Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Cult Movie Project #16 (of 200): These Are the Armies of the Night. They Are 100,000 Strong. And They are Here to Play-ay-yay in Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979).

Two wildly disparate tales, one an ancient Greek poem, the other a hit Broadway musical, though separated by thousands of years managed to intertwine themselves to form the basis of Walter Hill's ode to New York City's tribal street gangs, The Warriors (1979). First of these machinations was Xenephon's "Anabasis", which told of a group of Greek soldiers who found themselves trapped in Persia after the Battle of Cunaxa (dated around 401 B.C.). Alone, their commander dead, and surrounded by hostiles on all sides, this rag-tag group had to live off the land and fight their way out of enemy territory to the sea and safety over a 1000 miles away. The second influence begins with the production of West Side Story in 1957 (-- later filmed by Robert Wise in 1961), which tweaked "Romeo and Juliet" by turning the Montagues and the Capulets into rival (and racially divided) street gangs, and then ends with the publication of Sol Yurick's novel, "The Warriors" (1965).

Seems back in the late 1950s, before becoming a full-time writer, Yurick had served as a social worker in NYC to help pay for college, where he gained firsthand insight into the dysfunctional world of juvenile delinquents of low to no income families and the gangs they sought refuge in, who roamed the streets, a veritable army of thugs and miscreants. Finding the romanticized version of these street gangs in Wise's film disingenuous, the author wrote his debut novel as a stinging and scathing rebuttal as Yurick spins the depressing yarn of The Coney Island Dominators; a group of Blacks and Hispanics, who attend a gang summit in the Bronx. From there, also using Xenephon's tale as a framework (one of the gang reads a Classics Illustrated comic-book version of the story throughout the novel), after the summit falls apart, the organizer is assassinated, and the truce allowing this meeting to happen evaporates, with their leader killed in the resulting melee, the rest of the Dominators spend a harrowing night trying to get back home through enemy territory, seldom fighting, mostly hiding, and (sadly) raping the whole way. Not all of them make it.

Stumbling upon a battered copy of Yurick's novel in some broken spine in the late 1970s, producer Lawrence Gordon [Rolling Thunder (1977), Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988)] immediately secured the film rights using his own money, and then commissioned David Shaber to adapt a screenplay and approached Walter Hill, whom he had worked with on Hard Times (1975) and The Driver (1978), to direct. Hill loved the whole notion but feared no studio would ever back the film as is, and he was right; sadly, most of the hesitation was due to the proposed all-minority cast. The project was then tabled in favor of a western, but when the financing fell through on The Lone Gun, Hill and Gordon tweaked their pitch and Paramount took the bait. And while these changes didn't exactly revert Yurick's street gangs to the romantic version of Wise, this new version wound up highly fantasized.

Hill's western sensibilities (cinematically speaking) leeched into the project, as well. It's not that hard to see The Warriors as a western, with John Wayne or Randolph Scott, framed for the murder of an Indian chief, leading a wagon train of misfits out of hostile territory, with hostiles, bushwhackers, corrupt land agents, and Commancheros chewing at their heels the whole way. And like in a lot of those westerns, there would be casualties along the way. In Shaber's script, Cleon, the leader, is killed by the Riffs, Cochise is killed by the Baseball Furies, and then Vermin is offed by the Lizzies before Swan gets abducted by the Dingos -- a group of sadistic homosexuals, leaving Fox to lead what's left back to Coney Island.

But in the final film version there are only two casualties -- and it's not really clear if Cleon (Wright) is actually killed, and I'm not even sure if the interlude with the Dingos was ever filmed. And so, the only one who died for sure was Fox (Waites), who fell in front of an oncoming train while wrestling with the cop. Originally, I think Fox was to be a surrogate for Hinton, the main character and moral center in Yurick's novel, who, over the course of the night, comes to grips with the time he's wasted with the Dominators and 'grows up' as the novel progresses. Fox was also intended to be the love interest of Mercy (Van Valkenburgh), a character who was gang-raped and abandoned in the book. But there was no chemistry between the two actors at all; and Waites proved so volatile and difficult onset he was fired (-- his name was even stripped from the credits); and his character was killed off, transferring all of his attributes, and Mercy, to Swan (Beck). And in sharp contrast to Waites, Hill fell in love with the rest of his cast so much he couldn't bear to kill any more of them off.

Apparently, Tony Danza was offered the role of Swan first but he turned it down in favor of the TV series, Taxi (1978-1983). (Danza would take the lead in Floyd Mutrux's slighty tamer and more nostalgic look at gang camaraderie in The Hollywood Knights the very next year.) Hill then offered the role to Michael Beck, whom Hill had discovered watching the film Madman (1978) while scouting the then unknown Sigourney Weaver, whom Hill would cast as the lead in his follow up film, Alien (1979), and was so impressed he called the actor in to audition. Hill had wanted a Puerto Rican actress to play Mercy but he liked what he saw in Deborah Van Valkenburgh's audition, telling her she was the "unobvious choice" for the role. The actress went through all kinds of hell during filming. In the scene where she and Fox are running to catch a train, she fell and shattered her wrist, necessitating a few rewrites and a stolen jacket to cover up the cast. And as that scene concludes, when Swan throws the baseball bat at the cop, Beck's back-swing caught Van Velkenburgh in the face, requiring another trip to the hospital for several stitches and a permanent scar.

