Warriors, The: Walter Hill’s Cult Movie of Gang Wars in New York City

Walter Hill’s cult actioner, The Warriors, based on Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel, is still one of the most controversial films of the 1970s.

Initially, “The Warriors” divided film critics due to the gap between the film’s visual exuberance, a reflection of Hill’s vivid imagination, and the plotless tale and banal dialogue.

In this hip, ultra-cool, super-stylized actioner, Hill depicts a dystopian near-future, when gangs fight over turf and control of New York City.

Each gang sports a unique moniker, such as ‘The Warriors,” ‘The Baseball Furies,’ ‘The Rogues,’ boasting gear and hairstyle that underscore its motif. Each gang, in turn, is also responsible for one geographic area.

In his vision, New York is a massive, violent playground, defined by bridges, vacant subway tunnels, parks, abandoned buildings, all potential sites for adventure and endless fights.

The story begins in Coney Island, then moves to the Bronx to attend a city-wide meeting of all gangs. At that event, however, the psychotic leader of a rival gang, The Rogues (David Patrick Kelly) assassinates the head of the city’s foremost gang, but The Warriors are pegged as culpable.

This sends the gang fleeing through the labyrinthine city. With every thug in Manhattan in vicious, homicidal pursuit, they must also overcome all obstacles in their way. Throughout, Hill keeps the onscreen violence exaggerated and unrealistic—or rather surrealistic.

Detailed Plot of a Cult Movie

Cyrus (Hill), leader of the Gramercy Riffs, the most powerful gang in New York City, calls a midnight summit of all New York area gangs, requesting them to send nine unarmed delegates to Pelham Bay Park. The Warriors, from Coney Island, are one such gang.

Cyrus proposes the assembled crowd a permanent citywide truce that would allow the gangs to control the city. Most of the gangs laud his idea, but Luther (Kelly), leader of the Rogues, shoots Cyrus and frames the Warriors. The Warriors “warlord” Cleon (Wright) is beaten down by the Riffs who believe the Warriors are responsible for Cyrus’ death. With Cleon missing and presumed dead, the other Warriors escape. The Riffs put out a hit on the Warriors through a radio DJ (Thigpen). Swan (Beck), the gang’s “war chief”, takes charge of the group and they head back to the subway.

Almost immediately, the Turnbull ACs attempt to run down the Warriors but they manage to escape and board the subway. On the ride to Coney Island, the train is stopped by a fire on the tracks, stranding the Warriors in Tremont, in the Bronx. Setting out on foot, they come across a gang called the Orphans who were not invited to Cyrus’ meeting and who are sensitive regarding their low status in the city hierarchy. Swan makes peace with the Orphans leader, Sully (Greco), who agrees to let the Warriors through their territory peacefully. However, a woman named Mercy (Van Valkenburgh) mocks Sully as a “chicken” and instigates a confrontation, which the Warriors avoid by using a Molotov cocktail. Despite objections, Mercy decides to follow the Warriors.

When they arrive at the 96th Street and Lexington station in Manhattan, they are chased by police. Three of them make the train to Union Square, while Fox (Waites), struggling with a police officer, falls to the tracks and is run over by a train while Mercy escapes.

Swan and the three Warriors are chased into Central Park by the Baseball Furies where a fight ensues with the Warriors winning. After the fight, Ajax (Remar) notices a lone woman (Ruehl) in the park, becomes sexually aggressive and is arrested when the woman turns out to be undercover police officer.

Arriving at Union Square, Vermin (Michos), Cochise (Harris), and Rembrandt (Sánchez) are seduced by an all-female gang, the Lizzies. The Lizzies draw weapons, but the trio escape, learning that everyone believes they had killed Cyrus.

Swan returns to the 96th Street station, and finds Mercy there. More police show up and Swan and Mercy flee into the tunnel. They have an argument and Swan continues to Union Square where he reunites with the other Warriors. A fight ensues with the Punks but the Warriors defeat them. The Riffs are visited by a gang member who attended the earlier gathering and saw Luther firing the gun.

The Warriors arrive at Coney Island, where they find the Rogues waiting for them. Swan challenges Luther to fight one-on-one, but the Rogue leader pulls his gun instead. Swan throws a knife into Luther’s wrist, disarming him.

The Riffs apprehend the Rogues, and acknowledging the courage of the Warriors. The DJ then announces that the big alert has been called off and salutes the Warriors with a song. Swan, Mercy, and the rest of the gang walk down the beach at sunrise.

The screen rights to Yurick’s novel were bought as early as 1969 by American International Pictures. Producer Lawrence Gordon sent director Walter Hill the screenplay. Hill was drawn to the “extreme narrative simplicity and stripped- down quality of the script.” The scenario offered a realistic take on street gangs but the director was a fan of comic books and wanted to divide the film into chapters and then have each chapter come to life with a splash panel.

However, the studio wanted to release The Warriors before a rival gang movie, The Wanderers. Thus, Hill was unable to realize the comic book look.

Yurick’s book had no white characters, but Paramount did not want an all-black cast for “commercial reasons.”

The film was shot on the streets in New York City with some interior scenes at Astoria Studios. They would shoot from sundown to sunrise.

For the big meeting at the beginning of the film, Hill wanted real gang members in the scene with off-duty police officers also in the crowd so that there would be no trouble.

Actual gang members wanted to challenge some of the cast members, but were prevented by the production security. The actors playing The Warriors bonded, on and off the set.

Originally, the character of Fox was supposed to end up with Mercy; and Swan was captured by a rival, homosexual gang, the Dingos, only to escape later. But the ending was changed due to various reasons.

At the Coney Island confrontation at the end of the film, actor David Patrick Kelly wanted to use dead pigeons but Hill did not think that would work. Kelly used three bottles instead and improvised his famous line, “Waaaaariors, come out to plaaaay.”

Hill wanted Orson Welles to narrate the introduction about Greek themes, but the studio did not like his idea. Instead, the voice over is provided by a black woman with hot lips–we never see her full face–who broadcasts on the radio her messages to the various gangs.

Cast

Michael Beck as Swan
James Remar as Ajax
Dorsey Wright as Cleon
Brian Tyler as Snow
David Harris as Cochise
Tom McKitterick as Cowboy
Thomas G. Waites as Fox
Terry Michos as Vermin
Marcelino Sánchez as Rembrandt
Deborah Van Valkenburgh as Mercy
Roger Hill as Cyrus
David Patrick Kelly as Luther
Lynne Thigpen as D.J.
Ginny Ortiz as Candy Store Girl
Mercedes Ruehl as Policewoman
John Snyder as Gas Station Man
Edward Sewer as Masai
Paul Greco as Sully, the Orphans leader