Melodramatic Characters and Stylized Structure in The Warriors

Call it a dark fascination, but I've always been compelled by stories of what our world will look like when our contemporary structure degenerates. I'm not so much a pessimist as I am a realist that believes apocalyptic tales can help us to more honestly look at who we are.

The WarriorsDespite my interest in the genre, I had heard of this "cult classic" film from the '70s called The Warriors but I hadn't had a chance to see it until recently (prompted by a short and rather banal spot a few weeks ago in the New York Times by A. O. Scott). I thought Movies in 203 presented a good opportunity for me to a) have a good reason to see the film and to b) share my thoughts. So... enjoy.

Besides the dramatic and visually arresting imagery (which I will address later), one of the first things that came to mind watching the film was what I initially qualified as weak dialogue delivered by crappy actors. Okay, sure, it was the '70s and the movie was famous for being something of a campy cult flick, so I assumed the seemingly one-dimensional characters and their trite sputtering was just a quirky aspect of the film that you should accept.

But the further I got into the film, the more I came to the conclusion that my original estimation of the characters was a little too dismissive. I think every single character in The Warriors could be better qualified as melodramatic. The multifarious gang members all exhibit a strong emotive perspective or a disposition that is immediately available on the surface. There is apparently little to nothing going on behind any of their carefully directed facades, and in this sense, the characters are all extremely functional within a plot that demands very specific roles for each individual.

Take for instance the sternly postured (new) leader of the Gramercy Riffs. The man is nothing more than a carefully crafted figure of a no-nonsense, rigid, and brutal gang leader hell bent on taking revenge upon the murderer of his predecessor. Or, watch the leader of the Orphans gang as he is duped into confrontation with The Warriors after his girl (Mercy) emasculates him. He couldn't have been more easily manipulated. Or, most dramatically, take as an example Luther, the leader of the evil gang The Rogues. When asked why he killed Cyrus at the end of the movie, the dude actually says, "No reason. I just... like doing things like that!"

The characters in The Warriors simply play their role. None of them came off to me as individuals of any depth, but rather simply as filling their niche in the plot. And, in the end, I'm just fine and dandy with that because here's the thing about The Warriors: it is a story about a system and its characters, not individuals.

Not only are the characters not individuals, but each gang is consistently nothing but dramatic re-interpretations of each other. They each have their own costumes and motif, but they are all serve the exact same role in their overall system (the city). Additionally, the plot of the film and the characters are all literally connected by their system. Namely, the citywide train system (transportation) and the radio DJ (communication) are recurrent touchstones for all things that happen in the plot.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that melodramatic characters work really well in a film that is primarily concerned with the larger structure that they inhabit. Latter-day New York (which is where we find ourselves) is a dark, dangerous, and gritty complex of factions that are all connected by common threads. In my opinion, the system portrayed is a little too "organized," colorful, and cleanly distinguished to be a realistic interpretation of how a fallen city would actually operate, but I think that is where The Warriors finds its appeal.

The movie as a whole and the system it portrays are both stylized into very dramatic versions. The colorfully and distinctly adorned gangs; the convenient turns of events that break up the plot; the one-dimensional characters; all of these aspects of the film are stylized to an extent, and the imagery of the film complements this concept.

I almost felt like I was watching a comic book at times. The opening shot of the fluorescent Ferris wheels at Coney Island looked eerily cartoonish to me. At about 37 minutes into the film, we get this great shot of the character Mercy walking out of the background of the street in a surreal way. And later, at about an hour and five minutes in, Mercy and Swan kiss with the glimmer of a subway shining behind their joined lips. The entire movie has a very carefully considered stylized look that I think matches extremely well with the aforementioned choices in the film.

In the end, I feel like it would be all too easy to quickly judge some of the choices in this film as gaudy or poorly done without exploring complementing reasons why those choices where made (the film received some harsh criticism upon release—see David Ansen's 1979 review of the film in Newsweek). The Warriors, for me, was surprising, entertaining, visually brilliant, thought provoking, and clever. Plus, it's totally quotable (which I love)! "CAN YOU DIG IT?!" If you can, you should "come out and play-ee-ay!"