Mention should also be made of the eccentric performance of David Patrick Kelly as the psychotic Luther, leader of a rival Rogues, whose actions at the summit railroaded The Warriors and put a target squarely on their back for Cyrus' assassination. And as the story goes, as we breach the climax, his taunting, lunatic call while clinking the empty beer-bottles together was based on an old intimidating neighbor. Then, there's James Remar's Ajax, who gets flushed out of the story too soon. And Lynne Thigpen as a Tokyo Rose-esque disc jockey, who serves as an odd Greek chorus / balladeer combo as the evening toils on could have used some more air time. And Roger Hill's messianic Cyrus? I can totally dig that.

The film took 60 days to shoot, with the production risking life and limb by filming on location from midnight to 8am. (The only set used was the restroom for the spectacular fight with the Punks.) The trucks and equipment were protected by The Mongrels, a real gang, to the tune of $500 a day. Still, thousands of dollars worth of damages were still endured, and apparently, the whole crew got urinated on from a tower block for making too much noise. Also, no members of the cast were allowed to wonder off in costume, lest they get their heads caved in for wearing the wrong colors in hostile territory. Credit to the art and set direction of Don Swanagan, Robert Wightman and Fred Wieler for making that 'hostile territory' so fascinating. And to Bobbie Mannix for the wonderful costume designing which brought all those uniform and uniformed gangs to life. Also a huge nod to cinematographer Andrew Lazlo for convincing Hill into including a scene with a rain shower moving through, allowing for all that reflected neon light. And according to the film's composer, Barry De Vorzon, The Warriors was the first picture to feature an almost entirely synthesized score save for Joe Walsh playing us out over the closing credits.(Though I think John Carpenter might've beaten them to that particular punch.)

Upon completion, the film was turned over to multiple editing teams in an effort to get the picture released ahead of a glut of similarly themed films also due out in 1979; Walk Proud, Boulevard Nights, and The Wanderers. Meanwhile, Paramount's publicity machine cooked up a lurid promotional campaign, including poster art that included the tagline: "These are the armies of the night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City." All of that emblazoned over an image of a motley assortment of thugs and toughs who appeared able to do just that.

But this backfired and triggered a moral panic, fueled by several incidents of fights between rival gangs at screenings of The Warriors (and all of those other films mentioned), both real and rumored, which had theater owners and city councils fuming and soon had the studio scrambling for new posters and a heavily doctored trailer, destroying any momentum the film had. It didn't matter. Fair or not, the word was out, the film was bad news, and the feature was yanked from most urban theaters.

The funny thing is, though the tagline might have been incendiary, the film itself was not. One of the things most often overlooked about The Warriors is how oddly optimistic it is, especially when you look at when it was made and all the other bleak sci-fi-tinged 'dystopian' films released around the same time. And it stands out the most starkly against the works of George Romero. The Warriors have a solid plan to get back home, and working together, even after being forcibly split up, they do make it, though they are nearly undone when they are distracted and stray from the plan (-- Ajax molesting the undercover cop, the incident with the Lizzies.) The members are all also very professional at what they do (unlike their literary counterparts), have each others backs (unlike their literary counterparts), and work toward a common goal (again, except for Ajax, who promptly gets taken off the board). 

Now plug all of those attributes into Dawn or Day of the Dead  or The Crazies and, yeah, they'd all be zombie kibble by the end. Even as the film wraps up on the shore, when they ponder what they were fighting to get back to, and if it was worth it, Swan takes in the whole group and we have our answer: each other, and it was.

Also, the film is oddly sanitized; practically bloodless, the violence straight out of the comics, and our heroes shake off any beating with apparent ease. The only real nasty thing about the movie is the landscape of dirty old New York City that our players move around in. A fantasy-land not far removed from Narnia or Mirkwood, or Monument Valley, to be honest. And the overall plot of world-building, camaraderie and humor, a code of ethics, tough chicks, and manly men banding together to do manly things, is right in Hill's wheelhouse, too. And he delivers a mesmerizing, hyper-stylized film that moves to its own beat; a high and fast, pulsating rhythm, that sucks you in, bopping and weaving the whole way, and doesn't let go. 

Other Points of Interest:

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"But as the many moviegoers, who flocked to the theater to see what all the commotion was about, soon discovered, The Warriors is a lively, well-made action film full of adventure and humor, no more violent than the film down the block, not inciteful, not deserving of the furor it caused. The cult for the film -- the result of enthusiasts rallying behind a film good enough to deserve defending -- charged the [ad campaign] was misleading. Perhaps 100,000 strong could take over New York City as easily as the roaches have, but in The Warriors they are no threat to us at all -- in fact we essentially do not exist in the fantasy world we see on screen."

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The Fine Print: The Warriors was watched via Paramount's 2001 Theatrical Cut DVD. (I've seen Hill's Director's Cut and didn't much care for it.) Watched as a Teenage Rampage double-feature with Quadrophenia (1979). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 16 down, with 184 to go.

The Warriors (1979) EP: Frank Marshall / P: Lawrence Gordon / AP: Joel Silver / D: Walter Hill / W: David Shaber, Walter Hill, Sol Yurick (novel) / C: Andrew Laszlo / E: Freeman A. Davies, David Holden, Susan E. Morse, Billy Weber / M: Barry De Vorzon / S: Michael Beck, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, James Remar, Dorsey Wright, Brian Tyler, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Marcelino Sánchez, Terry Michos, Roger Hill, Thomas G. Waites, David Patrick Kelly

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