Goons of New York

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07/04/2004

1902 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

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Midway through The Warriors, a lesbian gang called The Lizzies lures a detachment of Warriors back to their party pad, treacherously plying them with music, dancing, and the promise of good loving. Waylaying the Warriors just as Circe waylaid Odysseus and his crew, these jaunty lesbians proceed to transform the street-tough Warrior boys into randy and helpless Sweathogs. That’s when the girl gang springs its cunning trap. “The chicks are packed! The chicks are packed!” cries one Warrior as the Lizzies break out their guns and shoot up the place.

Evoking Homer may seem a bit grandiose for a cult film about oddball street gangs. But The Warriors is spiced with such literary pretensions, and its surprisingly diverse sources include a socially-conscious novel of the mid-sixties and an epic adventure of the ancient Greek writer Xenophon. Such underlying bookishness is all the more surprising given the overall, and unrelenting, hokiness of the film on its surface.

Each of the teenage street gangs in The Warriors is outfitted with a campy theme and a uniform. The gang called the “Baseball Furies” wear Marilyn Manson makeup and dress in full pinstriped baseball uniforms. “The Punks” wear Deliverance overalls and scoot around on roller-disco skates. The Warriors themselves don shiny buckskin vests and Indian bead necklaces. Among the other gangs rounding out the cast: an all-mimes gang, an all-orphans gang, and another gang that can only be described as The Scott Baios.

A rally to unite all these gangs turns to chaos when someone assassinates the vaguely revolutionary leader Cyrus. The assassination touches off a gang war and launches the film’s premise: the Warriors are wrongly accused of the killing and must therefore march through enemy turf all the way from Van Cortlandt Park back home to Coney Island. Along the way, the not very scary Warriors must contend with such not very gritty realities as fighting the aforementioned overdressed rival gangs and puzzling out the MTA’s subway maps. In other business, Deborah van Valkenburgh—later Sarah Rush on TV’s “Too Close For Comfort”—plays a Puerto Rican whore who falls for the head Warrior and delivers a stirring apologia for the life of the hooker as an antidote to growing old.

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In his foreword to the book “The Gangs of New York,” Jorge Luis Borges described New York gang life as possessing “all the confusion and cruelty of barbarian cosmologies.” The gangs in The Warriors, in contrast, are fanciful creatures, more native to the two-dimensional realities of comic books than fodder for a bloody Scorsese film. Nevertheless, The Warriors is not just another cult film destined to be ridiculed on VH1 snarkfests (though it has, of course, been ridiculed on VH1 snarkfests). As one of the top films of 1979, grossing about $17 million, The Warriors was a commercial success and was taken quite seriously. Some saw art in it. Pauline Kael, without apparent irony, called the film “mesmerizing.”

Walter Hill, the film’s director, was also taken seriously. And for good reason. He had already made his excellent getaway-driver-as-cowboy film The Driver, and later directed the A-list blockbuster “48 Hours.” In 1980, film critic Robert F. Moss even included Hill in his somewhat shrill denunciation of movie violence in a Saturday Review article called “The Brutalists: Making Movies Mean and Ugly.” Moss groups Hill with fellow “brutalist” offenders Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Paul Schrader, accusing them of defining “the urban scene as little more than the sum total of its most extreme forms of decadence.” He singles out The Warriors for its decadent “brutality,” scolding Hill because his “imagination is most fully energized by action sequences.” Significantly, audiences at the time did not laugh off the violence in the film, if only because of gang attacks associated with a number of screenings in Los Angeles and New York.

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Sol Yurick’s book The Warriors appeared in 1965, the product of several years of difficult work gathering source material. As an employee of the Department of Welfare in New York City, Yurick had already worked with impoverished families whose children were in street gangs. He interviewed gang members and later spied on gang hangouts from inside a rented panel truck. And in his attempt “to construct a true reflection of the real world in which [his] literary gangs would move,” he went as far as walking through the subway tunnel between 96th Street and 110th Street.

Yurick called the movie version of his novel “trashy.” A more charitable view would simply describe the film as less authentic. The novel The Warriors is far more graphically brutal than Hill’s film. Yurick’s gang, the Coney Island Dominators, commits a random murder and a gang rape, and attempts to rape a drunk nurse in Riverside Park. Though not by any means a great novel, Yurick’s work offers a social commentary and labors to present its subject with authenticity. Gangs like the “Borinquen Blazers” populate Yurick’s novel, gangs more firmly rooted to their racial and economic status. Where Walter Hill’s racially intermixed Warriors are led by a telegenic white guy, all of Yurick’s Dominators are black or hispanic teenagers whose violence is often racially loaded. When the character Ismael addresses the massive gang rally, on the Fourth of July no less, he frames his quasi-Marxist argument in terms of race and power: “Now we’re all brothers, I don’t care what you say. They make us think we’re all different so we rumble in colored gangs, white gangs, Puerto Rican gangs, Polish gangs, Irish gangs, Italian gangs, Mau-Mau gangs, and Nazi gangs.”

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It was Yurick who borrowed the plot for The Warriors from Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” a history written over two thousand years ago. The “Anabasis” chronicles how Cyrus the Younger, under the false pretext of a police action, leads a mercenary army of ten thousand Greeks deep into Mesopotamia—modern day Iraq—with the purpose of unseating the Persian king in Babylon. When someone assassinates Cyrus (a javelin in the eye), the stranded Greek warriors must fight their way back to Greece. Xenophon himself leads the Greeks on their bloody retreat.

Beyond presenting an uncanny parallel to our nation’s war in Iraq, the “Anabasis” presumably reflects the kind of “barbarian cosmology” Borges compared to New York gang life. The Greeks march north from Cunaxa toward the Black Sea, fighting through a brutal gauntlet of Kurdish and other barbarian tribes. The reality of barbarians dancing with severed Greek heads is only part of the “cruelty and confusion” that assails the Greeks on their trek up country. When the mercenaries attack one barbarian fortification, the natives rain stones down on them—when the supply of stones is exhausted, the native women throw their babies, and when they run out of babies, the women throw themselves. The men follow, leaving behind only “oxen and asses and sheep.”

It may be tempting to view these comparatively more “brutalistic” acts as further evidence of a “trashy” lack of authenticity in Walter Hill’s film. After all, how did the bloodier, grittier works of Sol Yurick and Xenophon lead to packed chicks and bellicose mimes?

But Hill would seem to have a point. His gangs may organize themselves into absurd, comic categories, but violence inspired by the absurd and the imaginary is in no way precluded from becoming lethal. One perhaps needs look no further than Los Pitufos, the Mexican gang based on TV’s “The Smurfs.” Indeed, as Borges reminds us, early New York was overrun with cutthroat gangs with vividly cartoonish names like the Daybreak Boys, the Plug Uglies, and the Swamp Angels. Many of these gangs wore thematic uniforms, as did the Plug Uglies, whose bowler hats and long shirttails might have provoked laughter if it were not for the huge bludgeons and pistols they carried. Of course none of this makes The Warriors any less of a giddy masquerade of violence, or less of a snark magnet for that matter. But it may help us to reflect upon our own ever more cartoonish tribalisms, and how they are colliding in the real world.

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