By Andrea Jones on March 24, 2011 at 10:01 PM

Yes, I can dig it. I, too, love apocalyptic tales, and for the same reason you cite—looking closely at who we are as humans and individuals. Who hasn’t asked what the world is coming to, what items are required on a deserted island, or where best to locate the fort once the zombie virus has been released? The great question of survival and individualism, how one constructs the other, plagues the audiences faced with these situations in literature and cinema. What does it take to survive, which character would you be/become?

I haven’t watched The Warriors, yet. Your review hasn’t quite convinced me to dish out the cash for a rental—sadly, the film is not available instantly on Netflix (I watch more movies I’m ambivalent towards than ever before). But I am curious about the message of the film. The idea that the film glosses over the characters and dialogue in favor of showcasing the “system” of the fallen city strikes me as Eisensteinian. Eisenstein didn’t want the audience to identify with a specific character but to relate to the oppressed class of victims. In The Battleship Potemkin (1925) the two sailors leading the other men to rebel did not need to be charismatic or humorous or enjoy puzzles, they were merely working men maltreated. The real source of power and interest then isn’t the individual or the personal story but the “system,” as you call it, created for the survival of the whole. Does this film comment on that system in a negative or positive way? My guess is that instead of asking the spectator to identify with an individual’s many nuances, the audience is led to question the system that breeds these particular types of characters.

I tend to prefer the studying the individual, to see the whole reflected in his or her thoughts and actions. But, in a film like The Warriors, where enough bodies remain to construct a system of governance, of community, the absence of the individual may be a comment in itself. If the film is about the “characters” (as opposed to individuals) that the new system requires or creates, a comment on humanity in apocalyptic circumstances, then does individual depth fade in survivor mode and become more animalistic, more one dimensional, without the luxury and relative safety of contemporary structure? Is individualism a contemporary structure? Perhaps history tells us this is so, and we have more to fear from an apocalypse than the loss of our governments and homes, but also the potential loss of our selves?

By Jeremy Gee on March 30, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Before I go on to my real post on The Warriors (Hill 1979), I wonder if you might be able to provide a definition of 'Melodrama'? The reason I ask for this is that I've found that almost everyone - including various professors I've had - defines 'Melodrama' differently. Therefore, I have trouble believing that melodrama exists as a genre, much less as a cohesive style. It might exist as an abstract thought - that is, someone might refer to something as melodramatic because it appeals to their emotions, but I do not find it to be a concrete terminology. But please do correct me if I'm wrong.

My claim is, therefore, until someone convinces me that melodrama exists, that The Warriors crosses many genres: from sports movie, to exploitation film, to protest film. Ultimately, I feel that The Warriors is an attempt to illustrate a dystopian society that exists within contemporary (1970's) culture, at night and underground, which is confusing in its own right. This confusion is achieved by the collision of elements such as genre, spatial relationships, and gender relations.

Genre is first confused because The Warriors is a sports movie. The opening 10 minutes or so are not based in any sort of reality that we recognize, except the conventions of sporting events. The beginning is a long montage of the "teams" convening in a large amphitheater to hear a motivational "can you dig it" speech by a character oddly alike to a brooding James Brown. Most of the movie is hunky men running around in at least semi-athletic fashion (they aren't promenading, despite their possible, complete revulsion for the female gender) and having macho arguments about leadership: if anyone's ever spent time in a dugout or on a sideline, this is more or less what goes down. The film is also an underdog movie, as the Warriors - kinda like the Bad News Bears - must overcome several obstacles in order to reach an ultimate goal; in this case, safety. Finally, let's not forget the inclusion of a gang that is dressed like New York Yankee mimes. Or zombies?

I think it is also important to note that portions of The Warriors fulfill the conventions of a zombie/exploitation-cinema-style film as well. The famous scene where Luther taunts the Warriors from his car contains a classic shot of Luther's beat-up old buggy sitting in an abandoned theme park on Coney Island, while his eerie cry of "Warriors, come out to play!" echoes along with the glass bottles he clinks together. The consternation created for the audience and the Warriors by this is perhaps nostalgic of certain scenes from films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wherein a stark contrast is created between an icon in the mise-en-scene; as in Leatherface swinging his chainsaw against the blood-red sky as he roars (gargles?) out his frustration. These scenes might also both be metaphors for the frustration of a generation with their culture and times - but that's another discussion.

