The Warriors

08/03/2021

Asserting the Period

On the DVD extras to the film, various members of the cast and crew discuss making The Warriors and the contingencies involved. Two of the contingencies they discuss include forced changes in the script, one minor and one more significant, but both reflecting the nature of making a film, a work that involves numerous personalities and the arbitrariness contained within deliberation. The first relatively insignificant detail, though serious enough for the actress Deborah van Valkenburgh, was that she broke her wrist. Throughout the second half of the film after director Walter Hill had run out of shots to edit around her, she wears a blue jacket her character Mercy claims she stole. If she had been introduced wearing this jacket far too big for her, and which does nothing to glamourize her character, it would have impacted negatively on the film. She is first seen by the audience a third of the way through, living in a district whose gang, the Orphans, is so little respected by gangland culture that they haven’t been invited to the meeting in the Bronx that the Warriors are now escaping: a meeting that was to bring all the major gangs together as a singular force when another gang’s leader, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), shoots dead Cyrus, the chief of the largest gang. The truce is over and the Warriors are on the run, even if they are initially unaware they have been accused of the crime, unaware too that their leader Cleon has been killed by other gangs after the accusation. Swan (Michael Beck) takes over in the absence of Cleon and there they are trying to make their way back to far-off Coney Island when they find themselves on the Orphans’ turf. While the gang is weak, Mercy is strong, foul-mouthed, and determined to escape from her environment and doesn’t look like she has much going for her except a lithe figure her tight-fitting clothes reveal and that the stolen coat will later hide. But at this stage of the film she is supposed to come across as forceful and thrusting; later in the film vulnerable and considerate. The jacket she wears may have come as a consequence of an accident but it fits well into the character arc the film offers her: she moves from sassy to self-conscious, a person who looks like she dresses to garner men’s looks early in the film, to feeling exposed later on when some rich young folks get onto the underground train and there she is, sitting next to the equally worn-looking Swan, painfully aware that her clothes look dirty and scruffy next to the two couples dressed impeccably on the seats across from them. The jacket adds to the dishevelment but also to our feeling that she is more attuned to life than the Mercy we initially see would wish to project. The film makes nothing of von Valkenburgh’s accident but instead takes advantage of it, the jacket a prop that augments rather than dilutes character.

The second contingency lies in something so vague and yet essential as screen chemistry. Initially, Mercy was going to become attached to another member of the gang, Fox (Thomas G. Waites), and during the early stages while she hangs out with the Warriors it is Fox who looks out for her. But Hill and others noted there wasn’t much of a spark between van Valkenburgh and Waites; that the affinity was between van Valkenburgh and Beck. Anyone watching the film will likely see in a counter-shot on Fox and Swan, after they first see Mercy, that Swan’s gaze is more complex and curious than Fox’s, that if anyone was likely to meet the demands Mercy was to place upon them it would be Swan. He possesses a necessary contempt and scepticism towards the world that would also include disdain for Mercy unless she can convince him why he should trust her. Fox seems to trust her straight away and Mercy looks like a character who wouldn’t want a man who wasn’t much of a challenge: we have already seen that in her contemptuous attitude to the Orphans’ gang leader. The chemistry between the actors isn’t what interests us but instead the chemistry between the characters: that we can see the sort of tensions within Swan and Mercy would make for a complex affair as one between Fox and Mercy wouldn’t. Moviephone notes. “it was decided that Van Valkenburgh and Beck had better chemistry.” Was this just a chemical fact or a characterisational aspect, even a physiognomic reality? Beck has sharp features, erect posture, and a lean gym physique while Gaines has a softer body and a receding posture that hides behind a T-shirt underneath his Warriors waistcoat. Beck is bare-chested, somehow matching the confidence in his body that Van Valkenburgh shows in hers. As he said in NME: “I went to the gym every day! I’d wake up about 1 in the afternoon, have lunch, head to the gym at 2-2:30 and then work out because vanity, vanity!“ According to Imdb trivia, "Deborah von Valkneburgh's boyfriend at the time discouraged her from auditioning because he thought the director was looking for someone more well endowed.” But the tight vest she wears reveals she isn’t wearing a bra and rather than emphasizing cleavage the film plays up a confident approach to her body that might not have been dictated by burn-the-bra seventies feminism but could coincide with it.

Thus far we have offered little more than production history, however interesting, but hope, in the process, to indicate a film is both a diegetic story and a non-diegetic reality, and that a movie often allows elements of the latter to dictate the narrative of the former. The danger with placing too much emphasis on the latter is that we fall into intentional fallacies, indicating that a film can be explained by the nature of its production. The risk in ignoring the production altogether is that the reality of cinema gets ignored and is replaced by the assumption that everything in film is controlled and deliberate. It becomes another form of the intentional fallacy: instead of the film being victim to the hazards of its making, it is created by the unequivocal mastery of the filmmaker. Speaking of perfectionism in film, Noah Gittell, says “Stanley Kubrick was famous for it, and reportedly made Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut. David Fincher has earned a similar reputation, claiming in a recent survey to have once used up to 107 takes to get a shot right.” (Guardian) But each art form has its own mode of perfectionism, that Flaubert endlessly honing a sentence isn’t the same thing as Kubrick doing numerous retakes, which is different again from Cezanne’s insistent need to get a colour right. “When Flaubert writes to a friend that he spent three days making two corrections and five days—normally twelve-hour days—writing one page, we believe him”, Richard Goodman says, adding “In Flaubert we have, perhaps for the first time, a writer who brought into the center ring of the three-ring circus of writing—and with a bright spotlight at that—the idea that we should search for the exact word, the most beautiful sentence, the most realistic scene, as if our life depended on it.” (‘The Hermit of Croisset: Flaubert's Fiercely Enduring Perfectionism’) Speaking of Cezanne, a leading expert on Cézanne's works, Walter Feilchenveldt, says a good example is a portrait of gallery-owner, Ambroise Vollard, which illustrates Cezanne’s perfectionism. Feilchenveldt notes that “there are two empty white spots on his hand. Cézanne remarked that if he spent a day studying the old masters in the Louvre, he might find the right colour to fill them in…But if he used the wrong colour he would have to start all over again. Many paintings with empty spaces were considered by Cézanne to be finished because they satisfied him aesthetically.” (Swiss Info.Ch) Kubrick is usually seen as cinema’s most obsessive perfectionist, often exemplified in The Shining where there were numerous examples of Kubrick’s determination to get it right. This could be Kubrick shooting “60 takes of a wordless scene in which the camera simply pushes in on Scatman Crothers in his room, eventually prompting the 70-year-old actor to break down in tears” or “a pantry scene in which Crothers’s character discusses his ability to “shine” with young Danny. It’s a fairly straightforward scene of dialogue, yet Kubrick required 148 takes to get it right.” (Guardian

