Can You Dig It? The Warriors At 40

By Robert Blair on at

When film producer Lawrence Gordon walked into a New York bookstore and perused its bargain bin, he had no way of knowing the effect that this casual browse would have on pop culture.

“There was a book with no cover and I just looked at it and that one line in the flyleaf told me the concept. I called the publisher and asked for the subsidiary rights and I was able to option the book with my own funds, as slim as they were.”

The neglected book in question was none other than The Warriors, the debut novel from Sol Yurick that charted the plight of “The Coney Island Dominators.” A tale of destitute youths using criminality as an escape route from a life with little prospects, the New York-based scribe took his encounters with streets gangs as a social investigator, transposed them onto the epic world of the Greek soldier Xenophon’s Anabasis, and crafted a story that turned their everyday struggles into a tale of mythical proportions.

After working with director Walter Hill on The Driver, starring Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern, Gordon called on him to direct this picture – and after falling in love with the “chase” atmosphere of the source material, Hill agreed. Together they’d nullify the hopelessness and melancholy of Yurick’s novel and bring the premise of his inner-city warfare to new, neon-flooded heights. Yet no matter how much faith they had in the project, there’s no way they could have anticipated their low-budget movie’s longstanding impact.

Released on 1st February 1979, The Warriors brought viewers into the titular gang’s New York City of flamboyantly dressed armies of the night, labyrinthine subway stations and looming threats that lurked around each and every street corner. Set “sometime in the future”, the journey of the red-vest clad miscreants from Coney Island to a summit of all the city’s makeshift tribes grabs you from the first chime of Barry De Vorzon’s enigmatic musical accompaniment. Widely credited as the first “rock ‘n’ roll score”, its palpably tense synths soundtrack an opening scene that has lived on in viewers’ minds ever since. It introduces us to “Warchief” Cleon, second-in-command Swan and their ragtag delegates Ajax, Cochise, Cowboy, Vermin, Snow, Rembrandt and Fox – the opening five minutes may be sparse on dialogue but it is a veritable feast for the eyes.

Hailing from across the five boroughs of NYC, we watch platoons of exuberantly outfitted thugs make their way to Cyrus’ conclave, a meeting intended to bring them all together under one unified goal. Where the protagonists and foes of the source material were firmly grounded in Yurick’s personal experience, the movie’s gangs took on a life of their own thanks to their surreal get-ups. From the tailored purple waistcoats of The Boppers and garish bomber jackets of The Moonrunners to the iconic aesthetic of The Baseball Furies (complete with two-toned face-paint) and SoHo mimes The Hi-Hats, these guerrilla gangs were the focal point that made The Warriors feel as though it wasn’t just set in a fictionalised New York City but another plane of existence entirely. After The Gramercy Riffs’ messianic leader meets his untimely death at the meeting, a case of mistaken identity sees every outfit in the city hoping to rumble with The Warriors as they fight and claw their way back to Coney, encountering an array of colourful characters at every checkpoint or dead-end.

Although The Warriors is held in high esteem today, critics were remorseless in their takedowns of the film upon release. “A ghastly folly”, declared the Washington Post’s Gary Arnold, whilst the legendary Roger Ebert claimed that its intended audience would “find it either incomprehensible or laughable.”

Despite these negative assessments and the movie acting as a scapegoat for several instances of violent crime, The Warriors and its universe has retained a unique cult status that has kept fans enthralled for four decades. That one hour and 33 minutes has a legacy that far exceeds its running time, and its morally ambivalent anti-heroes became a cultural phenomenon that spawned numerous spin-offs, references and homages. And not least in a video game that remains the only licensed property Rockstar Games has ever developed.

In terms of how this quintessential story has retained its lustre over recent decades, some of that in recent times is down to Rockstar's labour of love. Developed at Rockstar's Toronto studio, The Warriors was released for PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2005 to rave reviews. In the lead up to the game’s emergence, an interview with producer Jeronimo Barrera detailed the emphasis that the studio had placed on retaining the film’s unique atmosphere:

"Diehard fans aren’t going to be disappointed. We are keeping true to the story of The Warriors. We’re not raising Cyrus from the dead or anything like that crazy like that, it’s pretty much true to the film. I don’t want to give too much away but… We went crazy to make sure that we were accurate. Everything is there for people that are familiar with the film."

A game that demands repeat playthroughs, and has since been ported to next-gen consoles, to say that Rockstar created an authentic-feeling Warriors game would be an understatement. More mission-focused, as opposed to the open worlds the developer is known for, every single line of dialogue, interaction or punch thrown has the aura of Hill’s masterpiece. Boasting a unique hand-to-hand combat system that captures the grittiness and inherent danger of these untrained close-quarters fights, Rockstar's penchant for detailed world-building turned out to be the perfect skill for recreating a pre-existing world. Devoid of landmarks save for Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel, the New York City you inhabit is indistinguishable from that of the film and each of the movie’s pivotal scenes is brought to life with the same onus on choosing to run or fight depending on the odds. Complete with vibration-based mini-games that allow you to mug civilians, evade handcuffs, graffiti on wall or break into stores, the game didn’t just tell you that the Warriors were a street gang but immersed the player in the everyday acts of petty delinquency that define their lives.

