Cult Retrospective: The Warriors at 40

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This year, The Warriors celebrates it’s 40th anniversary, and has endured a gruelling journey in reaching this landmark. Its initial release was hugely successful but was quickly debilitated as its marketing and promotion was limited by the studio because of a slew of violent outbursts from cinema-goers and imitation crimes. On this violence director Walter Hill said that ‘the movie was very popular with street gangs… the movie itself is rambunctious’. Perhaps the lasting cultural value of this film is because of its recklessness and the sheer amount of fun it has with itself something that clearly resonated with much of its audience.

The plot isn’t too interesting or complex; taking place in New York in the 1980’s, a street gang called The Warriors must make it back home to Coney Island after a peace meeting goes awry and a hit is placed on their heads. The New York of The Warriors isn’t too far from the one in our world; it’s gritty, urbane and dirty. Despite the verisimilitude of this setting there is a sense of theatricality and campiness to the film as the many gangs seen in the film, of which there are too many to count, each have a unique aesthetic style and excessive costuming; there are baseball players, ninjas, Dennis the Menace-style punks, you name it. The sheer scope and size of this social climate is felt early in the film as many of the gangs meet up for peace pact to be called; a striking scene as it breaks down and hundreds of extras chaotically flee the setting.

Part of the films longevity can no doubt be a result of its treatment of gangs and gang culture. Previous American films had treated gangs and gang life as a socioeconomic problem that must be fixed, whereas Hill’s film accepts that gangs exist and takes it in its stride. The drama of The Warriors isn’t fixated on the effects of gangs on the everyday life of “upstanding and moral” citizens, but is stripped down – the gang becomes a central and collective protagonist, whether they will get home – whether they will survive the night.

Here arises a central issue with the film; there is basically no characterisation in The Warriors. Characters are introduced with basically no introduction or explanation, and their decisions and interactions often seem radically absurd as a result of the shallowness of their characters. For the viewer, they are basically a set of strangers, so obtuse as to yield next-to-no information to the watcher. This is absurd, but it makes the film easy to watch once you’ve accepted this; the gangs function more as collective protagonists, no one member has any depth and they function as a unit throughout – each member basically as a limb of a greater body.

Further problems arise in The Warriors in its discussion of women. As a film it is simply pumped full of testosterone; the characters understand little more than their need to fight or fuck. The film only has 2 individual female characters (there is of course a siren-like female gang called The Lizzies), and to call any of them characters would be a greater compliment to the director and screenwriter than they deserve. In the world of The Warriors women are objects, they are something for the characters to conquer or otherwise be entrapped by. This toxic masculinity is so deeply entrenched in the film, the way the characters talk is sickening. I really struggled to watch any scene in the film featuring female characters because of the constant anxiety that surround the possibility that a rape scene is about to occur – it’s a horrible feeling, and thankfully Hill doesn’t indulge in this. Even for a film that is 40 years old it’s shocking and it is difficult to talk about this film and overlook this toxic attitude.

On the flip-side, there is no real sense of seriousness to the film; the hyper masculinity of the gangs seems entirely incongruous and incompatible with the style and homo-eroticism of the gangs. Dressed in bondage gear, leather vests and chains the gangs, in taking themselves so seriously, seem to have a tongue-in-cheek campiness about them, sitting somewhere between an episode of The Mighty Boosh and a haute couture catwalk. The Warriors is like a glam-rock band decided to make and star in a film, rife with the misogyny of rock music and theatricality of their performances it’s a trip of a film.

It’s so anomalous and so absurd that this film got studio funding and released. It’s sloppy, it’s uncultured: but that’s precisely what makes this film so precious and important today; by all trappings of logic it shouldn’t exist, it’s deeply flawed yet is so reckless – it does exist and I’m glad for it.

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