Like the titular gang, the film The Warriors was a misunderstood underdog who managed to survive against all odds. Over thirty-five years later, it has become a beloved cult classic that received a beautiful restoration and special edition, a video game, graphic novel, and recent addition to Netflix Instant. Upon its initial theatrical release, this low-budget flick incited a few gang fights across the US resulting in three deaths; it was then labeled too controversial and pulled from theaters. Apparently due to bad advertising, critics were under the impression this was supposed to be a realistic feature on disaffected youth violence, and panned it for being implausible and stylized. It was intended to be a fantastical, near-future dystopian film choreographed and designed like a comic book.
This version of New York City appears to be roughly the same as it was in the 70s, except for various gangs of teenagers and young twenty-somethings essentially running the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. They operate as a tribal society with their own archaic laws and rules, like making tribute to a group as you pass through their territory. The police are largely ineffectual against the sheer number of violent offenders, and there is one leader, Cyrus, attempting to unite all the gangs together so they will truly rule NYC. He sees a future and power for these young people, as long as they can stop killing each other and band together for the common good (or bad, actually). At the conclave, he is shot and the Warriors are framed for the crime. Now this small gang from Coney Island must somehow make it home from the Bronx when every hoodlum in the city is gunning for them.
The power of this film is in the simplicity of the goal, stylized characterization of the individual gangs, and an audience’s desire to root for the underdogs (regardless of their crimes). The Warriors are merely a group of soldiers trying to get safe passage through foreign lands, improvising as each new obstacle stands in their way (it is loosely based on the Greek book Anabasis). The movie is one long chase sequence; shot on location, it moves quickly through the streets of New York as our anti-heroes struggle to keep moving and stay alive. Each of the gangs are identified and categorized by their “colors,” which are basically cool themed outfits; the most famous of these, the Baseball Furies (in uniforms with painted faces), will often pop up as Halloween costumes.
The Warriors are not good guys, but they are the lesser of all evils. The audience is manipulated into rooting for them, even through displays of savagery. The distinction between Warriors and the villains, the Rouges, is that they are gang members for survival, to have a place where they belong, people who care about what happens to them, and to somehow make the most out of the future-less life they were given. They lack money, education, family, or any real way to escape. Their group is the only way anyone will see and acknowledge them. This is the true core, and intention of the film: to give a human face to violent young gang members who had been splashed all over media in the ’70s. This was not just a “problem” that needed to be fixed, but a reality and a way of life for many people.