However, what can seem like masochism in literature and painting can appear like sadism in film. Certainly, an artist can put their model through some of the miseries a director can insist on imposing on their actors and crew, but film seems to lend itself especially well to the sadistic just as we have proposed it is a great art form of the contingent. The determination to control the myriad elements of a film that often involves numerous cast members and crew workers, as well as location shooting and tight schedules based on the availability of the location and the availability of the actors (and which doesn’t always allow for reshoots at a later date), makes cinema a difficult medium to control. The ability to do so pragmatically is an achievement in itself. In this sense, Walter Hill seems an assertive filmmaker rather than a perfectionist one, a director who fired Waites when the actor proposed that the film was too violent, and a director happy to have run-ins with producers if he thought their expectations were contrary to his vision. Speaking of working with Michael Eisner on both The Warriors and 48 Hours, Hill says that Eisner never liked addressing the darker aspects of life, was a perfect fit for Disney after working at Paramount, and wanted from 48 Hours a much more premeditated production, much more consumer-led. "I showed Eisner some cut footage and he thought Eddie [Murphy] was fine but that I was still not letting the movie be funny enough. He kept talking about ‘block’ comedy scenes. That’s a TV expression. I am not exactly sure what it means.” (Film International) Hill didn’t want his work processed and Eisner did, yet this isn’t Hill the perfectionist but the director insisting that a work must contain an organic aspect that risks success or failure. The director reckons “as far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It’s that Platonic, Keatian idea that you don’t really write a poem; it’s already there, and you find it. I think that’s true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that’s the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller.” ('The Hollywood Interview') To impose upon the story the expectations of a given audience isn’t to insist on one’s artistic genius but to acknowledge the importance of craft, to see that a film has a story to tell rather an audience to satisfy. 

The question then becomes how to tell it within the chosen medium, aware too that finding the work may demand acknowledging more variables than in other art forms. Hill couldn’t have predicted that Van Valkenburgh would break her wrist, though she did it during an action sequence in which the film has many. Hill couldn’t have known that there wouldn’t be much chemistry between Waites and van Valkenburgh but he might have seen that Beck with his gym-worked physique, sharper features, and more aloof presence could suggest a better match for her. A more compliant director might have made the most of the situation and a perfectionist would have made sure everything was in place in advance, but Hill was too assertive a director in the first place to accept such a compromise and didn’t have the power of a Kubrick to dictate the terms of the production so far ahead of filming. As Hill said “the movie was thrown together very quickly, and for very little money. The producer, Larry Gordon, and I were going to do a Western, and the financing collapsed at the last minute. He was trying to do a deal at Paramount, and said maybe he could get The Warriors going.” ('The Hollywood Interview') Hill was rarely just a director for hire but he was someone realistic about the nature of the film business, where freedom lay in success. As Hill says, “a big hit allows you to go forward, to keep working.” (‘Last Man Standing’) 

Hill always saw himself as a genre director and seemed to believe that fidelity lay in the generic expectation over the audience demand. If Kubrick saw himself as an artist, Hill reckoned he was a craftsman, following in the tradition “practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller.” ('The Hollywood Interview') He consistently during his early peak period (Hard TimesDriver, The WarriorsThe Long RidersSouthern Comfort, 48 Hrs and Streets of Fire) made films about men who usually had little to say for themselves and allowed action to speak louder than words: cliched phrasing that Hill tried to give texture and purpose to justifying. When near the end of The Warriors, Swan picks up the flowers that the wealthy passengers have dropped, he hands them to Mercy who says “what’s this for”, he replies “I just hate seeing anything go to waste.” It is a pathetic exchange but we might wonder if it is poor writing or good writing, whether the pathetic resides in the obviousness of the dialogue or the obviousness of characters not making a very good job of hiding their feelings. The audience knows there is an affinity between Swan and Mercy but that doesn’t mean they possess the expression which can register that feeling between them. The gesture suggests this is as good as Swan is likely to get at wooing a woman but the half-hearted attempt needn’t negate the full-heartedness behind it. It is as though in Hill’s films men cannot acknowledge their feelings because it is a second language they haven’t mastered while their first language is action. When Mercy, Swan and the others are fighting in the subway toilets against a gang called The Punks, she grabs one of the punk’s hair and bites into his shoulder. Here she proves she is a man’s woman, capable of helping out when necessary, devoid of the demure demeanour of the two wealthy women in white on the underground. It is a moment that suggests complicity between Mercy and Swan without the awkwardness emotion reveals. As in Hawks’ work, a woman usually must justify her place in a man’s world; men don’t often venture into hers. But unlike in Hawks’ films, women are very rarely central, occasionally, peripheral and often more or less absent (as in The Long Riders and Southern Comfort). To talk about love interest in Hill’s cinema might seem an exaggeration; it is often close to indifference. The Warriors works since Mercy imposes herself on the gang and we can see why, despite each character’s wariness, the chemistry imposes itself on the feeling, as though Mercy and Swan deny the emotions that the chemistry insists upon. Like the genre directors he admires, emotion is usually sublimated if romantic feelings are evident at all. 

Perhaps genre has to be careful when it comes to emotions that belong chiefly to other genres: that the romantic comedy has to be wary of violence, the horror of psychological nuance, the western of pusillanimity. A person can be cowardly for much of a high school drama and become the worm that turned but a western that seems chiefly predicated on fear may run too contrary to generic expectation. Whether making a gang film (The Warriors), a western (The Long Riders) or a car chase movie (The Driver), Hill understands what a genre film can ‘hold’, and The Warriors can contain Mercy as long as she is masculine within her femininity. Yet Hill appeared to know as well that he couldn’t just get rid of female characters and that they have moments where they would announce their intentions forcefully. Sim Abrams notes that “In Hard TimesThe Driver, and The Warriors there’s always a moment where women asserts themselves in a way that makes it harder for men to pigeonhole them. In Hard Times, it’s the scene where Jill Ireland’s character tells Bronson’s character that she’s “got a better offer.” In The Driver, it’s the scene where Isabelle Adjani tells Ryan O’Neal there’s “no guarantees” about her not selling him out. And in The Warriors, it’s the bit where Deborah Van Valkenburgh’s character says, “I’ll tell you what I want: I want something now.” (Vulture) They announce their demands aware that they cannot expect them to be met but must fight for their recognition. This might not be the physical force that is so important to Hill’s work but it is an insistence that suggests strength. When Swan offers Mercy the bouquet it runs contrary to both their personalities and though it seems churlish when Beck protects his feelings as he says he just doesn’t want something wasted, it is also consistent with a personality that must show strength and avoid what he would perceive as weakness.

