Walter Hill’s neon-hued thriller is a stylish masterpiece that approaches city gang wars in a completely unique way
At first, there is only a hot-pink Ferris wheel set against a pitch-dark backdrop. It flickers and revolves, the only visible light. Then an elevated train rolls through the midnight gloom, its hazy blue windows splicing through the dark. Although this could technically be anywhere in the world, there is something about the scene that is quintessentially New York. Perhaps it’s the lurid glow of Coney Island, or the unmistakable sheet-metal rattle of the subway. Finally, the title card splashes on screen in a blood red graffiti: The Warriors. Walter Hill’s countercultural landmark has set its scene, and New York will never see a night like this again.
The Warriors is, crudely summarised, the story of a gang-infested New York erupting into a night-long orgy of violence, vinyl, and anarchy. The film opens with nine delegates, each representing over one hundred gangs across the city, arriving at Van Cortlandt Park for a midnight assembly. Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs and grand patriarch of New York’s criminal underworld, wants a permanent truce among the leather-clad, baseball bat-wielding legions so as to take control of New York City once and for all. However, Cyrus’ aspirations of a gangland utopia are cut short when a single shot rings out, killing him instantly. The Warriors are immediately framed by Luther, leader of small-time syndicate The Rogues, and begin their midnight exodus back to Coney Island – their home turf.
When most consider Hill’s 1979 gang thriller, it’s highly probable that a single quote comes to mind. It’s a quote my dad reeled off ceaselessly when I was young, a quote that played a great deal in cementing the film’s cult classic status across generations.
Warriors, come out to play-ay-ayyy
It’s indelible, iconic, cheesy, brilliant. It’s also the film’s final battle cry to the titular gang, who have spent the night on an Odyssean hunt through New York’s nocturne, chased by the armies of the night. The Warriors is remembered firstly for this quote, and everything else second. Looking at it closer however, reveals a film that has counterculture coursing through its veins, with 70s glam-rock visible in every vest-top, panama hat, and lick of face paint. Here, we take a look at the constituent parts that make The Warriors not simply the defining film of its era, but a landmark in countercultural cinema.
From its very opening sequences, The Warriors subtly builds a quasi-dystopian New York built on bureaucratic crime outfits and drops the audience square in the middle. We are expected to recognise these gang personae immediately, and are tasked with memorising the armies of gaudy costumes and vaudevillian names.
The Gramercy Riffs
The Turnbull ACs
The Jones Street Boys
The Van Cortlandt Rangers
These are just a few of the gang names that populate Walter Hill’s dingy, backlit New York and give life to its highly-stylised take on the cities crime epidemic. But it’s not just the names that conjure images of hair-metal and power ballads; Hill’s gangs are as stylishly street-smart as they are violent. The eponymous gang’s maroon vest, embroidered with their crest on the back, becomes their body armour, their raised-standard against the phalanxes in hot pursuit. The Baseball Furies (a gang that inspired the name of 80s new-wave band The Outfield) wear traditional baseball jerseys that hark back to Alex DeLarge and his Droogs, and cover their face in uncanny warpaint.
Conversely, the costume of choice for Luther and his antagonistic Rogues is an all-leather ensemble, mixing a ludicrous cocktail of violence and The Village People. Across the countless gangs, affiliates are seen wearing spandex, tipping their panamas, and even cruising the rainy streets on rollerblades. The costumes are outlandish, outrageous, and yet are just one of the film’s many triumphs in capturing not simply a nostalgic, youthful spirit but one of subversive intent.
Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography captures a city caught in perpetual darkness, with dripping pipes and desolate alleyways giving an air of apocalyptic dread to a city caught in criminal flux. For all of its focus on the night, however, The Warriors manages to be a gorgeously colourful piece of cinema. The sickly fluorescent light of train platforms is juxtaposed with overlays of colourful subway maps, and bright traffic lights and police sirens bookend the action of a film firmly rooted in street-level conflict. The emergency services present during the film are only ever a peripheral force, lending credibility to Cyrus’ earlier monologue that asserts that gang masses outnumber the police five-to-one. In fact, save for two couples that encounter The Warriors near the end of the film, New York is entirely empty of normal pedestrians. Walking the streets, you either wear the colours of your gang or a cop uniform.
