The 1979 classic The Warriors isn’t remarkable just for how telling it was of New York City existence for a unique moment in time (anarchy, lawlessness and general amazingness being the chief way to describe the milieu in the 70s and 80s), but for the fact that it is based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, the legendary tale of The Ten Thousand, an army of Greek mercenaries enlisted by Cyrus the Younger to overthrow his brother, Artaxerxes II, from the throne.
Adapted from Sol Yurick’s 1965 novel of the same name, the prescience of the content is uncanny when considering New York’s out of control nature at the dawn of the 1980s. Maintaining the name Cyrus (played by Roger Hill) for the most powerful gang leader (of the Gramercy Riffs) in all five boroughs, director and screenwriter Walter Hill (who co-wrote the adaptation with David Shaber) sets the stage for catastrophe by opening the film with a summit of all the gangs in the Bronx. Among other gangs making the trek up there on the subway, we are introduced to The Warriors, a crew of nine unarmed representatives that lays claim to Coney Island as their turf. Meanwhile, the leader of The Rogues, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), goes against the rules of the meeting by bringing a gun with the semi-premeditated intent to kill Cyrus.
As Cyrus preaches to his delegates about the potential their world holds if they work together instead of against each other, he brings up the tantalizing prospect of rallying their man power to instill fear in the police who would otherwise try to quash their illegal activity-loving behavior. Cyrus orates,
“I say the future is ours…if you can count. Now look what we’ve got before us. We’ve got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street boys. We’ve got the Moon Runners right by the Van Courtland Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be. You’re standing now with nine delegates from 100 gangs. And there’s over 100 more. That’s 20,000 hardcore members–40,000 counting affiliates–and 20,000 more not organized but ready to fight. 60,000 soldiers. Now there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town.”
He concludes the powerful mathematical speech with the iconic repetition of the question, “Can you dig it?” Just as he’s got them all riveted with the prospect, “Our gang could run the city. One gang,” a gun gets passed through the throng. Though certain members of The Warriors, like Swan (Michael Beck) and Ajax (James Remar), appear far more skeptical than those cheering Cyrus on, it is Luther who quells all enthusiasm by shooting Cyrus down. As the police have already pulled up to break up the congregation, they’re ready to pounce when they see the gang members scattering in the wake of the gunshot. Left behind to see Luther in all his diabolicalness is the leader of The Warriors, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), who is blamed by The Rogues for Cyrus’ death, prompting the Gramercy Riffs to launch a citywide search for the other Warriors that managed to escape.
After Luther points the finger at Cochise (David Harris), a fight ensues and Cleon gets wasted by the Gramercy Riffs. Swan, the acting “war chief” in times of Cleon’s absence, helps the remaining Warriors get out of the crowd through, appropriately, a cemetery. As Ajax and Swan argue over who should be in charge, they’re distracted by the oncoming train in the distance, knowing it’s their only prayer for escape. Setting the platform at Union Square as their meeting point if they get separated at any point, The Warriors embark on their so-called 50 to 100 mile journey back home (though, in reality, getting from the Bronx to Coney Island would be no more than thirty miles).
As “Nowhere to Run” is dedicated to The Warriors by a DJ in league with The Riffs, gangs from every borough swarm through the streets in search of the falsely accused Coney Islanders. In the literal and metaphorical darkness of 70s New York, it is truly a sight to behold as each flight of gangs skitters through the streets like a sinister rat-cockroach hybrid.
Just as in a Greek play or myth, tragedy and obstacles seem to present themselves at The Warriors’ every turn, with one of their own, Fox (Thomas G. Waites), falling victim to the pursuit of a policeman and then rolling off the subway platform to avoid him. By this time, Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a Whore of Babylon type, has joined their crew after abandoning her own male harem, The Orphans (who weren’t relevant enough to get invited to the Bronx summit). Her nymphomaniacal ways irk Swan, who finds her obsession with sex to be grotesque rather than appealing. And yet, their bond through the traumas of completing the fraught journey make them perfect for one another, as they’ve endured something that only they can understand.
By the end, Mercy and Swan have reached a tacit romantic understanding, with a fallen white corsage from a group of yuppies sitting across from them prompting Swan to pick it up and hand it to her. When she asks defensively, “What’s this for?” He kiboshes any amorous notions by insisting, “I just hate seeing anything go to waste.”
Stepping off the train at Stillwell Avenue, Swan can’t believe that they struggled so long and so intensely to return to the desolate former weekend destination. He notes, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” Yet, at the same time, watching the final scene against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean lapping against their feet, the sunrise peering over the clouds and the Joe Walsh song “In the City” playing as they amble through the sand, one can’t help but comprehend why they would fight to return to their turf.