Spatial relationships are not entirely on-point as the "communication" of the gangs is obviously established by "the Lips" of the DJ. However, it is easily also interpreted that Lips are an element that is supernatural to the characters at hand. That is to say, the Lips serve the same function of narration as "The Narrator" in Winnie-The-Pooh does (also see: George Of The Jungle [Weisman 1997]) - to break the fourth wall for relief from the primary narrative. In this case, it may be to introduce one or two musical items that the producers wanted to push ("Nowhere to Run", "In The City"), or it may be further confuse the space of the movie, and thereby increase the feeling of disorganization (dystopia) for the audience.

And of course, Tiel will love this point, gender relationships are totally off-kilter in The Warriors. To start, The Warriors themselves are muscular young men who constantly glisten with sweat and wear tight jeans and leather vests. In addition, one of their members is a transvestite that wears makeup and is obviously effeminate, whose main purpose comes to warn his male friends of their imminent danger from female seducers (harpies). Furthermore, the Warriors only contact with female characters is with whores - women who trade sexual favors for profit.

One might also consider Swan's utter lack of interest in Mercy until the end, which is a point that Stefan made, when the couple have a magnificent kiss and walk away happily-ever-after on the beach. However, much like Achilles' plunder of Apollo's priest's daughter in The Iliad, this is a kiss of victory, of ownership of the whore, and not of passion much less sensuality.

In the end, I feel that all these elements are in place more for confusion and to represent the patching of former lives and former culture to illustrate the parallels between underground gang culture and a dystopian society. It also might be important to note that this film was made in 1979, after Vietnam and at the height of the Cold War, both of which were major sources of consternation for American culture, and is reflected in films such as The Warriors.

By Daniel Peterson on March 31, 2011 at 2:50 AM

The Warriors is meant to address mythic ideas. The characters of the film are one-dimensional on purpose, like Greek mythological characters. This all makes sense when you take into account that The Warriors is based off of a novel of the same name, and that novel is based on elements of Anabasis, by Xenophon. Anabasis, which is an historical account written by a soldier, is about Greek mercenaries, hired by Cyrus the Younger, making their way home through thousands of miles of enemy territory after Cyrus is killed. If you are familiar with this film, all of that will make sense. As a film that deals with a very mythic story, melodramatic characters make sense.

I admit, it has been a couple of years since I last saw the movie, but I wasn’t dissatisfied with how one-dimensional the characters are. I was, instead, impressed by how those characters were used to prop up and explore the mythic concept of soldiers trying to get home, warriors trying to be safe.

Myths are important to culture, but now we have different myths, like comic book superheroes. The Warriors watches like a comic book because it is consciously tapping into those same mythic structures. We don’t have and semi-divine heroes in our culture anymore, we have Superman and Batman. Say what you want about those two characters, but everyone know who they are and can tell me at least a little bit of their stories. Their stories are retold time and again until they become a part of our collective background.

Post-apocalyptic stories also play into the mythic structure. "The world as we know it is gone, now what?" It’s common to have a preferred theme (viral, nuclear, or zombie) for the apocalypse, and ideas for how to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape. How people survive in these stories is usually dependent on how many people are left and how damaged the landscape is.

The Warriors ties into all of this. I think it is a bit disingenuous to decry the movie’s lack of well defined characters while ignoring the mythic structure. This film isn’t about the individual characters, it is about the soldiers surviving on their way back home.

By Tiel Lundy on April 14, 2011 at 11:27 AM

I already knew this, but Stefan's editorial and the responses from Andrea, Jeremy and Dan demonstrate what perceptive and knowledgeable students we have at UCD. What a great discussion! I'm definitely persuaded to watch THE WARRIORS--soon.

One thing that seems to be a major point is a definitional one--that is, the definition of "melodrama." Indeed, Jeremy, you're right: it's not properly a genre but rather a mode of expression that extends to literature, drama and film. Most any genre can employ melodramatic expression: horror, adventure, the romance, the Western, the war film, etc. The main thing that characterizes melodrama is the depiction of a Manichean universe in which "good" and "bad" are clearly opposed.

For those who are interested, Peter Brooks's THE MELODRAMATIC IMAGINATION: BALZAC, HENRY JAMES, MELODRAMA, AND THE MODE OF EXCESS is the seminal source on melodrama.

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