During Hill’s peak period, Hollywood moved from an aesthetic so often predicated on location to a studio mannerism that led many fine directors of the period to shoot on sound stages. Martin Scorsese as early as 1977 chose to shoot New York, New York in studios in Los Angeles but it was much more Francis Ford Coppola in the eighties with One From the Heart and The Cotton Club who made the notion fashionable. Hill’s contribution was Streets of Fire, an inversion of the earlier film with some scenes shot in Chicago but where much of it “was filmed on the Universal studio backlot, where this entire city of make-believe was constructed beneath a massive tarp to facilitate the endless night.” (The Artery) But the director’s best work comes from more provisional elements and no film more so than The Warriors. It is as if Hill, working out of the genres he loved and acknowledging the directors he admired, wanted to find in the streets in which he filmed and the actors whom he cast, a vision that reflected an idiom of the time and not simply a homage to past directors and genres. The Warriors may have been set ever so slightly in the future (and evident especially in the graphic novel aspect of the director’s cut) but the power of the film lay in its ability to create a hyperbolic present, an exaggerated sense of how New York felt at the end of the decade. Violence was so prevalent in New York in the “1970s it was better known as "Fear City." New York witnessed some of its darkest periods in history during the 1970s, witnessing a surge in criminal incidents throughout the decade. Gang violence, subway crime, and muggings were common, as well as larger terror attacks by extremist organizations.” (World Atlas) As Jackson Connor says, “The Warriors is in many ways a fantastical journey — more spaghetti western than cinéma vérité — it nonetheless portrayed something true about Coney Island, the five boroughs, and America at that time. In the Seventies, when Coney Island’s first low-income housing complex, Carey Gardens, was built, there were gangs that ruled nearly every neighborhood in New York.” (Village VoiceThe Warriors by filming on the streets of the city captured a strong aspect of that fear but also added to it an exaggerated sense of terror and colour by proposing the gangs were ready to take over the city (easily outnumbering the police) and were going to do so wearing idiosyncratic attire. The gang that claims The Warriors killed Cyrus, The Rogues, are dressed in biker gear out of Tom of Finland, the Baseball Furies resemble members of the band Kiss, and the Boppers, dressed in purple satin waistcoats, look like they have come off the stage singing soul. Each of the 21 gangs has a particular image, some more outlandish than others but all there to suggest clear divisions. The film combines the realism of a location shoot with the artificiality of the costume design but also grounds itself in the mythological as the journey from the Bronx to Coney Island resembles the ancient one Xenophon describes in The Anabasis. Here ten thousand troops try to take over the Persian throne but their leader is killed and they have to make their way back through tough terrain and return to Greece. Such an approach gives a deep grounding to the gangland culture and sees it as much more than an immediate social problem, containing within it a dignifying aspect that sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia University views as valor. Jackson notes that Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, uses The Warriors to teach one of his courses. Venkatesh says there are two ways at looking at the gangster debate. “One is the social problems: ‘Why are these kids in this and how do we get them out of it?’ The other one is the idea of looking at street gangs as modern-day knights — that [they exist] out of this purported universal need for men to defend their group. I put The Warriors‘ aesthetic vision in that camp. In the modern-day city, this is valor.” (Village Voice) By filming on the streets of New York and yet insisting on the mythological dimension, Hill captures that valour with great purpose.

Hill noted this too when saying “I just didn’t think it could be done realistically; the premise of the story was ridiculous. I think that was something Sol Yurick [on whose novel the film is based] never understood about his own novel: he was trying to be socially accurate within this preposterous plot. Most people probably would have tried to make the movie more real; I said no, let’s make it more unreal.” ('The Last Interview' Yet we believe what makes the film so interesting is that Hill combines the realism of locale and the contingencies of production with the mythological aspect that gives fundamental credence to his characters. Rather than seeing the gangs as a sociological problem of the period, he suggests these are ancient warriors located in the present moment. A film that saw gangs as a problem wouldn’t have possessed the mythological hold The Warriors has, even now, in the culture, as an entire cult has built up around the film, with a video game by RockStar augmenting screenings over the years where audiences very clearly identify with the characters. As Michael Beck realized when a friend returned from Europe in the mid-eighties. The friend told him: “you won’t believe this, when I was in Paris, there was a midnight screening of The Warriors and it was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all the people were dressed up as the characters.” (NME) By insisting on mythological dignity over sociological pity, Hill manages to channel his fascination with genre and tough-guy directors into a story that may always be close to cliche and absurdity but manages, as if through the thread of locational verisimilitude and ancient heroism, to convince us that people can be simultaneously poor but feel that they rule the world. When Hill says he didn’t want to make it too realistic this is the assertive filmmaker aware that the sociological was never going to be consistent with the vision that he could offer as a director with little control over his career but with a sense of his own creative limitations and expectations. As he says: “I’m old fashioned. I can write in more than one voice, but I think all my best stuff is when I play to my strength.” (Film International)

However, here we can return to the notion we alluded to earlier concerning the givens of a particular art form and the problems cinema possesses for the perfectionist, versus the problems for the painter or writer. With a few exceptions cinema is a contingent form and also a communal one, which needn’t counter the auteur theory that the director is the most important figure in film production and the equivalent of a painter or a writer. Such an idea can augment it. It suggests that film is a persuasive art at its production base; that a director is someone capable of convincing others what to do, and not just one or two people but an army of constant needs. Imagine if that verb form demanded three square meals a day or if your sub-clause wanted a good night’s sleep. Flaubert may have lost many hours in reshaping his meticulous sentences but the prose didn’t groan with fatigue and hunger. Jackson Connor says that “even more than résumés and acting ability, Hill was looking for actors who could physically withstand the grueling pace of his shooting schedule” (Village Voice), making clear the importance of the shoot itself. As merely an assertive director rather than a perfectionist one, it is as though Hill knew the power of persuasion he possessed rested on the power-broking role he had in Hollywood. Kubrick could put even the shiniest stars in the Hollywood firmament through thespian hell but Hill could nevertheless assert himself over his cast because his reputation, while modest, was far greater than theirs. When Waites tried to have a bigger say in the production as the most experienced cast member, Hill said to his stunt coordinator that the character had to go: “I don’t give a shit how you kill him…Kill him.” (Dazed) And so he was, with Fox (Waites) grappling with a cop and losing his life under an oncoming train. There is something Siegel, Aldrich or Fuller-like in the moment, a cruel, brief curtailment that impacts the film hardly at all as the other gang members get on with trying to make it back to Coney Island. A writer who wants to kill off a character need usually think only of themselves but a director must meet an army of protests — not only from the actor but also the actor’s agent, lawyer and potentially the film’s producers too. A painter who replaces a model might have a modest situation to deal with but it is unlikely to result in a lawsuit. Film has numerous examples of actors replaced after production commences: Harvey Keitel in Apocalypse Now, Samantha Morton’s voice in Her, Mick Jagger in Fitzcarraldo but what is interesting about watching The Warriors is that if Swan had gone under the train the film would have lost a vital dimension, and we can make that judgement within the work: both actors are on screen during the first half of the movie and Fox’s loss is horrific, though minor. The death can draw gasps from an audience as he dies but needn’t generate much reflection or grief thereafter. 

