The Warriors at 40: the enduring appeal of a New York classic

Walter Hill’s 1979 crime drama pits warring gangs against each in other in a battle that takes place across the whole of the city and remains a compelling snapshot

In his recently released book on the cinema of New York, film critic Mark Asch begins at the most eminently logical point of entry, Van Cortlandt Park. The stretch of greenery sits at the northern end of the Bronx, where the city stops and the state begins, and where Walter Hill’s 1979 classic The Warriors sets its scene. Thousands of representatives from the hundreds of street gangs dotting the five boroughs have convened for a historic summit, in which leader Cyrus plans on forming a union to maximize profit and put an end to senseless killings. His assassination mere moments after denouncing “The Man” triggers a ground war that covers the metropolitan area, setting Coney Island’s proudest sons the Warriors on a fraught 30-mile journey across the breadth of the cement madhouse they call home.

Both geographically and thematically, Hill’s off-the-wall urban odyssey is the all-encompassing Big Apple movie. Asch describes the film as “accurate in its broad contours about the necessity of improvised itineraries when dealing with late-night train service, as well as in its depiction of a city that can feel intimidatingly territorial”. The Warriors’ perilous quest through the varied terrain of the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn acts as a sort of travelogue, touching on the multitude of cultures from Harlem to Wall Street that flourished even under the crackdown doctrine of then mayor Ed Koch.

Moreover, the colorful menagerie of characters convey the necessity of adopting a tribal mindset in a square footage too vast for citywide solidarity. Blood feuds play out across sidewalks, in a far more intricate hierarchy of authority than the simple Bloods-Crips dichotomy many associate with gang activity. Everyone has enemies; Cyrus makes mention of 20,000 unaffiliated operators just waiting to be organized and drafted. On the mean streets of Hill’s gonzo-pulp Gotham, you need somebody to have your back, so each neighborhood takes care of its own.

With the 70s and the decade’s accompanying explosion of artistic and commercial activity in New York, eccentric subcultures sprang up across every nook and cranny. Hill’s screenplay with David Shaber adapts Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name, which itself reworked Xenophon’s ancient Greek myth of Anabasis; the film condenses the Greek army’s nation-spanning trek on to a compact scale befitting a city that fosters a new, fully independent sense of identity every four blocks or so. (Sherman Square, once known as the notorious “Needle Park” prowled by an up-and-coming Al Pacino in his 1971 breakout role, is spitting distance from the old-money Jewish families still peopling the Upper West Side.)


Each gang forms a community by coordinating their clothes and weaponry, following the same anthropological imperative for a sense of collectivity that first governed the primates. In the slice of downtown known as the Bowery, the Punks and their many facial piercings defined themselves by their opposition to the crass commerce of the nearby financial district – in the fictionalized version of their stomping ground, their feral aesthetic takes full bloom. Hill transmuted stylistic markers of African American culture in New York for the Gramercy Riffs, whose stoic demeanor, kung fu moves and immaculate attire nodded both to the black power movement as well as the martial arts flicks regularly selling out Times Square movie houses.

After the fateful gunshot throwing everyone into disarray, pride fuels most of the conflict that befalls the Warriors as they blaze a path southward. “If we’re wearing our colors out here, there’s no way to hide,” warns the loyal Warrior soldier dubbed Cowboy. “Who wants to hide?” shoots back his compatriot Vermin. Moments later, they start a rumble with the Orphans on the rival crew’s turf, all because they would rather risk their lives in another confrontation than remove their gang colors and travel as civilians. Though Hill’s script predates the hip-hop notion of “representing”, the Warriors regard their Brooklyn heritage as a talisman of legitimacy, status and power. The Wu-Tang Clan connected point A to point B in their classic single Shame on a Nigga, invoking the oft-repeated “come out and play-ee-ay!” taunt. (No hard feelings that their beloved Staten Island makes zero appearance in the film, it would seem.)


As adroit as Hill may be with New York’s inhabitants, he is every bit as conscious of its physical layout and, most importantly of all, the relationship between the two. The primary thrill of the Warriors comes not from observing these gangs but from the sensation of joining one, of tagging along with a group of city slickers that know the lay of the land like the back of their leather-gloved hands. In their company, the urban jungle doubles as playground – watch how the sprinting Warriors weightlessly bound over the subway turnstiles, thumbing their nose at the fare – and gymnasium – a quick shot of a hoodlum using the train’s hanging handles like a boxer’s speed bag subtly illustrates how they have adapted to and conquered their environment. Even if they weren’t constantly kneecapping cops, it would be clear that this is their space.

With one long night in the city that never sleeps, Hill posited a fantasy of New York living far removed from the seductive grime of its contemporary Taxi Driver, and even farther from the Giuliani-era metropolitan escapism of Sex and the City. The film’s attitude places it somewhere between the two, aware of the filth and degradation and nevertheless infatuated with it. New York may be filthy and angry and overcrowded, but it’s the only one we’ve got. Every native – and the transplants slowly earning the right to call themselves locals – intuitively understands this paradox, and loves their neighborhood both because and in spite of it. That’s what Cyrus is truly asking when he sounds the rallying call of “Can you dig it?” in the electric first act. He wants to know for sure that he’s among his people, factionalized and together: the United States of New York.


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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