Film * Walter Hill * Rampant Urban Decay * 1979
The Warriors is a chase movie, and as such the overall plot is fairly simple. The film begins with a vast, New York City-wide conclave of gangs. These gangs range from your typical 70s-era youth gang to some very silly groups of people (like, you know, the scary mimes). All these gang boys have come out at the behest of one very charismatic and powerful gang member: Cyrus. He gives a hot speech, “can you dig it?” and is promptly shot. Because gangs. The problem is, Cyrus was a popular cat, and what he was preaching was an opportunity to take the city over. One psycho with a gun shut that noise up, but in the ensuing ruckus the actual killer was able to pin the crime on a random member of the Warriors. Since Cyrus was so beloved, every gang in the city is out for retribution, and the chase begins.
That’s the set-up. The follow through doesn’t offer much other than “oh shit, run!” It’s not needed; it’s a pretty fun movie. The Warriors are stranded in hostile territory without their leader and are tasked with making it across a vast cityscape they aren’t necessarily familiar with. It’s a long-ass way to Coney Island from The Bronx (says the guy who has been to NYC exactly once, for two days) and it seems like most of the kids don’t seem too comfortable outside of their own turf. This is understandable, because New York City in the 1970’s looks like an enormous, amazing, terrifying horrorshow.
New York City in the 1970s has a certain reputation. That reputation is what shows up on screen over the running time of The Warriors. It seems that from 1975 to 1985, New York was a seething cesspool of degradation and despair, a once magnificent city in obvious decline. This is the New York that is gleefully celebrated in The Warriors. This is Urban Decay: The Movie. The Warriors is a beautifully shot film, and the entire movie is filmed in a city that is slowly and inevitably falling apart. Despite having a frantic, punk rock pacing to it, the setting is an overbearing presence, every bit as important to the movie as any of the characters.
Those who star in this fetid gang fantasy are perhaps not what one would expect given the setting. The gangs depicted here are both realistic and outlandish (I mean, there are mimes and baseball baddies and what looks to be a gang of hillbillies who would later go on to form Dexy’s Midnight Runners), and made up of all kinds of people. There is a fair amount of nihilism underlying the way individual gang members, not only within the “bad” gangs, but amongst The Warriors themselves. Even Cyrus, the individual force for progress at the beginning of the film, is only interested in going to war with the police and further sending the city into chaos. There is a certain sardonic glee running through the abandoned nighttime streets, for while the citizenry hides away gangs are afforded freedom to roam and pillage as they see fit, the surrounding decay and urban rot of what was once a vibrant city lost in a whirlwind of violence and rampant hedonism.
Once the sun comes up, however, and the blurred, fevered adrenaline rush of the night has faded, the true nature of the landscape is revealed in harsh grey reality. The Warriors make it home as day breaks. They’ve lost members but are still intact. There’s also a sassy new lady (who is slut-shamed unironically by The Warriors’ interim leader, who gets weirdly moral about some stranger’s sex life, but man, that’s a whole other deal). Then comes the crux of the film, where Swan, our cool stoic leader, looks around at the debris and urban ruin and says “this is what I fought all night to get back to?” The final scenes play out in the cold light of morning, and it seems that the despair grown in the city has infected the very ocean. While the climax itself is rather anti-climactic, the setting again communicates what the characters have a hard time articulating. Even at the very edge of the city, there is no escape from the oppressive concrete bulk of crumbling putrescence. You fight, or you lose even that scrap of spray-painted asphalt that you call home. This is grim, but not hopeless. There seems to be a desire to at least make something out of this urban blight, to band together and create something out of chaos. Unfortunately, at least within context of the film, that something amounts to a sand castle made out of rubble and garbage. Swan, who has apparently awakened from a dim, violent fugue upon seeing his home, walks away. Perhaps for good. The Warriors doesn’t hint at a world outside of the New York gang experience (save one funny moment on the subway when some upper-middle-class white folk stumble into the wrong car and are like “oooh nooo” and bail), but surely it must exist. To The Warriors, New York City is a harrowing gauntlet of danger and base survival, but Swan, at least, seems to understand that the best way of dealing with that is to get out.