So much more than a licensed tie-in, Jeronimo wasn’t wrong when he said Rockstar had adhered to the film’s tonal blueprint and visuals – but he undersold their expansion of The Warriors’ lore as a whole. For one thing, the game doesn’t simply retrace the gang's steps from the conclave back to Coney but actually harks back to a time three months before they fatefully made their way to Van Cortlandt Park. With missions that place you in control of nigh-on every member of the gang, the first 13 are constructed by Rockstar and involve everything from showdowns with rival gangs to taking part in a looting-fuelled rampage during a riverside blackout.

In addition to shining a spotlight on the protagonists, the game also fleshes out the identities of many of the armies of the night to unforeseen levels (The Baseball Furies, The Hi-Hats, The Orphans, Turnbull AC’s, The Jones Street Boys, Hurricanes and The Saracens are all expanded upon and presented with real care). On top of all of these nemeses from the movie, the Toronto team also provided the perfect foil for The Warriors in the form of The Destroyers. Led by the maniacal and power-hungry Virgil, the ensuing turf war that you must weather before ever making it to the events of the movie is explored through the main story and flashbacks alike.

Speaking of which, finding out exactly how each of these disparate beings came to find themselves in The Warriors’ ranks epitomised everything that was perfect about Rockstar’s approach. By leaving no stone unturned, the studio gave loyal fans and new converts a definitive document that is now just as lauded as the film itself. Much like its movie counterpart, a proposed spiritual successor to the game that followed the feud between the UK’s rival youth cultures of 'Mods and Rockers' was considered but, sadly, never made.

Outside of Rockstar’s triumphant adaptation, there have been other attempts to pay tribute to, revisit or draw inspiration from this transcendent B-movie with varying degrees of success. Among the more celebrated of these continuations is The Warriors: Jailbreak, a 2009 comic book series from Erik Henriksen. Published by Dynamite Entertainment, the project gave us our first glimpse into life after the movie’s conclusion and focuses on the plot to spring Ajax from incarceration. Bolstered by sub-plots such as Swan and Mercy’s fractious relationship and Rembrandt’s conflict between his artistic ambitions and his allegiances to his fellow soldiers, Henriksen’s series followed Rockstar’s lead by tactfully adopting The Warriors’ universe without any major deviations in style. Enshrined in hip-hop history courtesy of references from The Wu Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, MOP, G Herbo and more, its eccentric characters and timeless meeting scene were even borrowed by Eminem’s D-12 for their blistering “Fight Music” video.

Yet for every well-measured ode to Coney Island’s finest, there are just as many attempts that have gone awry. Directed by The Skids’ frontman Richard Jobson, 2004’s The Purifiers bore all the hallmarks of a modern-day reconfiguration of The Warriors right down to its exaggerated combat and main plotline of amalgamating all of the gangs under one umbrella (it even shared a fondness for scraps in train stations). Starring a young Dominic Monaghan of LOTR fame, the film may have gone to great lengths to emulate the flavour of The Warriors but fell way short of the mark. Far from an isolated incident, this fate has also befallen “Vamp Killers” – an indie film sold almost exclusively on the fact it featured three of The Warriors’ original cast – and fan-made sequels such as “Escape From Coney Island” and “Alamo City.” In the case of the latter, the story of the gang’s Texas branch is readily available for anyone with Prime Video and an unhealthy amount of morbid curiosity, but the warning signs are there from the opening credits.

A cinematic remake of The Warriors has, apparently, been spinning around in Hollywood’s bustling tombola of ideas for quite some time. Back in 2005, famed director & producer Tony Scott outlined plans to remake the original, but with distinct differences in both setting and characters.

"The opening of 'The Warriors' now begins on the Long Beach Bridge, and it's going to look like the L.A. marathon. You'll still get the same story, but we're reconstructing the family, reconstructing the characters, and I'm doing it in L.A. The original was in New York and everything went upwards; L.A. goes [length-wise]. And instead of 30 gang members, there's going to be 3,000 or 5,000.”

Before his plans could come to fruition, Scott committed suicide on the bridge that was poised to open the film.

Apart from this tragically curtailed plan, one pairing that declared themselves” perfect for the job” was Mark Nevadine and Brian Taylor. Best known for their work on the Jason Statham vehicle Crank, their plans to bring “a sense of fun” and “a heightened sense of action” have; perhaps thankfully, stalled. Then in 2016, it was confirmed that Marvel impresarios The Russo Brothers had signed on to construct a new TV series based on the franchise for Hulu. Greeted with cautious excitement by fans, the siblings wished to bring their midas touch to the property and “honour the original film while adding its own unique brand of grit, pulp, sex and violence.” Unlike other projects of this ilk, Lawrence Gordon had been positioned to readopt his role as an executive producer, but three years later it remains in pre-production.

When it comes to a title as original and ingeniously realised as The Warriors, perhaps it’s just as well that none of these proposed rehashes have come to fruition. Rockstar’s 2005 game is an invigorating and worthy reimagining, and one that brought the movie's key traits to a new medium in a way that a film simply couldn’t: you could make an argument for it being the greatest 'movie' video game that our industry has yet produced.

The vivid sheen of the original, a true cult classic, still fascinates after 40 long years. That opening scene still has the power to transport you into the treacherous streets of New York’s less romanticised alleyways and dens of iniquity. On this anniversary fans worldwide will be reacquainting themselves with one of the most trailblazing and anomalistic worlds that cinema has ever imagined. Can we dig it? Yes boppers, yes we can.