Friday, October 11, 2013

The Warriors and Gang Masculinity

Director Walter Hill has said that every movie he has ever made, regardless of genre, has been a Western. His 1979 film, The Warriors could easily be categorized as such. It certainly has a flair for costuming reminiscent of Westerns- some of the gang members are dressed in bandanas and elaborate headdress. Also, the gangs in The Warriors maintain a wild west mentality- they shoot and fight each other over some of the most trivial events, such as invading another gang's turf, or for kicks, or for no reason at all. Yet the film is set far away from the west, in the urban underground of late 20th century New York City. This film showcases 70s New York at its grittiest. The subways and nearly every surface of the buildings shown are covered with graffiti, while the street gangs roam, terrorizing the residents of the city.

The main subject here is flamboyant, youthful masculinity. These gang members are flashy, some wear make up, robes, baseball uniforms, overalls, leather vests with nothing underneath and every other possible outfit combination imaginable. They find their identity within the group, they follow. Yet their ideas of control over turf are meaningless. There is one man named Cyrus (Roger Hill) who makes an attempt to become a leader of all the gangs. Unfortunately, he is killed before he can begin by Luther (David Patrick Kelly) a member of the Rogues gang. Incidentally, Kelly deserves special mention for his many portrayals of utterly villainous masculinity in late 70s and 80s film. Aside from The Warriors, his most notable roles have been as bad guys in such films as Commando, Dreamscape and 48 Hours.

There is the suggestion of the aimlessness of gang life in this film. The Warriors (the aforementioned leather vest wearing gang) get blamed for the murder of Cyrus and spend the duration of the film in a harried attempt to get back to the safety of their home turf on Coney Island, all the while being pursued by different gangs. Yet there are no other plot points, the film is simply, run, be chased and fight and then repeat. Furthermore, their whole purpose as gang members is to prove how manly they are and how much tougher they are than the other gangs. For example, Ajax (James Remar) spends much of the movie attempting to score with women, or prove that he can do so, or calling everyone else in the gang a "faggot" for avoiding fighting or sex.

The final scene does imply that at least one of the gang members sees the meaninglessness of being involved in a gang. Once the Warriors reach Coney Island, Swan (Michael Beck) surveys the scene and wonders why they've nearly killed themselves trying to defend the (in his mind) bleak setting. In this moment, Hill is showcasing the grim world of these young men. They have few options, their only means of forming an identity is within a group that has been brought up in the same hopeless environment. For them, image and protection of that image is most important. This film is interesting because it examines the ways young men attempt to assert their masculinity. Often, in The Warriors, it is done foolishly, in clumsy fights and awkward attempts at flirtation. The film ends with The Warriors being victorious over the Rogues but it isn't really evident what the spoils are.

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