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.
Despite 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!"