Stuff of Legend
In his introduction to the new Ultimate Director’s Cut of The Warriors, Walter Hill says he doesn’t think directors should revisit their films to provide “special explanations or long apologias.” He’s willing to make an exception for his movie, though. In fact, he doesn’t offer much “explanation,” beyond the film’s connection to Greek history, comic book origins, and futuristic look. He says critics and viewers missed these details when the movie was released in 1979. “This will represent my intentions when I was making [The Warriors] better than the original version,” he says. We don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter that much because the changes between versions are relatively minor.
The introduction is actually a snippet from the DVD’s only bonus, an hour-long retrospective documentary. Split into four featurettes, the documentary provides Hill more time and greater context to discuss his decisions. It explores every detail of production and Hill’s vision, so that the film, for this writer, anyway, becomes something altogether new. Hill should be aware that such reinterpretation and understanding are the very reason for DVD special editions like this one.
It was always my belief that that The Warriors was a reaction to the rise of gangs, guns, and street violence in the mid-to-late 1970s. The film opens at a rally featuring gang leader Cyrus (Roger Hill) instructing representatives of New York’s many gangs to unite and rise up against the police in order to take ownership of the streets. “It’s all our turf,” Cyrus shouts, arms akimbo, all Jesus-like.
Cyrus’s subsequent assassination appeared to represent a conglomeration of events, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Kennedy being obvious standouts. Following Cyrus’s death, the gangs lose control. The only semblance of true leadership is violently obliterated in front of them and their reaction is violent. The Warriors, just another gang at the rally until they’re wrongly blamed for the assassination, represent shattered hope and compassion. They’re hunted and taunted throughout a single night as they attempt rediscovery of their own peace and safety—in their case, a return to Coney Island, their “turf.”
This reading of the film is far from Hill’s (and Sol Yurick’s, author of the novel). Hill says it’s a retelling of an ancient story, when members of a mercenary army are caught in a power struggle following the war of Athens and Spartan. Forced to run from enemies, they create new alliances and basically fight their way to safety, the sea. This frame gives the movie a new concreteness. Previously, the fantasyland backdrop, with weirdo gangs hunting down the Warriors (the Baseball Furies wearing baseball uniforms and clown faces are perhaps the most memorable), placed the film beyond experience. Who were the Baseball Furies, the Boppers, or the Lizzies, apart from Hill’s stylized future?
Now he tells us, his version of their origins:
At the very beginning, I said [that] to do this properly and to do the vision of the novel, it really only makes sense if you do it all black and Hispanic. And the studio was not very keen on that idea. I later came to realize that the studio forced me into the comic book idea, because it was the only way I could make it all make sense to myself.
Hill says the film’s “good feeling” and “silliness” were not entirely his intention. But the film is not so much a comic book—there’s no good versus evil story here—as it is fairytale, with requisite rainbow lighting, and enchanted costuming and makeup.
The interviewees assembled for the documentary corroborate, including principal cast members Michael Beck (Swan), Deborah Van Valkenburg (Mercy), David Patrick Kelly (Luther), James Remar (Ajax), and David Harris (Cochise). Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo describes watering the streets of New York so the green and pink neon and streetlight could flood the frame; costume designer Billy Mannix discusses incorporating the brightest colors into her designs to build on the “otherworldly” concept, and editor David Holden talks about his choices for each different fight scene. Every new gang, he notes, came with a new theme. (Hill had Holden edit the Furies vs. Warriors battle similarly to a Kurosawa samurai scene.) And all these memories make a convincing case for The Warriors’ visionary ambitions.