auditorium in Oxnard on the same night. Later that week, a Massachusetts high schooler was murdered outside a subway station, reportedly by two young men who'd just seen The Warriors.
Some theater owners had already refused to display the film's poster, which featured a group of street toughs under the title: "These are the armies of the night." The caption added, "They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City." After the off-screen issues, Paramount yanked all of them.
At that point, the film was playing in 670 theaters, having grossed $3.5 million over its opening weekend. There had been no advance screenings, and little money for promotion. So, in many cases these headlines were the first moviegoers had heard of The Warriors. It quickly lost commercial momentum, even as worried national commentators questioned whether the film was adding fuel to a rising sense of social inequity and rampant street justice. Scared patrons stayed away in droves.
"I think the reason why there were some violent incidents is really very simple: The movie was very popular with the street gangs – especially young men, a lot of whom had very strong feelings about each other," Hill told Esquire in 2014. "And suddenly they all went to the movies together! They looked across the aisle and there were the guys they didn't like, so there were a lot of incidents. And also, the movie itself is rambunctious — I would certainly say that."
None of this was supposed to happen. The Warriors, though filmed on-location in violence-torn areas of the city and featuring actual gang members as extras, actually sought to capture something smaller and more human: The sense of tribalism, and of belonging, that these roving groups of scofflaws provided to outsiders and misfits.
In the end, however, they may have had a little too much initial success in creating sympathy for the Warriors as they take on every other gang in the city. Nothing is a given as they try to get back to Coney Island after being wrongly accused of killing the leader of the rival Gramercy Riffs during a midnight summit at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Watch the 'Can You Dig It?' Scene
"We all have those dreams or nightmares where we are innocent, falsely accused, and there's an unrelenting force out there trying to take us out," Michael Beck, who played gang leader Swan, told NME in 2017. "And all we're trying to do is find a place that's safe."
Hill and producer Lawrence Gordon took chances along the way, setting up for dark and dingy shoots in Coney Island during a period when tourists wouldn't dare visit, and casting newcomers who could convey this sense of every-day people caught up in something bigger than themselves. Street gangs basically ran things in nearby housing projects, just as they had more than a decade before in the same-named 1965 Sol Yurick novel that inspired this film.
"This was a movie that accepted their values and essentially understood that a street gang was a defensive organization rather than an offensive one," added Hill, whose previous film (1978's The Driver) had been an utter flop. "It didn't preach to them about middle-class values. And I think that's what made the movie unique. When you look at the movie, it's more like a musical than some grimly realistic thing."
They were building off an earlier screenplay drafted by David Shaber, but in a much more stripped-down form. Hill hoped to give the film more of a graphic-novel approach, one inspired by a character in Yurick's original publication who favored a comic-book adaptation of the violent Greek classic Anabasis by Xenophon. (The director's cut of The Warriors later incorporated cartoon-style transitions between the scenes.) They moved quickly, having earned the green light less than a year earlier in the spring of 1978.
Executive producer Frank Marshall worked overtime to secure real-life locations, which added to the movie's sense of place. That meant coordinating with members of the city police department's specially trained gang unit. The transit authority proved to be an invaluable resource, allowing the crew to film uninterrupted on moving trains and inside the sprawling Union Square complex.
"The New York City of the mid- to late-'70s was very much like what you see in the film, it was much grittier than today," Beck told NME. "You look at Times Square today, post-Mayor Giuliani’s clean up of the city, it’s Disneyland! If you went to Times Square in 1977, 1978, if you veered a block either way, you would run into pimps and hookers and drug dealers. If you wandered a couple of blocks over, you were in danger. Things happened to you that you didn't want to happen."
Hill only used one major set, a men's room, because the producers couldn't find one spacious enough to shoot a large-scale battle meant to take place there. "I was — how do I say this — half-crazy in those days," Hill admitted in a 2015 talk with the Village Voice. "I had the feeling that I wasn't going to last very long as a director, so I wanted to get my licks in."
Watch the 'Come Out to Play' Scene
Despite all of those attempts at realism, The Warriors clearly wasn't envisioned as some sort of cinema verite-style reflection of the five boroughs' socio-economic issues. It echoed then-current problems, as New York City dealt with record homicide rates and a looming crack epidemic, but Hill's film was determined not to explain – or explain away – these issues.
Similarly, much of the farce embedded in this gritty tale seemed to have been lost at first. (After all, how many street gangs can be found sporting baseball uniforms?) "It was meant to be a dystopian tale about the near future," Hill told Esquire, "but at the same time it was meant to be a lot of fun and have humor in it."
In time, The Warriors became less misunderstood. Critics like Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker, went on to describe it as "a real moviemaker's movie," comparing the film's impact to that of earlier youth-oriented projects like Rock Around the Clock. "No matter what impression the ads give, this isn't even remotely intended as an action film," critic Roger Ebert added in his 1979 review. "It's a set piece. It's a ballet of stylized male violence."
As reports of associated crimes finally began to subside, The Warriors regained some box office sales – but it never became the blockbuster it might have been. Instead, the film emerged as a cult favorite.
Joe Walsh's "In the City," heard when the city-wide rumble is finally called off, later became a radio-staple after he re-recorded it with the Eagles for The Long Run. Comic books, video games, action figures and TV adaptations followed, even as lines from the script (Cyrus' "Can you dig it?"; Ajax's "Since when are you a fucking diplomat?") became oft-reference pop-culture touchstones. Twisted Sister's 1985 album Come Out and Play, for instance, cops Luther's most memorable quote.
"What made it a success with young people is that for the first time somebody made a film within Hollywood that took the gang situation and did not present it as a social problem," Hill later told the Directors Guild of America. Before, movies of this type typically turned on questions like: "How do we cure the pestilence and how do we fix the social waste? 'We want to take these kids, make sure they go to college.' This was just a movie that conceptually was different, [that] accepted the idea of the gang, didn't question it. That was their lives; they functioned within that context. And the social problem wasn't were they going to college, but were they going to survive? ... Will he live or die? That's the drama."
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