Can You Dig It? ‘The Warriors’ Turns 40

The Warriors, the comic book-stylized film in which a New York City gang tries to make its way home after being wrongly implicated in a key gang leader’s death, celebrated its 40th anniversary this month.

Initially released to controversy due to copycat violence in some theaters during some of the screenings and the burgeoning presence of real-life gangs roaming New York streets, The Warriors has since become a symbol of pop culture iconography both as a cult classic to generations of fans globally and an early template for the kind of action films that mixed comic book narrative and martial arts-stylized fight sequences.

Director Walter Hill, who had already had experienced some success penning Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 classic white-knuckled yarn The Getaway, gives the proceedings an air and an aura of toughness cinematically, but in a New York City right out of a graphic novel, almost as if Steve Ditko had directed a B-movie action/Western yarn. And Western is the quintessential label to affix to The Warriors, as it gains its many narrative cues and visual action directly from that storied genre.

Loosely based on the novel by Sol Yurick, originally published over a decade before the release of the film in 1979, The Warriors combined humor, action, and a bleak atmosphere helped by the creative use of color and shadows with essentially bloodless but yet some of the most thrilling fight scenes ever seen in an American production up to that point. And it’s that action that still makes the film endearing and exciting for fans. Fights play out as set pieces and it’s a testament to Hill’s direction, the stunt choreographers and stuntmen, deft editing and creative staging, and especially the actors themselves, as to why it’s presented so successfully on screen.

Keeping in a comic book vein throughout, the names of the gang members in the Warriors (Swan, Ajax, Cochise, Vermin, Rembrandt, etc.) and the other gangs are equally colorfully ambiguous. We never know their real names, what any of them do, or where they live even, be it The Baseball Furies, Gramercy Riffs, The Turnbull AC’s, or The Lizzies (who are all part of memorable sequences in the film). Although Coney Island represents a sort of “headquarters” for The Warriors, we know nothing of their personal lives or backgrounds once they get there. Seemingly teenagers or just out of those years, none of the characters ever call home for help from a parent or brother or sister during their sometimes rather sticky plight, or a friend even, or lover, to check in. Hill knows that these details are mainly unnecessary and ultimately The Warriors are like rogue characters, a ragtag Avengers or Suicide Squad in a way if you will.

That’s not to say the film is strictly emotionless and laden with cookie-cutter dialogue delivered woodenly. We strangely care for these characters even though, again, there’s not much to their definitions other than how we see them, and all are played largely in broad strokes. James Remar’s memorable Ajax and David Patrick Kelly’s now iconic performance as the psychopathic and dangerous Luther are the only characters in the film who seem to be alive; most of the others seem to be breathing under a blanket, just acting as peripheral characters to the main action on screen. But yet, we still seem to have an endearing affection for them. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching the sequence where Ajax makes a bad decision that gives him serious consequences, because we as a viewer feel bad he won’t be in the film any longer, and yet, the character of Ajax is mostly a high octane sexist alpha male who minces no words and pulls no punches.

The same initial feeling goes with the two main protagonists in the film, Michael Beck’s Swan, who becomes unofficial leader of the group, and his tagalong by circumstance/eventual girlfriend Mercy played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh. Both play their characters also with broad strokes: Beck keeps Swan cool and early on until she settles into Swan’s orbit, Valkenburgh keeps Mercy dirty hot, the word dirty used literally and not sexually. But yet, in a sequence near the end of the film before the big showdown at Coney, as Swan and Mercy are on a subway train in the wee hours of the morning, exhausted, emaciated, and rough around the edges from all the danger that had come their way prior, we still feel for them when two couples board the subway train, just coming from what appears to be a senior prom. Once both parties lock eyes, even though they are all around the same age, the contrast comes through loud and clear. All Hill needs to do is show a scene in which Mercy wants to fix her hair and Swan, silently and only using body language, preventing her from doing so, to speak the volume of emotion the film needs. And in doing so, at once, even though it’s safe to say that most of the viewers of The Warriors who are also young, probably identify with the prom couples more than The Warriors in real life, we instantly side with Swan and Mercy on screen, as we have done with the rest of The Warriors all throughout the film and will do until the end. It’s the true masterstrokes of Walter Hill’s direction to give little touches of emotion and pathos that surface ever so slightly during a film that keeps firmly conscious of its comic book influences from start to finish. Above all, it acts as somewhat of a blueprint and springboard to Hill’s next films, like the underrated and superb Southern Comfort and especially 48 Hours.

And then of course there is the pop culture zeitgeist that has been spawned in the decades since the film’s original release in 1979. From catchphrases like “Can You Dig It?!!” and “Warriors, Come Out To Play-ayy!” to many fan sites on the internet to action figures to video games and even fan conventions in which most of the cast have made appearances, replete in their original Warriors vests even, there are many facets of The Warriors as a film and as a pop culture benchmark, that have delighted fans and kept the memory alive of a film that 40 years on, still seems fresh and alert, brimming with a fun, violent narrative throughout that makes The Warriors irresistible, whether it’s the very first watching or the fifty-first.

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