In this sense, a director often has to make hard choices whether perfectionist or assertive but maybe the main difference between the former and the latter isn’t only the amount of control they have within the filmmaking world but also how much the director sees their work as a vision versus a pragmatic need. When Hill saw that there was more of an affinity between Beck and Van Valkenburgh, or when Van Valkenburgh broke her wrist, he offered the path of least resistance: Swan and Mercy move towards coupledom, and Mercy steals a coat that covers her arms. Another filmmaker more given to control might have accepted the loss of charisma or factored in the injury, as though the initial decisions would accept necessary changes but not to the detriment of the vision that had already been set up. Hill was never going to be as ‘difficult’ a filmmaker as one he greatly admired, Sam Peckinpah, a visionary artist who Hill himself says: “was a good writer but only had once voice” ('Last Man Standing'), which Hill sees as a problem. He also has little time for what many see as one of Peckinpah’s greatest films, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Yet one could see how Peckinpah’s vision wouldn’t have been much use on a film like The Warriors, which is a brilliant piece of pragmatic craft. Both the camerawork and the editing are subsumed into the work rather than an announcement of it. When Peckinpah cuts multiply in The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett… he contains in the editing and the slow-motion the very paranoia for which he was famous. (Hill talks about the “constant paranoid search for paranoia” in Peckinpah’s personality.) The shot where Fox falls under the train owes something to Peckinpah but it is an example of Hill absorbing original mastery and individuality into controlled competence. Its brief slow-motion effect may remind us of numerous scenes in Peckinpah’s work where people fall out of windows or off horses (and Hill made his most Peckinpahesque film the following year, the western The Long Riders), but it doesn’t indicate a director doing anything new with the form. The late sequence in The Long Riders where Jesse James and the gang rob a book, and it all goes wrong, is marvellously done, with especially effective sound design, but it resembles in many ways the opening of The Wild Bunch (with shades of Bonnie and Clyde), just as the brilliant late scene in Southern Comfort when the two survivors from a National Guard training mission arrive in a small town feels indebted to moments in Straw Dogs amongst others. The crosscutting between the two men fearing their lives and the community mainly just enjoying the music they are playing, owes much to Francis Coppola as well as Penn and Peckinpah. The Long Riders and Southern Comfort are made in the shadow of many directors that Hill admires but the action sequences in both are most indebted to Peckinpah, and that debt extends a little to The Warriors too. Nobody watching the film today would see Hill doing something new; they would see him as part of a logistically violent tradition that Peckinpah mastered: the ability to lay out the screen space both coherently and messily. Hill never quite risked that degree of 'messiness'.

It is partly why we have emphasized so much the film’s production history and the locale, that Hill’s film comes out of knowing how to work with variables without insisting he shape a new aesthetic out of them. Yet we wouldn’t want to say that Hill is no more than a metteur en scene even if we acknowledge he is less of an auteur than a director like Peckinpah, and obviously Kubrick. A metteur en scene like Sydney Pollack or Norman Jewison would not say like Hill that “all his best stuff is when he plays to his strength.” ('Last Man Standing') Hill may insist that he can write in more than one voice, unlike Peckinpah, but he isn’t so flexible that people would hire him for a broad range of projects even if the success of 48 Hrs gave the impression he was more of a comedic director than he happened to be, Nobody would use Brewster’s Millions to extrapolate Hill’s career from it; with The Warriors one just might. The film is a world of aesthetic economy for all the gaudiness of the costumes, as if it knew that just as the gang had to make it back to Coney Island, Hill was running a gauntlet of his own in making the movie. Whether due to the shorter summer nights in New York as opposed to California, actual gangs unhappy with the production treading on their turf, or the tight budget he was working with, Hill’s shot choices are usually functional without being predictable. When Swan and Mercy are in the underground after she tells him about the stolen jacket, they go downstairs onto the platform and the film shows Swan looking wary. The film cuts to an empty platform that somehow looks too empty, a shot we find in a horror film to indicate something is around the corner. As they walk along the platform we do see someone on it but this seems a continuity error as the character disappears again when a cop comes round the corner and onto the platform and sees the couple standing there. He runs after them and Swan uses the baseball bat he has commandeered in an earlier fight to scupper the cop’s movements — it hits the cop hard on the shins as he falls over while the film adopts another brief moment of slow motion. The couple disappears onto the underground subway tracks as numerous cops appear and give chase. (The man on the subway has disappeared, a minor error surely than a moment of suggestive ambiguity.) Just after Mercy and Swan do so, the film cuts to an oncoming train and cuts back to Mercy and Swan walking along the tracks. It would seem a moment of high suspense but Hill cuts away from the action to other members of the gang elsewhere in the city. Hill knows we know that they will be okay otherwise he would have shown their demise but he also knows that they might not know they are ok as they must find a way of escaping the train’s oncoming force in the viewer’s absence. Hill does provide us with a shot of the oncoming train that shows there is space above the tracks where people can walk but he doesn’t show us clearly that Swan and Mercy have managed to make their way onto it. Is this Hill’s skill with action and situation (knowing that we know they will be ok) or a make-do spirit on a limited budget and with only so much production time available? If we think too much about the person on the platform who appears and disappears we may see a failure of craft but better to see that Hill makes do, perhaps aware that he didn’t have time to reshoot the sequence and nobody would notice the random figure, and aware that he needn’t fill out any more the train coming towards Swan and Mercy because he knew the audience would know they were going to be okay.

This is an aesthetic pragmatism we find throughout the film: in the scene where The Warriors are chased through the streets and the park by the Baseball Furies the editing is even and effective, giving us a clear sense of the distance at all times between the chasers and the chased. In one long shot as the Warriors start running through the park, we see the Baseball Furies chasing them along the street above about to enter the park as well. But as the gap closes between the gangs, Hill doesn’t create greater suspense in the form but allows it to remain in the drama. The editing doesn’t become performative with Hill and his editing team speeding up the action as the rival gang gets closer to the Warriors. Hill allows it simply to tell the story rather than contribute to creating the tension. But then there is no need; Hill knows that the premise has enough tension in it throughout the film for the editing to serve the story rather than try to compensate for weaknesses within it. Yet how much of that tension would be absent if it weren’t for the setting that provides its backdrop and the geography that defines their journey? Many commentators acknowledge that New York was a very different place back then. Connor notes that “by the time The Warriors was in production in the summer of 1978, an atmosphere of danger hung menacingly over the city. In the ensuing three-plus decades following the film’s release, New York City, on many levels, has become virtually unrecognizable from the gritty version portrayed (realistically, at the time) in the film.” (The Village Voice) Hill may have wished to set the film in the slight future to suggest a rundown hint of dystopia but the irony now is that so much has been done since to make New York safe and clean that Hill’s film looks like civilization breaking down not because it is set in the future but that it was filmed in the past. When the film was re-released on DVD in 2007 the director added as well as comic book freeze frames a brief introduction with the line: “sometime in the future…” Instead what we see is the opposite, a wonderful time capsule of late seventies New York made by an assertive filmmaker with the ability to absorb into a gang story the distant past of Xenophon and the immediate present.

