Tuesday 30 January 2018

The Warriors (USA 1979: Dir Walter Hill)

Another set of film notes from one of the last FEAST Film Nights screenings back in 2017.

Walter Hill’s The Warriors, based on a 1965 dystopian novel by Sol Yurik, beams in from a pre gentrified, now vanished New York City. The movie fairly accurately reflected the decaying state of the Big Apple in the late 1970s - NYC was at the time fending off bankruptcy, suffering from high unemployment and extended power black outs (prompting widespread looting and crime) as well as playing host to pitched battles between warring ethnic factions, making the clashes between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story look like a walk in Central Park. The reflection of reality as a future urban nightmare is a key to the movie’s genius.

Hill’s Director’s cut of the movie (the version screened tonight) adds, among other comic book inserts, an awkward short prologue not seen in the original film, which explicitly cites the inspiration for the story as a page from Greek history: the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 B.C. in which an army of soldiers, stranded in enemy territory, attempted to evade the Persian Army and make it back to their coastal home. The Warriors’ modern day updating of the story has the eponymous gang attempting to flee the City and return to their Coney Island base, after being set up to take the rap for the assassination of a gang leader.

With an all New York cast and crew, combining professional actors with kids recruited from the City’s districts and supported by real gang advisors, Hill’s tense, action packed movie uses the interconnecting lines of the New York subway map to track The Warriors as they attempt to ‘escape from New York’. And yes the movie does anticipate John Carpenter’s film of the same name from a couple of years later, but it also borrows from 1970s conspiracy thrillers, Blaxploitation movies and, in the stylised battle scenes, Kurosawa’s samurai films.

The use of a largely black and Hispanic cast caused the movie’s funders to question the film’s commerciality, leading to the production team re-editing the film, adding extra soundtrack elements to create a less realistic, more upbeat feel to the final movie. But there’s no doubting the realism of the environments in which shooting took place, even accepting some of the more over the top elements of the look of the factions, such as the Kiss style make up of the ‘Baseball Furies.’ One story goes that while filming on location in Coney Island the actors playing The Warriors had to remove any trace of their gang identities (achieved through some great embroidery by Brit Rose Clements, who also designed stage outfits for Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton) while at lunch so as not to draw undue attention from the real gangs in the area.

The film’s cinema release proved popular, but a series of tragic gang related shooting and stabbing incidents at screenings in the US nearly saw an end to The Warriors’ distribution life. As a result, Paramount allowed cinema chains the option to cancel future screenings: many took up the offer, and the film lay dormant until its second wind saw the movie released to the (then new) home viewing market, subsequently spawning a comic strip and video game spinoffs.

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