The Walter Hill Collection: The Warriors Review
”These are the Armies of the Night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City.”. If you'd seen that on a poster when going home on the subway in 1979, you could be forgiven for being nervous. It plays into fears of youth being wild, out of control, dangerous, lethal...a big fear of the Seventies, firstly as a hangover of the Sixties, then reignited later in the decade by the punk movement. It's a subtext that emerges in many of the key films of the time, The Exorcist for one. And by all accounts (I wasn't there) New York had a very bad reputation to violence, especially after dark. Paramount's advertising campaign for The Warriors was if anything too effective, and soon there were calls to have the film banned. This spread across the Atlantic, and there was similar pressure on the BBFC to reject the film. More about that in a moment.
As is so often the case, you watch the film and you wonder what the fuss was about. Based on a novel by Sol Yurick (itself borrowing its plotline from antiquity, namely Xenophon's Anabasis), Walter Hill's third feature is about as removed from reality as a cartoon, the only difference its being in live action. It certainly succeeds in creating its own world, in which everyday life rarely intrudes. Cyrus, leader of the premier New York street gang, the Gramercy Riffs, has called a park meeting in the Bronx, and representatives of a thousand other gangs travel there to attend. One of these is The Warriors, a Coney Island gang led by Cleon (Dorsey Wright). Cyrus speaks to the crowd: he calls for the gangs to unite. But suddenly he is shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the leader of the Rogues, who frames Cleon for the murder. Now the Warriors have to get home, with every other gang after their blood.
Soon after release, The Warriors picked up a cult following who recognised that the film is essentially harmless. No blood is spilled in many terrifically staged action sequences, and for a supposedly ultra-violent film the body count can be reckoned on one hand. The BBFC, then led by James Ferman, recognised this as soon as they saw the film. According to Tom Dewe Mathews's book Censored, Ferman was inclined to give The Warriors a lower certificate. (Mathews says A – equivalent to today's PG – but that cannot be correct, given the intermittent strong language in the film: I suspect he meant AA, which would have allowed fourteen-year-olds to see it.) However, with local councils threatening to ban the film, Ferman passed it uncut with an X certificate, restricting it to the over-eighteens.
The Warriors continues to be a cult favourite. However, watching it again for this DVD review after more than twenty years, it seems to me if anything a dry run for a later Hill film, 1984's Streets of Fire, generally lesser regarded though some (myself included) prefer it. Shot by the same DP (Andrew Laszlo) and with at least one cast member in common (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), Streets of Fire was a “rock'n'roll fable” that goes even further into stylisation, and has the benefit of a Ry Cooder score which must have been suitably deafening in six-track Dolby if you saw the film in a 70mm blow-up. Music is a premier ingredient of The Warriors too: the film is held together by a DJ (Lynne Thigpen, mostly shot with her lips in big close-up) commenting on the action, a driving synthesiser score by Barry De Vorzon, and a good Joe Walsh rock track over the end credits. That's entirely appropriate, as The Warriors is more akin to West Side Story than any realistic portrayal of gang warfare.
As before, Hill's approach is less literary than cinematic. The characters may have names this time, but again we observe them from outside, Hill relying on well-chosen actors to become the characters. As such, it's the villain who steals the show: David Patrick Kelly in his debut as Luther, the ratlike leader of The Rogues, clicking bottles on his fingers together like castanets and calling on The Warriors to “Come out and play-ay.” He worked for Hill several more times, and also for David Lynch and Spike Lee more than once. More recently, he played the President of the United States in Flags of Our Fathers. I'd also like to mention Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy, a young woman the Warriors pick up along the way, as another in Hill's line of tough-broad female characters. In Hill and David Shaber's screenplay, she's not written as androgynously as Isabelle Adjani and Ronee Blakley were in The Driver - for one thing it's a plot point that she's wearing a skirt as Swan (Michael Beck) tears a strip off it to use as the wick of a Molotov cocktail. There's strong hints of a budding romance between her and Swan, but it's nicely underplayed. There's a good moment as they ride on the subway, sitting opposite a “normal” family when she suddenly becomes aware of the dirt on her face and the state of her hair. Swan stops her doing anything about it: they are what they are, and that's an end to it. Van Valkenburgh worked with Hill again in Streets of Fire and I didn't remember seeing her in anything else. She's still active, mostly on TV, and a look at the IMDB confirms that her few later films include Rampage and The Devil's Rejects. Further down the cast is a future Oscar-winner, Mercedes Ruehl, playing a policewoman.
The Warriors did well at the box office – no doubt the controversy and its defenders helped it along. As well it should – it's great fun even if I don't think it's Hill's best work: his style was still developing. A remake, directed by Tony Scott, has been announced for a 2010 release.
For their six-film Walter Hill Collection Optimum have licensed two of the DVDs from other companies, which in the case of The Warriors is Paramount. (Affiliate links are for the box set.) This creates some anomalies with the other discs in the collection, in the language and subtitle choices, in that they have them and Optimum's own discs don't. The Warriors comes on a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only.
This DVD presents the theatrical cut of The Warriors. There is a TV version which is some six minutes longer, including a prologue in which Cleon's girlfriend warns him not to go to the Bronx for the meeting. (This was cut by the producers.) There is also an Ultimate Director's Cut available on DVD, some fifty seconds longer, and reviewed on this site by D.J. Nock here and by Eamonn McCusker here. This version was given a 15 certificate, which the theatrical cut would no doubt earn nowadays. However, as Paramount have not resubmitted the theatrical version since then, this disc still bears an 18 certificate. This is academic anyway, as any box set containing The Long Riders and Extreme Prejudice would not be rated anything other than 18.
The transfer is anamorphically enhanced, with thin letterboxing top and bottom, opening the matte up slightly from the intended ratio of 1.85:1. Much of the film was shot at night, using fast film, and Andrew Laszlo makes much use of neon and fluorescents in his lighting. The results are often dark and frequently grainy, but The Warriors has always looked like that.
The soundtrack, either in the original English or a German dub, is in mono, as was the film on its cinema release. I'm not in favour of remixing mono soundtracks – at least not without the director's approval – so no complaints here. The soundtrack is just fine, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced – though for added impact you may just want to turn it up a bit. There are a plethora of subtitle options available, though only for the feature.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which is anamorphic and runs 1:51. It's particularly grainy.
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