  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Warriors

Asserting the Period

On the DVD extras to the film, various members of the cast and crew discuss making The Warriors and the contingencies involved. Two of the contingencies they discuss include forced changes in the script, one minor and one more significant, but both reflecting the nature of making a film, a work that involves numerous personalities and the arbitrariness contained within deliberation. The first relatively insignificant detail, though serious enough for the actress Deborah van Valkenburgh, was that she broke her wrist. Throughout the second half of the film after director Walter Hill had run out of shots to edit around her, she wears a blue jacket her character Mercy claims she stole. If she had been introduced wearing this jacket far too big for her, and which does nothing to glamourize her character, it would have impacted negatively on the film. She is first seen by the audience a third of the way through, living in a district whose gang, the Orphans, is so little respected by gangland culture that they haven't been invited to the meeting in the Bronx that the Warriors are now escaping: a meeting that was to bring all the major gangs together as a singular force when another gang's leader, Luther (David Patrick Kelly), shoots dead Cyrus, the chief of the largest gang. The truce is over and the Warriors are on the run, even if they are initially unaware they have been accused of the crime, unaware too that their leader Cleon has been killed by other gangs after the accusation. Swan (Michael Beck) takes over in the absence of Cleon and there they are trying to make their way back to far-off Coney Island when they find themselves on the Orphans' turf. While the gang is weak, Mercy is strong, foul-mouthed, and determined to escape from her environment and doesn't look like she has much going for her except a lithe figure her tight-fitting clothes reveal and that the stolen coat will later hide. But at this stage of the film she is supposed to come across as forceful and thrusting; later in the film vulnerable and considerate. The jacket she wears may have come as a consequence of an accident but it fits well into the character arc the film offers her: she moves from sassy to self-conscious, a person who looks like she dresses to garner men's looks early in the film, to feeling exposed later on when some rich young folks get onto the underground train and there she is, sitting next to the equally worn-looking Swan, painfully aware that her clothes look dirty and scruffy next to the two couples dressed impeccably on the seats across from them. The jacket adds to the dishevelment but also to our feeling that she is more attuned to life than the Mercy we initially see would wish to project. The film makes nothing of von Valkenburgh's accident but instead takes advantage of it, the jacket a prop that augments rather than dilutes character.

The second contingency lies in something so vague and yet essential as screen chemistry. Initially, Mercy was going to become attached to another member of the gang, Fox (Thomas G. Waites), and during the early stages while she hangs out with the Warriors it is Fox who looks out for her. But Hill and others noted there wasn't much of a spark between van Valkenburgh and Waites; that the affinity was between van Valkenburgh and Beck. Anyone watching the film will likely see in a counter-shot on Fox and Swan, after they first see Mercy, that Swan's gaze is more complex and curious than Fox's, that if anyone was likely to meet the demands Mercy was to place upon them it would be Swan. He possesses a necessary contempt and scepticism towards the world that would also include disdain for Mercy unless she can convince him why he should trust her. Fox seems to trust her straight away and Mercy looks like a character who wouldn't want a man who wasn't much of a challenge: we have already seen that in her contemptuous attitude to the Orphans' gang leader. The chemistry between the actors isn't what interests us but instead the chemistry between the characters: that we can see the sort of tensions within Swan and Mercy would make for a complex affair as one between Fox and Mercy wouldn't. Moviephone notes. "it was decided that Van Valkenburgh and Beck had better chemistry." Was this just a chemical fact or a characterisational aspect, even a physiognomic reality? Beck has sharp features, erect posture, and a lean gym physique while Gaines has a softer body and a receding posture that hides behind a T-shirt underneath his Warriors waistcoat. Beck is bare-chested, somehow matching the confidence in his body that Van Valkenburgh shows in hers. As he said in NME: "I went to the gym every day! I'd wake up about 1 in the afternoon, have lunch, head to the gym at 2-2:30 and then work out because vanity, vanity!" According to Imdb trivia, Deborah von Valkneburgh's boyfriend at the time discouraged her from auditioning because he thought the director was looking for someone more well endowed." But the tight vest she wears reveals she isn't wearing a bra and rather than emphasizing cleavage the film plays up a confident approach to her body that might not have been dictated by burn-the-bra seventies feminism but could coincide with it.

Thus far we have offered little more than production history, however interesting, but hope, in the process, to indicate a film is both a diegetic story and a non-diegetic reality, and that a movie often allows elements of the latter to dictate the narrative of the former. The danger with placing too much emphasis on the latter is that we fall into intentional fallacies, indicating that a film can be explained by the nature of its production. The risk in ignoring the production altogether is that the reality of cinema gets ignored and is replaced by the assumption that everything in film is controlled and deliberate. It becomes another form of the intentional fallacy: instead of the film being victim to the hazards of its making, it is created by the unequivocal mastery of the filmmaker. Speaking of perfectionism in film, Noah Gittell, says "Stanley Kubrick was famous for it, and reportedly made Cruise walk through a door 90 times while filming Eyes Wide Shut. David Fincher has earned a similar reputation, claiming in a recent survey to have once used up to 107 takes to get a shot right." (Guardian) But each art form has its own mode of perfectionism, that Flaubert endlessly honing a sentence isn't the same thing as Kubrick doing numerous retakes, which is different again from Cezanne's insistent need to get a colour right. "When Flaubert writes to a friend that he spent three days making two corrections and five daysnormally twelve-hour dayswriting one page, we believe him", Richard Goodman says, adding "In Flaubert we have, perhaps for the first time, a writer who brought into the center ring of the three-ring circus of writingand with a bright spotlight at thatthe idea that we should search for the exact word, the most beautiful sentence, the most realistic scene, as if our life depended on it." ('The Hermit of Croisset: Flaubert's Fiercely Enduring Perfectionism') Speaking of Cezanne, a leading expert on Czanne's works, Walter Feilchenveldt, says a good example is a portrait of gallery-owner, Ambroise Vollard, which illustrates Cezanne's perfectionism. Feilchenveldt notes that "there are two empty white spots on his hand. Czanne remarked that if he spent a day studying the old masters in the Louvre, he might find the right colour to fill them in...But if he used the wrong colour he would have to start all over again. Many paintings with empty spaces were considered by Czanne to be finished because they satisfied him aesthetically." (Swiss Info.Ch) Kubrick is usually seen as cinema's most obsessive perfectionist, often exemplified in The Shining where there were numerous examples of Kubrick's determination to get it right. This could be Kubrick shooting "60 takes of a wordless scene in which the camera simply pushes in on Scatman Crothers in his room, eventually prompting the 70-year-old actor to break down in tears" or "a pantry scene in which Crothers's character discusses his ability to "shine" with young Danny. It's a fairly straightforward scene of dialogue, yet Kubrick required 148 takes to get it right." (Guardian)

