“The Warriors” remains a cult phenom and a tribute to the New York that raised me.
“Can you dig it?!”
With those four words, Cyrus and the cult classic film, “The Warriors”, erupted onto movie screens and was forever emblazoned into pop culture history.
On February 9th, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Walter Hill’s classic film. But while the movie itself holds much significance to those of us from that era, it’s not just the film that possesses meaning but the time that it represented.
In 1979, New York City was in the midst of change. Ed Koch was in his second year as mayor, gentrification was a foreign concept and urban segregation was in practice. But changes were occurring in entertainment, music and society, and they forged an intimate relationship between them.
To understand this period in time, you must look back to the start of the decade where Blaxploitation films caused the biggest cultural shift in Hollywood history. It was also, arguably, the most significant moment in Black film history.
The Blaxploitation era began in 1970 with the classic “Cotton Comes to Harlem”. That film gave birth to an entire Black Hollywood movement, one which represented the anger and frustrations of Black America, particularly in urban environments like New York.
It was an era where Black actors were featured in leading roles, taking it to the man, never apologizing and devoid of shucking and jiving. Films like Melvin Van Peeble’s “Sweet Sweetbacks Baadassss Song” (1971), Gordon Park’s “Shaft” (1971) and Gordon Park Jr.’s “Super Fly” (1972) were trailblazing. They were directed by Black visionaries, featured prominent Black casts and, most importantly, proved the power of Black audiences who flocked to theaters to watch these films.
This success shocked Hollywood and forced them to acknowledge Black audiences that financially supported films of the Blaxploitation era.
This was the post-Civil Rights era, a time when disco was at its peak, drugs were part of the social scene, mafia crime families were flexing their muscle and urban decay was beginning to show its ugly face due to white flight, crime, political corruption and, of course, racism.
As the decade progressed, Blaxploitation films gradually gave way to darker depictions of urban life, one where people of color were no longer the heroes but the enemy.
In 1974 we were introduced to Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson, in the violent “Death Wish” series. As a mild-mannered architect turned cold-blooded vigilante, Bronson took on gangs from New York to LA, cleaning up neighborhoods which even the police were reluctant to visit.
“Death Wish” set the stage for films like 1981’s “Fort Apache, The Bronx” with Paul Newman. The film depicted the rough and violent times which occurred around the 41st precinct in the South Bronx, one of the worst areas in New York at the time.
During this period, even the music began to shift.
Disco had already begun its descent, with the last great album of the time being the 1977 classic “Saturday Night Fever”, a soundtrack which still stands as one of the greatest to this very day. The music became harder, seasoned with a pinch of eeriness to it, an act which matched the tone of the movies they ran alongside in.
As all of this was transpiring, director Walter Hill undertook a project based upon a book that was based upon a work from classical history, and “The Warriors” was born.
(Photo Credit: Maxim)
“THE WARRIORS” AND HISTORY
The film is adapted from the 1965 book of the same name by Sol Yurick. Yurick was a social worker in New York whose book storyline was based upon the cases and situations he faced firsthand in his career. Although his story has different names and is much graver and graphic than the film adaptation, the impact of both is undeniable.
Yurick’s Coney Island Dominators became the Warriors and Ismael Rivera of the Delancey Thrones became Cyrus of the Grammercy Riffs. There were many other similarities and differences between the two, but both succeeded in depicting the life that some faced in the late ‘60s and ‘70s in New York.
Gone were the “fun in the sun” days of Coney Island, as “white flight” to the suburbs shifted vacation spots and the makeup of entire neighborhoods.
Yet what most don’t know is that while the movie is based upon Yurick’s book, the latter is based upon the classic novel, “Anabasis”, by Xenophon.
Xenophon was a soldier philosopher who wrote the book, telling the story of a Greek army of 10,000 men led by the Persian general, Cyrus the younger. Cyrus attempted to dethrone his brother, Artaxerxes II after the death of their father. At the battle of Cunaxa in Babylon in 401 BC, Cyrus was killed, signaling the end of the mission of the mercenary Greek army. No longer did their fight have purpose, so they decided to fight their way back through Persia to return to Greece.
This is where Hill shifts a few characters and storylines.
Cyrus of “Anabasis” remained Cyrus in the film, and they both met their ends as they attempted to control and consolidate power. Spartan general Clearchus, who commanded the mercenaries after Cyrus was killed, became Cleon in the movie, and both ended up captured and killed through lies and deception.
Xenophon became Swan, the new war chief who must keep the men together in their attempt to return home. The Greek mercenaries became The Warriors, who must “bop” their way home to Brooklyn all the way from the Bronx. The various tribes they encounter in Persia and Armenia become gangs like the Turnbull ACs, the Orphans, the Baseball Furies and the Lizzies.
While the interpretations vary, the narrative remains the same. And for those of us who grew up in New York during the 70s, this movie holds a place in our hearts that cannot be replaced. For me, it remains my favorite movie of all time.
