Throughout the late 60s and 70s, popular cinema was rife with dark visions of bleak futures for a cynical, self-destructive human race. Mankind´s celluloid fates included such grim notions as being conquered by highly-evolved and militaristic apes, processing the homeless into tasty food products to combat overpopulation, being executed for the unpardonable crime of living past adolescence, watching violent road races in which points are awarded to the drivers for killing pedestrians, and even seeing our neighbors systematically replaced by emotionless machines. Hollywood´s fear of the future reached a fever pitch as the disco era gave way to the greed decade, the post-apocalyptic cycle peaking with five truly monumental films released between 1978 and 1982. Two, DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE ROAD WARRIOR, were sequels centering on survival in worlds completely overcome by the ugly and often cannibalistic side of human nature. Two more, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and BLADE RUNNER, were built on the premise that America´s largest cities would soon become so overrun with crime and corruption that our very humanity would be lost forever. The fifth and least appreciated, Walter Hill´s stylish THE WARRIORS, strikes a satisfying and perversely optimistic balance between the two themes and is, in many ways, the most unique of all.
In THE WARRIORS, eight urban thugs battle their way back to their turf in New York of the not-too-distant future after being falsely accused of murdering a charismatic gang leader during a revival-like meeting of all of the city´s street gangs. Foreshadowing films like SIN CITY and 300, director Hill draws a compelling opening analogy between the film´s protagonists and that group of valiant soldiers in ancient Greece, and relates the tough tale through a slick comic book framework. On its surface, this is a gritty but colorful action epic, a post-STAR WARS variation on the 60s biker film formula in which the gang members are the heroes and the villains are cartoonish, bloodthirsty parodies of everything from baseball players to street mimes. Underneath, it´s a clever parable about standing together to overcome adversity and achieve a better life.
After a stirring opening title sequence which intercuts brief bits of character development and exposition with the windows of lighted subway trains hurtling by on both sides at high speed, the Warriors arrive at the gang summit and are caught up in the fiery rhetoric of the messianic Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the Gramercy Riffs. Unfortunately, the leader of the Rogues, Luther (essayed with psychotic zeal by David Patrick Kelly), decides to gun down Cyrus in mid-sermon for no particular reason, leading to a raid by police. Knowing that one of the Warriors witnessed the gunshot, Luther spreads the word that it was they, not he, who committed the murder. The Warriors´ leader is beaten to death by an angry mob while the rest of the gang fleas through a nearby cemetery. From there, they must evade both vengeful gangs and pursuing policemen as they make the treacherous trek back to Coney Island. A female disc jockey (Lynne Thigpen) whose face is partially hidden from the camera keeps the various players updated on their progress.
As Hill and screenwriter David Shaber put the Warriors through their violent paces, they teach them the value of teamwork and of staying focused on a goal. When the gang splits up to evade capture, one or more of them is invariably killed or arrested. When distractions like sex (in the form of an undercover cop in a park and a girl gang called the Lizzies) cause them to delay their quest, the result is always bad. Along the way, the gang picks up a new member - a streetwise girl named Mercy (Deborah Van Walkenburgh) who is looking for her place in the world, and who represents the possibility of a more meaningful future for default gang leader Swan (Michael Beck). The Warriors´ journey is as deeply spiritual as it is physical, an exodus that takes them through dark alleys and dingy subway stations but ends on a beach in the warm sunlight of early morning. The film´s message is simple but powerful - life may not be what you wish it could, but there is hope if you stick with those who love you and keep your eyes on the promise of tomorrow.
It is this optimism, along with Hill´s great pacing and the earnest performances of the actors, which give this oddball adventure its enduring appeal. As brutally stylish as it is when the fists and baseball bats are flying, the underlying themes of family and perseverance are what make THE WARRIORS stand out from the rest of the "grim future" epics of the period. Instead of reveling in the violence, the filmmakers skillfully employ it as a metaphor for every person´s struggle for a happier life. Rather than allowing the viewer to be overwhelmed and ultimately disheartened by the bleakness of the Warriors´ world, the narrative encourages the audience to root for the protagonists and believe wholeheartedly that they will make it home if they don´t give up on each other. It seems unlikely that any film with this much bloodshed and death could leave the viewer in an upbeat mood, but one can´t help but feel uplifted when the credits roll over a comic book panel of our heroes walking in the morning surf. While perhaps not as visually groundbreaking as BLADE RUNNER or as oppressively haunting as DAWN OF THE DEAD, this is a film with the guts to go against the grain and say something different than its peers. For this reason, THE WARRIORS is a truly unique cinematic work and an unsung classic of both its genre and its generation.