However, what can seem like masochism in literature and painting can appear like sadism in film. Certainly, an artist can put their model through some of the miseries a director can insist on imposing on their actors and crew, but film seems to lend itself especially well to the sadistic just as we have proposed it is a great art form of the contingent. The determination to control the myriad elements of a film that often involves numerous cast members and crew workers, as well as location shooting and tight schedules based on the availability of the location and the availability of the actors (and which doesn't always allow for reshoots at a later date), makes cinema a difficult medium to control. The ability to do so pragmatically is an achievement in itself. In this sense, Walter Hill seems an assertive filmmaker rather than a perfectionist one, a director who fired Waites when the actor proposed that the film was too violent, and a director happy to have run-ins with producers if he thought their expectations were contrary to his vision. Speaking of working with Michael Eisner on both The Warriors and 48 Hours, Hill says that Eisner never liked addressing the darker aspects of life, was a perfect fit for Disney after working at Paramount, and wanted from 48 Hours a much more premeditated production, much more consumer-led. I showed Eisner some cut footage and he thought Eddie [Murphy] was fine but that I was still not letting the movie be funny enough. He kept talking about 'block' comedy scenes. That's a TV expression. I am not exactly sure what it means." (Film International) Hill didn't want his work processed and Eisner did, yet this isn't Hill the perfectionist but the director insisting that a work must contain an organic aspect that risks success or failure. The director reckons "as far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It's that Platonic, Keatian idea that you don't really write a poem; it's already there, and you find it. I think that's true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that's the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller." ('The Hollywood Interview') To impose upon the story the expectations of a given audience isn't to insist on one's artistic genius but to acknowledge the importance of craft, to see that a film has a story to tell rather an audience to satisfy.

The question then becomes how to tell it within the chosen medium, aware too that finding the work may demand acknowledging more variables than in other art forms. Hill couldn't have predicted that Van Valkenburgh would break her wrist, though she did it during an action sequence in which the film has many. Hill couldn't have known that there wouldn't be much chemistry between Waites and van Valkenburgh but he might have seen that Beck with his gym-worked physique, sharper features, and more aloof presence could suggest a better match for her. A more compliant director might have made the most of the situation and a perfectionist would have made sure everything was in place in advance, but Hill was too assertive a director in the first place to accept such a compromise and didn't have the power of a Kubrick to dictate the terms of the production so far ahead of filming. As Hill said "the movie was thrown together very quickly, and for very little money. The producer, Larry Gordon, and I were going to do a Western, and the financing collapsed at the last minute. He was trying to do a deal at Paramount, and said maybe he could get The Warriors going." ('The Hollywood Interview') Hill was rarely just a director for hire but he was someone realistic about the nature of the film business, where freedom lay in success. As Hill says, "a big hit allows you to go forward, to keep working." ('Last Man Standing')

Hill always saw himself as a genre director and seemed to believe that fidelity lay in the generic expectation over the audience demand. If Kubrick saw himself as an artist, Hill reckoned he was a craftsman, following in the tradition "practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller." ('The Hollywood Interview') He consistently during his early peak period (Hard Times, Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs and Streets of Fire) made films about men who usually had little to say for themselves and allowed action to speak louder than words: cliched phrasing that Hill tried to give texture and purpose to justifying. When near the end of The Warriors, Swan picks up the flowers that the wealthy passengers have dropped, he hands them to Mercy who says "what's this for", he replies "I just hate seeing anything go to waste." It is a pathetic exchange but we might wonder if it is poor writing or good writing, whether the pathetic resides in the obviousness of the dialogue or the obviousness of characters not making a very good job of hiding their feelings. The audience knows there is an affinity between Swan and Mercy but that doesn't mean they possess the expression which can register that feeling between them. The gesture suggests this is as good as Swan is likely to get at wooing a woman but the half-hearted attempt needn't negate the full-heartedness behind it. It is as though in Hill's films men cannot acknowledge their feelings because it is a second language they haven't mastered while their first language is action. When Mercy, Swan and the others are fighting in the subway toilets against a gang called The Punks, she grabs one of the punk's hair and bites into his shoulder. Here she proves she is a man's woman, capable of helping out when necessary, devoid of the demure demeanour of the two wealthy women in white on the underground. It is a moment that suggests complicity between Mercy and Swan without the awkwardness emotion reveals. As in Hawks' work, a woman usually must justify her place in a man's world; men don't often venture into hers. But unlike in Hawks' films, women are very rarely central, occasionally, peripheral and often more or less absent (as in The Long Riders and Southern Comfort). To talk about love interest in Hill's cinema might seem an exaggeration; it is often close to indifference. The Warriors works since Mercy imposes herself on the gang and we can see why, despite each character's wariness, the chemistry imposes itself on the feeling, as though Mercy and Swan deny the emotions that the chemistry insists upon. Like the genre directors he admires, emotion is usually sublimated if romantic feelings are evident at all.

Perhaps genre has to be careful when it comes to emotions that belong chiefly to other genres: that the romantic comedy has to be wary of violence, the horror of psychological nuance, the western of pusillanimity. A person can be cowardly for much of a high school drama and become the worm that turned but a western that seems chiefly predicated on fear may run too contrary to generic expectation. Whether making a gang film (The Warriors), a western (The Long Riders) or a car chase movie (The Driver), Hill understands what a genre film can 'hold', and The Warriors can contain Mercy as long as she is masculine within her femininity. Yet Hill appeared to know as well that he couldn't just get rid of female characters and that they have moments where they would announce their intentions forcefully. Sim Abrams notes that "In Hard Times, The Driver, and The Warriors there's always a moment where women asserts themselves in a way that makes it harder for men to pigeonhole them. In Hard Times, it's the scene where Jill Ireland's character tells Bronson's character that she's "got a better offer." In The Driver, it's the scene where Isabelle Adjani tells Ryan O'Neal there's "no guarantees" about her not selling him out. And in The Warriors, it's the bit where Deborah Van Valkenburgh's character says, "I'll tell you what I want: I want something now." (Vulture) They announce their demands aware that they cannot expect them to be met but must fight for their recognition. This might not be the physical force that is so important to Hill's work but it is an insistence that suggests strength. When Swan offers Mercy the bouquet it runs contrary to both their personalities and though it seems churlish when Beck protects his feelings as he says he just doesn't want something wasted, it is also consistent with a personality that must show strength and avoid what he would perceive as weakness.