PART OF THE CITY EXPERIENCE
My Uncle took me to see it when I was eight years old, something I kept from my mother until a few years ago. He took me down to the Times Square of old, where the theaters along 42nd street and down eighth avenue were dominated by Bruce Lee movies or adult films.
I remember watching “The Warriors” and being hypnotized. I had yet to see gangs in my neighborhood, so I was fascinated by the story. Ironically, I would end up going to high school right up the hill from Van Cortland Park and also ran for my life in Riverside Park, so I built a real life association with the film as I became a teenager.
“The Warriors” had a unique effect on audiences. While our “heroes” were gang members who committed crimes and fought with the police, the film had you sympathizing with them, urging them on as they struggled to get home that night.
Walter Hill was successful in not promoting the gang lifestyle. Instead, he positioned them collectively as protagonists which audiences could follow and easily identify with. You didn’t feel threatened by the Warriors in the way that you did by gangs like the Baseball Furies or the Turnbull ACs, whose bus was not one you would like to see rolling up on you.
With the Warriors, you just wanted them to return to Coney Island safely while hoping that somehow Cleon escaped the mistaken vengeance of the Riffs. You cheered when the Rogues were encircled by the Riffs at the end, the lone scream satisfying those of us who couldn’t wait for the Warriors to be cleared.
This attraction to the gang from Coney can be attributed to the insistence of Walter Hill and his team in keeping it as New York as possible.
“At the very beginning I said ‘look, to do this properly and to do the vision of the novel, it really only makes sense if you do it all in Black and Hispanic,’” said Hill in the documentary on the film’s 35th Anniversary. “The studio was not very keen on that idea and I later came to realize that the studio kind of forced me into the comic book idea because it was about the only way I could make it make sense to myself. You had to create a different kind of reality.”
“It was a delicate balance that Walter was looking for,” said Executive Produce, Frank Marshall. “We cast it totally out of New York. We didn’t bring in anybody from the outside. We really wanted to feel like the movie was New York based. We wanted it to be true to New York and true to the kind of kids that were there at the time.”
That truth is undeniable as the film captured New York, inner city struggles and broader social issues of the times. It acknowledged the many various neighborhoods across the city, recognizing that those from places in the Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen, the Lower East Side and Coney Island all had different characteristics and personalities which made them native to those areas.
Cyrus acknowledged these differences as well by calling out opposing gangs, which Hill was sure to differentiate between through wardrobe and ethnicity.
“The Warriors” wasn’t 100% perfect, as real New Yorkers could recognize a few slights in the movie. The Bronx conclave was filmed in Riverside Park, not in Van Cortland Park, and the Warriors first encountered the Baseball Furies on 72nd and Broadway across from Gray’s Papaya, not at the 96th street subway station.
But it did give us a cast of individuals who you could visualize bumping into on the street or taking the subway to work. This was a reality as Dorsey Wright (Cleon) works for the New York Transit Authority and Roger Hill (Cyrus) worked for the New York Public Library before he passed away on February 25th, 2014.
Dorsey Wright (Cleon) at The Warriors’ 35th Reunion (Photo Credit: Yussuf Khan)
This, coupled with the fact that it was shot entirely in New York, makes the film authentic to New Yorkers who can always recognize those we call our own.
The film also ventures beyond the city and almost inadvertently address social issues, particularly through Cyrus. The role was originally given to an actual gang leader; but after being cast, he literally disappeared and no one on the crew could find him. So the role was given to Roger Hill and despite being in the film for approximately five minutes, Hill’s performance earned him a spot in the movie’s legacy.
“The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another,” exclaimed Cyrus to the mesmerized gang members at the Bronx conclave. “We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground. Our turf. Our little piece of turf. That’s crap brothers. The turf is ours by right because it’s our turn.”
Cyrus is the captivating leader who wanted to unite warring factions into an organized unit capable of succeeding well beyond the fractionalized success of individual gangs. In a historical sense, he represents Black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, one with the power to organize, inspire, educate, awaken and mobilize. A Black leader who instills worth and simultaneously frightens institutions and individuals which fear the empowering of marginalized groups and the exercising of basic human rights. Groups like slave owners, governments and organizations whose sole purpose is to oppress.
Cyrus is their worst nightmare and primary target. He represents powerful figures such as Marcus Garvey, Medgar Evans, Dr. Martin Luther King, Angela Davis and Malcolm X. Black leaders who were deemed as threats to the establishment that were ultimately exiled or silenced permanently.
And like some of these aforementioned leaders, Cyrus was executed by a white henchman reporting to an unseen power. That’s a truth that runs rampant throughout history, especially in America. Intentional or not, Hill was able to capture this aspect of society.
“The film has its own kind of truth. The film just shows you what’s there and what isn’t. What’s working and what isn’t.” said Hill.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
I was fortunate enough to attend the celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary in Coney Island, and it was incredible. Fans came dressed as everyone from Snow and Ajax to the Baseball Furies. Those in attendance were able to meet the actors from the Lizzies, the Punks and the Orphans.