There is no in-between. New York can be a boring, clichéd environment in the wrong hands. Walter Hill and Andrew Laszlo manage to coax every drop of colour from its industrial night time, and The Warriors’ journey across its rails and through its streets feels otherworldly and oneiric.
Aside from Luther’s inimitable quote at the end of the film, only one more aspect of The Warriors is more memorable. Barry De Vorzon’s score. The marriage of cosmic synths and distorted lead guitars befits perfectly the year of release, marking the liminal stage between glam rock and new wave, punk and pop. Some of the film’s most iconic set pieces are remembered best because of De Vorzon’s atmospheric soundtrack, which captures the strange isolation of New York at night along with the youthful lust for action and purpose. ‘In the City’, perhaps the most iconic track, plays throughout the film, notably during the Baseball Furies chase scene. Like the glaring neon of the cinematography, De Vorzon’s soundtrack is bright, flashy, and full of strange energy. It remains off-beat yet captures the contemporary rebellion of free-spirited youth, spilling over from the summer of love into Hill’s dark cauldron of metropolitan crime.
Perhaps the most refreshing and progressive aspect of Hill’s film, which is largely an exercise in vain machismo and stylised male violence, comes from its only all-female gang: The Lizzies. After easily seducing Vermin and Chochise into their pool hall hangout, The Lizzies quickly exchange their snooker cues for revolvers in a bid to get revenge for Cyrus’ death.
Until the introduction of The Lizzies, The Warriors has almost no female characters and, until the introduction of Deborah Von Valkenburg as Mercy, the film revels in being an all-male brawl ‘em up. The Lizzies stand for more than just a quick aside from the male action however, rather they inject a feminist strength not often seen in films centred around gang violence. Just as all other aspects of the film work symbiotically with music traditions and trends, so to do The Lizzies. They are in many ways a nuanced pre-empting of the ‘Riot grrrl’ movement and foreground a rejection of patriarchal violence that is as equally important to Hill’s film as the plight of the titular gang.
With the above costumes and outfits in mind, nowhere is Hill’s film more stylish and impossibly cool than in the chosen garments of the eponymous collective themselves. The burgundy leather vests, emblazoned with the crest of the Coney Island gang, become a symbol not simply of their community, but of their rebellion against mainstream culture – a theme that each gang adopts in their own unique way via their chosen clothing. The Warriors are asked by Mercy, before she joins their ranks, to give her a vest. Mercy, a member of lowly street urchins The Orphans, also forces the apparent leader of the gang to demand an act of peace from The Warriors: to remove their colours. They flatly refuse, their clothing representing to them an identity that goes beyond material and colour, crests and logos. Like infamous gangs across North America, notably the Bloods and Crips, colour and clothing becomes a potent means of navigating the criminal underworld, and Walter Hill’s 1979 film takes this to a stylish and provocative new level.
THE LACK OF GUNS
The Warriors is a largely gun-less film, favouring melee weapons and bloodied knuckles in its turf-war skirmishes. In a country that courts perennial controversy over its position on gun control, it’s refreshing to see a stylised crime film, in perhaps its quintessential setting, take on the action with a different means. There is a stylish swagger to The Warriors that not simply keeps it relevant, but also important. Countercultural landmarks in cinema are perhaps the most important offering from Hollywood in the 70s and 80s, a powerful attempt by a select few filmmakers to keep the era of civil rights alive and kicking, the anti-authoritarian megaphones blaring. Walter Hill’s cult masterpiece is not simply an introspective glance into male violence, but also the torchbearer of youthful free spirit.