During Hill's peak period, Hollywood moved from an aesthetic so often predicated on location to a studio mannerism that led many fine directors of the period to shoot on sound stages. Martin Scorsese as early as 1977 chose to shoot New York, New York in studios in Los Angeles but it was much more Francis Ford Coppola in the eighties with One From the Heart and The Cotton Club who made the notion fashionable. Hill's contribution was Streets of Fire, an inversion of the earlier film with some scenes shot in Chicago but where much of it "was filmed on the Universal studio backlot, where this entire city of make-believe was constructed beneath a massive tarp to facilitate the endless night." (The Artery) But the director's best work comes from more provisional elements and no film more so than The Warriors. It is as if Hill, working out of the genres he loved and acknowledging the directors he admired, wanted to find in the streets in which he filmed and the actors whom he cast, a vision that reflected an idiom of the time and not simply a homage to past directors and genres. The Warriors may have been set ever so slightly in the future (and evident especially in the graphic novel aspect of the director's cut) but the power of the film lay in its ability to create a hyperbolic present, an exaggerated sense of how New York felt at the end of the decade. Violence was so prevalent in New York in the "1970s it was better known as Fear City. New York witnessed some of its darkest periods in history during the 1970s, witnessing a surge in criminal incidents throughout the decade. Gang violence, subway crime, and muggings were common, as well as larger terror attacks by extremist organizations." (World Atlas) As Jackson Connor says, "The Warriors is in many ways a fantastical journey more spaghetti western than cinma vrit it nonetheless portrayed something true about Coney Island, the five boroughs, and America at that time. In the Seventies, when Coney Island's first low-income housing complex, Carey Gardens, was built, there were gangs that ruled nearly every neighborhood in New York." (Village Voice) The Warriors by filming on the streets of the city captured a strong aspect of that fear but also added to it an exaggerated sense of terror and colour by proposing the gangs were ready to take over the city (easily outnumbering the police) and were going to do so wearing idiosyncratic attire. The gang that claims The Warriors killed Cyrus, The Rogues, are dressed in biker gear out of Tom of Finland, the Baseball Furies resemble members of the band Kiss, and the Boppers, dressed in purple satin waistcoats, look like they have come off the stage singing soul. Each of the 21 gangs has a particular image, some more outlandish than others but all there to suggest clear divisions. The film combines the realism of a location shoot with the artificiality of the costume design but also grounds itself in the mythological as the journey from the Bronx to Coney Island resembles the ancient one Xenophon describes in The Anabasis. Here ten thousand troops try to take over the Persian throne but their leader is killed and they have to make their way back through tough terrain and return to Greece. Such an approach gives a deep grounding to the gangland culture and sees it as much more than an immediate social problem, containing within it a dignifying aspect that sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia University views as valor. Jackson notes that Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, uses The Warriors to teach one of his courses. Venkatesh says there are two ways at looking at the gangster debate. "One is the social problems: 'Why are these kids in this and how do we get them out of it?' The other one is the idea of looking at street gangs as modern-day knights that [they exist] out of this purported universal need for men to defend their group. I put The Warriors' aesthetic vision in that camp. In the modern-day city, this is valor." (Village Voice) By filming on the streets of New York and yet insisting on the mythological dimension, Hill captures that valour with great purpose.

Hill noted this too when saying "I just didn't think it could be done realistically; the premise of the story was ridiculous. I think that was something Sol Yurick [on whose novel the film is based] never understood about his own novel: he was trying to be socially accurate within this preposterous plot. Most people probably would have tried to make the movie more real; I said no, let's make it more unreal." ('The Last Interview' Yet we believe what makes the film so interesting is that Hill combines the realism of locale and the contingencies of production with the mythological aspect that gives fundamental credence to his characters. Rather than seeing the gangs as a sociological problem of the period, he suggests these are ancient warriors located in the present moment. A film that saw gangs as a problem wouldn't have possessed the mythological hold The Warriors has, even now, in the culture, as an entire cult has built up around the film, with a video game by RockStar augmenting screenings over the years where audiences very clearly identify with the characters. As Michael Beck realized when a friend returned from Europe in the mid-eighties. The friend told him: "you won't believe this, when I was in Paris, there was a midnight screening of The Warriors and it was like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all the people were dressed up as the characters." (NME) By insisting on mythological dignity over sociological pity, Hill manages to channel his fascination with genre and tough-guy directors into a story that may always be close to cliche and absurdity but manages, as if through the thread of locational verisimilitude and ancient heroism, to convince us that people can be simultaneously poor but feel that they rule the world. When Hill says he didn't want to make it too realistic this is the assertive filmmaker aware that the sociological was never going to be consistent with the vision that he could offer as a director with little control over his career but with a sense of his own creative limitations and expectations. As he says: "I'm old fashioned. I can write in more than one voice, but I think all my best stuff is when I play to my strength." (Film International)

However, here we can return to the notion we alluded to earlier concerning the givens of a particular art form and the problems cinema possesses for the perfectionist, versus the problems for the painter or writer. With a few exceptions cinema is a contingent form and also a communal one, which needn't counter the auteur theory that the director is the most important figure in film production and the equivalent of a painter or a writer. Such an idea can augment it. It suggests that film is a persuasive art at its production base; that a director is someone capable of convincing others what to do, and not just one or two people but an army of constant needs. Imagine if that verb form demanded three square meals a day or if your sub-clause wanted a good night's sleep. Flaubert may have lost many hours in reshaping his meticulous sentences but the prose didn't groan with fatigue and hunger. Jackson Connor says that "even more than rsums and acting ability, Hill was looking for actors who could physically withstand the grueling pace of his shooting schedule" (Village Voice), making clear the importance of the shoot itself. As merely an assertive director rather than a perfectionist one, it is as though Hill knew the power of persuasion he possessed rested on the power-broking role he had in Hollywood. Kubrick could put even the shiniest stars in the Hollywood firmament through thespian hell but Hill could nevertheless assert himself over his cast because his reputation, while modest, was far greater than theirs. When Waites tried to have a bigger say in the production as the most experienced cast member, Hill said to his stunt coordinator that the character had to go: "I don't give a shit how you kill him...Kill him." (Dazed) And so he was, with Fox (Waites) grappling with a cop and losing his life under an oncoming train. There is something Siegel, Aldrich or Fuller-like in the moment, a cruel, brief curtailment that impacts the film hardly at all as the other gang members get on with trying to make it back to Coney Island. A writer who wants to kill off a character need usually think only of themselves but a director must meet an army of protests not only from the actor but also the actor's agent, lawyer and potentially the film's producers too. A painter who replaces a model might have a modest situation to deal with but it is unlikely to result in a lawsuit. Film has numerous examples of actors replaced after production commences: Harvey Keitel in Apocalypse Now, Samantha Morton's voice in Her, Mick Jagger in Fitzcarraldo but what is interesting about watching The Warriors is that if Swan had gone under the train the film would have lost a vital dimension, and we can make that judgement within the work: both actors are on screen during the first half of the movie and Fox's loss is horrific, though minor. The death can draw gasps from an audience as he dies but needn't generate much reflection or grief thereafter.