The Warriors 35th Anniversary Reunion (Photo: Yussuf Khan)
I stood next to Apache Ramos, the actor who played Jesse of the Orphans as he bellowed his infamous line “We’re gonna’ rain on your warriors!” Swan (Michael Beck), Cleon (Dorsey Wright) and a few others were also in attendance and fans ate it all up.
It was a blazing hot day, and the lines were long, but it didn’t matter. That event allowed us all to travel back to a time of our younger days, when New York was hard and you had to learn tough lessons to grow. It was a time before gentrification, smart phones and social media, where street smarts, common sense and instincts were more valuable than Google and Siri.
It was a time when we used subway tokens, the TV Guide was 35 cents, the Village Voice told the stories of the New York City streets and the yellow and white pages were mainstays in every household across the city. It was a time before the heartbeat of urban life was expressed through the lyrics and sounds of hip-hop, which was in its infancy.
Grand Master Flash and Kool Herc were rocking school gyms, community centers and playgrounds with a new party sound vastly differing from the disco era that dominated the ‘70s. Ironically, it was this new sound, and breakdancing, that helped stem the gang violence that was destroying areas like the Bronx.
As hip-hop and battling grew in popularity in the ‘80s, the rampaging violence in gang life began its downward spiral, as discussed in the documentary on New York gangs in the 1970s, “Rumble Kings”.
But that was in the decade to come. At the time of “The Warriors” in 1979, gang culture was rampant, particularly in communities of color.
1979 was also filled with classic films, many of which are etched into the annals of pop culture history. Movies like “Alien”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Rocky II”, “The Jerk”, “Mad Max” and “The Amityville Horror” were all released that year, giving Hollywood a year to remember.
But “The Warriors” stands alone in what it both created and represented.
(Photo Credit: Film Threat)
IMPACT: THEN & NOW
The film’s first few weeks was a collection of mixed results. Debuting on a relatively small budget, limited promotional schedule and in a small number of theaters, it generated $3.5 million in its opening weekend.
While that put it very close to the break even point, that financial success was marred by poor reviews and fights at certain theaters, which frightened Paramount into cutting the advertising for the film. Legendary film critics Siskel and Ebert gave “The Warriors” one and two stars, respectively; but fans, to their credit, didn’t care and continued to flock to see the film despite protests, negative reactions and commentary.
Four decades later, the success of the film, and all the efforts made by Hill and his team, is irrefutable. The movie made its mark upon individuals and pop culture history, and it remains in rotation on cable and in the hearts of moviegoers who cherish it for how it made them feel, what it represented and the scenes that remain ingrained in the culture.
Who could forget the iconic scene where the Warriors waited underneath the boardwalk while Luther taunted them from his car, tapping beer bottles together while chanting “Warriors, come out to play.”
It was a scene that actor David Patrick Kelly had only minutes to create after Hill told him he needed to make that scene more impactful. So Kelly used beer bottles he found on the beach, combined it with the actions of his intimidating neighbor, who used to chant his name “David” whenever he would see him, and the legendary scene was born.
Diddy would adopt that chant 15 years later into the remix of Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear” while Shaq has quoted Cyrus’ “Can you dig it!” line multiple times. All of this shows that the movie’s allure has never faded despite the length of time or change in culture.
“What made it a success with young people… is that for the first time somebody made a film within Hollywood, big distribution, that took the gang situation and did not present it as a social problem.” said Hill in an interview with the Director’s Guild of America. “Presented them as a neutral or positive aspect of their lives. As soon as you said in the old days gang movies it was how do we cure the pestilence and how do we fix the social waste. We want to take these kids, make sure they go to college… This was just a movie that conceptually was different. Accepted the idea of the gang, didn’t question it, that was their lives, they functioned within that context. And the social problem wasn’t were they going to college, but were they going to survive. It’s the great Hawksian dictum, where is the drama? Will he live or die? That’s the drama.”
As I sat down to write this piece, it struck me just how many memories came flooding back about that time in my life. But that’s just part of the reason why the movie is so special. Not only did it entertain, it ultimately connected you with a time where things were, in some ways, simpler.
(Photo Credit: TV Line)
“The Warriors” made Brooklyn a destination decades before Biggie and Jay Z were hip hop legends. It put Brooklyn on the map before the Barclays was built and hipsters flocked to neighborhoods like Park Slope and Williamsburg. Before the trendy shirts and hats with “Brooklyn” pressed on them, the gang’s vests were a true representation of borough.
New York has changed in many ways, some good and some bad. Urban planning and gentrification have affected the makeup of neighborhoods. Gone are many of the old faces and traditional values, replaced by new styles, attitudes and artificially created names like “SoBro” used to attract white residents to neighborhoods they would once flee from.
Although New York is no longer the city I grew up in, “The Warriors” allows me to reminisce about the city I once knew and the times that laid the foundation for my future.
And just like “The Warriors” stands as my favorite movie of all time, New York remains the city that I will always call my home.
Can you dig it?