One evening in 1979 aged sixteen, I left the ABC cinema in South Woodford, north east London, thrilled to bits. I’d seen an incredible American movie called The Warriors in which a gang by that name must race back to their base in Coney Island having been wrongly framed for a murder. Every other gang in New York is after them. Their lives are literally on the line It’s the ultimate chase nightmare!
In the US, real gangs went to the cinemas cheering on particular fictional gangs on screen they’d decided to root for. There was a real fear that the movie would spark off gang warfare in the country’s already fragile cities. You have to remember that at the time, New York had gone financially bust and large parts of the inner suburbs were a wasteland.
The Warriors has been rightly reappraised in recent years as a great cult movie. Directed by Walter Hill who viewed the movie as more fantasy than reality. The dialogue and scenes were deliberately cartoonish, which seems to have irritated some critics. The gangs all had very distinctive personalities with the ultra-cool Gramercy Riffs; The Baseball Furies with Clockwork Orange style makeup and the requisite bats; the all-female Lizzies who seduce then turn on the Warriors and a whole load of other street fighting combos.
But it never became goofy or throwaway. You seriously felt for The Warriors – wronged and misunderstood, engaged in dangerous odyssey to get back home. And their destination is hardly on the other side of the planet. It’s a few stops down the subway line. But just traveling that distance with the entire underclass of the city out to kill them is a big deal.
Many critics felt The Warriors was a movie that pandered to urban gangs. Made them feel big and important. Especially with the initial proposition of a man called Cyrus telling a mass meeting of gang members that if only they settled their differences – they could run the whole show. The assassination of Cyrus is pointless and, from the point of view of the gangs, completely counter-productive. It also points to the futility and mindless thrill seeking of gang life.
The movie was based on the 1965 novel, The Warriors, by the American author, Sol Yurick. He in turn gave credit for the novel’s central plot theme to the Greek writer and military strategist Xenophon. Back in 401BC – two and a half thousand years ago – Xenophon and a huge army of Greek mercenaries were hired by a prince called Cyrus the Younger to oust his brother Artaxerxes II from the throne of Persia. Things didn’t go to plan and Xenophon and his soldiers were forced to fight their way back home through enemy territory fending off all kinds of assailants.
So, you get the influence of Xenophon on The Warriors? The perilous journey home. The many different types of foe. The character of Cyrus who sparked the whole thing off.
DISCOVER: Best five movies of 1981
The New Musical Express reported on the ‘year of the gang flick’ in the US. But the political mood in America was moving rightwards and although the soon-to-be President of the United States Ronald Reagan was reportedly a fan of The Warriors – most conservatives were not. And neither were a lot of liberals in the media. The 1970s had brought urban strife, high levels of crime and burning cities to the US. Respectable opinion wasn’t about to show any sympathy to amoral thugs.
But the decade ahead would see a widening of the gap between rich and poor with the retreat of the wealth into gated estates – separating themselves from the poverty in the inner cities. There’s a telling scene in The Warriors when our heroes are in a subway carriage and a group of theatre-going yuppies find themselves sitting opposite. It’s made very clear that these two worlds are irreconcilable. And it’s not as if that situation has improved since 1979.
The Furies, the High Hats, the Grammercy Riffs, the Boppers and the Warriors. “Can you dig it?”