As I and my companion trudged through foot-high snow on George Washington’s Birthday to get to the Loews Cine where The Warriors was playing, I couldn’t help wondering if we were responding to some deep stirrings of the territorial imperative. This was our turf, after all. We lived in the quartier, and we weren’t about to be kept away from our neighborhood theatre by media scare stories about rampaging youths maddened by this particular movie. Of course, we had picked a day when the bridge and tunnel people could be expected to stay close to home. And it was broad daylight, which presumably reduced the chances of post-screening repercussions. Once inside the theatre, however, we experienced the frisson of a conspicuously posted security guard with an intensely watchful expression on his face. It seemed almost part of the promotion.
And then the picture started. Gangs, gangs, gangs, posing, strutting, massing. An artful mix of black and white is achieved by making the lead a white in a throughly integrated gang, the villain a white in the mold of Widmark-Udo in Kiss of Death, and most of the gang hierarchies black. Much of the movie looks as if Fritz Lang had directed The Wiz, with occasional contributions from Sergei Eisenstein and Bruce Lee. Walter Hill’s direction here is of a piece with his previous work in Hard Times and The Driver. As usual, the talk is pointedly cryptic, and the sense of place, clearly magical. You may giggle at the unyielding solemnity of the characters, and at the breath-held gravity of the confrontations. And then again, you may not. I have been told that children find Watership Down more frightening, and I can believe it. The gang members on the screen are pussycats next to many of the people I see walking in the streets. Hence, there is no point in banning The Warriors. One might well wish instead for some way to ban many of the viewers of The Warriors.
The argument can be made that the movie is too much of a fantasy for its own good and the good of society. At one point, two spiffy prom couples get on the subway. The contingent of Warriors and one of their female pick-ups are the only other passengers in the car. What an opportunity for terror and intimidation and class rape! But nothing happens. The prom couples exit hurriedly after being zapped by a proud but vulnerable we’re-just-as-good-as-you-are stare from the gang leader and his ragged moll. In her flight, one of the begowned girls drops her corsage. The gang leader picks it up for his girl. Violins please, maestro! Quite simply, The Warriors sentimentalizes the whole gang business into an urban version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in search of the Holy Grail. But how exactly do the chivalric knights of the battered boroughs function? Do they shake down storekeepers? Do they mug old ladies? Do they torch derelicts for kicks, or push perfect strangers into the path of an oncoming train? The movie doesn’t say. The source of their money is as mysterious as the almost complete absence of “civilians” from the streets. Parents, of course, are non-existent.
It is possible, of course, that the people who are most alarmed by The Warriors are people who have not actually seen it. But it’s possible also that what is most frightening about the movie is the essential truth of its basic premise: that the streets already belong to the violently and criminally inclined. The city is dying, block by block, from fear, loathing, fire, and desertion. And suddenly a dark and dangerous knighthood emerges on the screen from the ruins.
I am still trying to make my mind up about The Warriors when the house lights come on. I spot my good friends David and Jane Ruttenberg with their law-abiding children Lisa and Jimmy. David is wagging his hand as a prelude to a proclamation. “Clockwork Orange and West Side Story,” he states succinctly. David happens to be a lawyer, but, like every lawyer I have ever known, he is confident that he could turn out a weekly movie column without any trouble if the occasion arose. Lisa and Jimmy like the movie very much, and they do not seem hell-bent for trouble in the process. Media outrage once more seems to be much ado about very little. The panic of the studios is depressingly familiar. My instinctive tendency to oppose all censorship — one might even ridicule this tendency as a liberal knee-jerk reflex — has not even been seriously tested. The viewers with alarm were not kind to West Side Story and Clockwork Orange in decades past, and yet the Republic survived.
Since Washington’s birthday, however, I have become bored with the whole subject of The Warriors. If the movie is not as dangerous as its detractors claim, neither is it as glorious and memorable as some of its less discriminating admirers would have it. I find the spectacle fading from my memory in a jumble of dislocated colors and motions. In retrospect, it seems too studiously unreal.
Editor’s note: This review was excerpted from a two-film review by former Voice critic Andrew Sarris. The other film reviewed as part of Sarris’s weekly Films in Focus column was Richard Pryor — Live in Concert. The two reviews appeared under the headline “Punks and Pryorites” in the March 12, 1979, issue of the Voice.