In this sense, a director often has to make hard choices whether perfectionist or assertive but maybe the main difference between the former and the latter isn't only the amount of control they have within the filmmaking world but also how much the director sees their work as a vision versus a pragmatic need. When Hill saw that there was more of an affinity between Beck and Van Valkenburgh, or when Van Valkenburgh broke her wrist, he offered the path of least resistance: Swan and Mercy move towards coupledom, and Mercy steals a coat that covers her arms. Another filmmaker more given to control might have accepted the loss of charisma or factored in the injury, as though the initial decisions would accept necessary changes but not to the detriment of the vision that had already been set up. Hill was never going to be as 'difficult' a filmmaker as one he greatly admired, Sam Peckinpah, a visionary artist who Hill himself says: "was a good writer but only had once voice" ('Last Man Standing'), which Hill sees as a problem. He also has little time for what many see as one of Peckinpah's greatest films, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Yet one could see how Peckinpah's vision wouldn't have been much use on a film like The Warriors, which is a brilliant piece of pragmatic craft. Both the camerawork and the editing are subsumed into the work rather than an announcement of it. When Peckinpah cuts multiply in The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett... he contains in the editing and the slow-motion the very paranoia for which he was famous. (Hill talks about the "constant paranoid search for paranoia" in Peckinpah's personality.) The shot where Fox falls under the train owes something to Peckinpah but it is an example of Hill absorbing original mastery and individuality into controlled competence. Its brief slow-motion effect may remind us of numerous scenes in Peckinpah's work where people fall out of windows or off horses (and Hill made his most Peckinpahesque film the following year, the western The Long Riders), but it doesn't indicate a director doing anything new with the form. The late sequence in The Long Riders where Jesse James and the gang rob a book, and it all goes wrong, is marvellously done, with especially effective sound design, but it resembles in many ways the opening of The Wild Bunch (with shades of Bonnie and Clyde), just as the brilliant late scene in Southern Comfort when the two survivors from a National Guard training mission arrive in a small town feels indebted to moments in Straw Dogs amongst others. The crosscutting between the two men fearing their lives and the community mainly just enjoying the music they are playing, owes much to Francis Coppola as well as Penn and Peckinpah. The Long Riders and Southern Comfort are made in the shadow of many directors that Hill admires but the action sequences in both are most indebted to Peckinpah, and that debt extends a little to The Warriors too. Nobody watching the film today would see Hill doing something new; they would see him as part of a logistically violent tradition that Peckinpah mastered: the ability to lay out the screen space both coherently and messily. Hill never quite risked that degree of 'messiness'.

It is partly why we have emphasized so much the film's production history and the locale, that Hill's film comes out of knowing how to work with variables without insisting he shape a new aesthetic out of them. Yet we wouldn't want to say that Hill is no more than a metteur en scene even if we acknowledge he is less of an auteur than a director like Peckinpah, and obviously Kubrick. A metteur en scene like Sydney Pollack or Norman Jewison would not say like Hill that "all his best stuff is when he plays to his strength." ('Last Man Standing') Hill may insist that he can write in more than one voice, unlike Peckinpah, but he isn't so flexible that people would hire him for a broad range of projects even if the success of 48 Hrs gave the impression he was more of a comedic director than he happened to be, Nobody would use Brewster's Millions to extrapolate Hill's career from it; with The Warriors one just might. The film is a world of aesthetic economy for all the gaudiness of the costumes, as if it knew that just as the gang had to make it back to Coney Island, Hill was running a gauntlet of his own in making the movie. Whether due to the shorter summer nights in New York as opposed to California, actual gangs unhappy with the production treading on their turf, or the tight budget he was working with, Hill's shot choices are usually functional without being predictable. When Swan and Mercy are in the underground after she tells him about the stolen jacket, they go downstairs onto the platform and the film shows Swan looking wary. The film cuts to an empty platform that somehow looks too empty, a shot we find in a horror film to indicate something is around the corner. As they walk along the platform we do see someone on it but this seems a continuity error as the character disappears again when a cop comes round the corner and onto the platform and sees the couple standing there. He runs after them and Swan uses the baseball bat he has commandeered in an earlier fight to scupper the cop's movements it hits the cop hard on the shins as he falls over while the film adopts another brief moment of slow motion. The couple disappears onto the underground subway tracks as numerous cops appear and give chase. (The man on the subway has disappeared, a minor error surely than a moment of suggestive ambiguity.) Just after Mercy and Swan do so, the film cuts to an oncoming train and cuts back to Mercy and Swan walking along the tracks. It would seem a moment of high suspense but Hill cuts away from the action to other members of the gang elsewhere in the city. Hill knows we know that they will be okay otherwise he would have shown their demise but he also knows that they might not know they are ok as they must find a way of escaping the train's oncoming force in the viewer's absence. Hill does provide us with a shot of the oncoming train that shows there is space above the tracks where people can walk but he doesn't show us clearly that Swan and Mercy have managed to make their way onto it. Is this Hill's skill with action and situation (knowing that we know they will be ok) or a make-do spirit on a limited budget and with only so much production time available? If we think too much about the person on the platform who appears and disappears we may see a failure of craft but better to see that Hill makes do, perhaps aware that he didn't have time to reshoot the sequence and nobody would notice the random figure, and aware that he needn't fill out any more the train coming towards Swan and Mercy because he knew the audience would know they were going to be okay.

This is an aesthetic pragmatism we find throughout the film: in the scene where The Warriors are chased through the streets and the park by the Baseball Furies the editing is even and effective, giving us a clear sense of the distance at all times between the chasers and the chased. In one long shot as the Warriors start running through the park, we see the Baseball Furies chasing them along the street above about to enter the park as well. But as the gap closes between the gangs, Hill doesn't create greater suspense in the form but allows it to remain in the drama. The editing doesn't become performative with Hill and his editing team speeding up the action as the rival gang gets closer to the Warriors. Hill allows it simply to tell the story rather than contribute to creating the tension. But then there is no need; Hill knows that the premise has enough tension in it throughout the film for the editing to serve the story rather than try to compensate for weaknesses within it. Yet how much of that tension would be absent if it weren't for the setting that provides its backdrop and the geography that defines their journey? Many commentators acknowledge that New York was a very different place back then. Connor notes that "by the time The Warriors was in production in the summer of 1978, an atmosphere of danger hung menacingly over the city. In the ensuing three-plus decades following the film's release, New York City, on many levels, has become virtually unrecognizable from the gritty version portrayed (realistically, at the time) in the film." (The Village Voice) Hill may have wished to set the film in the slight future to suggest a rundown hint of dystopia but the irony now is that so much has been done since to make New York safe and clean that Hill's film looks like civilization breaking down not because it is set in the future but that it was filmed in the past. When the film was re-released on DVD in 2007 the director added as well as comic book freeze frames a brief introduction with the line: "sometime in the future..." Instead what we see is the opposite, a wonderful time capsule of late seventies New York made by an assertive filmmaker with the ability to absorb into a gang story the distant past of Xenophon and the immediate present.


© Tony McKibbin