The Warriors is a 1979 film based on Sol Yurick‘s 1965 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Xenophon‘s Anabasis. While the film wasn’t well received critically on its release, it has since grown into a cult classic, its critical reputation improving, too.
There are huge differences between the film and the novel, including different names for all the characters (“Warriors” refers to all the gangs in the novel, not just the the protagonist gang, who in the novel are called “The Coney Island Dominators”); though the course of events in the plot are basically the same.
The novel delves more into the (dysfunctional) family lives of the gang members. The brutality and hyper-masculinity of the gang members makes them far less sympathetic than those in the movie. In the novel, the boys test each other’s manhood by, for example, having a pissing contest (i.e., who can piss the farthest), and they engage in such brutalities as murder, gang raping women, etc. The young men in the movie, apart from Ajax (James Remar), are generally more civilized in their attitude towards women.
Here are some quotes:
Cyrus (Roger Hill): [yelling] Can you count, suckers? I say, the future is ours… if you can count!
Gang Members: Come on, Cyrus! We’re with you! Go ahead, bro!
Cyrus: Now, look what we have here before us. We got the Saracens sitting next to the Jones Street Boys. We’ve got the Moonrunners right by the Van Cortlandt Rangers. Nobody is wasting nobody. That…is a miracle. And miracles is the way things ought to be. You’re standing right now with nine delegates from 100 gangs. And there’s over a hundred more. That’s 20,000 hardcore members. Forty-thousand, counting affiliates, and twenty-thousand more, not organized, but ready to fight: 60,000 soldiers! Now, there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?
Gang Members: Yeah.
Cyrus: Can you dig it?
Gang Members: Yeah!
Cyrus: Can you dig it!?
Gang Members: YEAH!
Cyrus: Now, here’s the sum total: One gang could run this city! One gang. Nothing would move without us allowing it to happen. We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets, suckers! Can you dig it?
Gang Members: YEAH! [cheering]
Cyrus: The problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth, because we have been fighting for ten square feet of ground, our turf, our little piece of turf. That’s crap, brothers! The turf is ours by right, because it’s our turn. All we have to do is keep up the general truce. We take over one borough at a time. Secure our territory… secure our turf… because it’s all our turf!
Ajax: Well, good! I’m sick of runnin’ from these wimps!
[They stop to fight]
Ajax (to one of the Baseball Furies): I’m gonna shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a Popsicle.
[banging bottles together] “Warriors, come out to play-i-ay!” –Luther (David Patrick Kelly)
Swan (Michael Beck): When we see the ocean, we figure we’re home. We’re safe.
Luther: This time you got it wrong.
Swan: Why’d you do it? Why’d you waste Cyrus?
Luther: No reason. I just like doing things like that!
One crucial image, seen at the beginning at night, and in the morning at the end of the film, is of a Ferris Wheel called the “Wonder Wheel.” It is in Coney Island, the home turf of the Warriors. I see it as a symbol of the ouroboros, a mystical symbol of eternity that I see, in turn, as a symbol of the dialectical relationship between all opposites, a circular continuum with one opposite meeting the other, where the serpent’s head bites its tail. The Wonder Wheel could also be seen to represent the Wheel of Dharma, which with the serpent biting its tail symbolize the way forward to an ideal state for the gangs to be in.
The film begins with hopes that a truce between all the gangs of New York City will last. They’ll all meet, standing side by side…and not fight!…while Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs, gives a speech encouraging the solidarity of all the gangs.
These hopes for a lasting inter-gang peace are like the head biting the tail of the ouroboros–the highest good, but also dangerously close to the worst state of inter-gang violence if matters aren’t handled carefully. Easily-provoked war and ever-so-fragile peace are in a dialectical, yin-and-yang kind of relationship.
Another important visual motif in this film is the subway system. For the unarmed Warriors, the subway is the key to their safety, for it can get them back to Coney Island fast, safe from attacks from other gangs. They, however, cannot rely on quick and easy answers: they must fight their way back home slowly (i.e., go from the bitten tail of war, along the length of the ouroboros’s body, to the biting head of peace); for their battles with rival gangs represent their own inner conflicts, a dialectic of self vs. other.
Though Cyrus (named Ismael Rivera in Yurick’s novel) is named by the screenwriter after Cyrus the Younger in the Anabasis, I see parallels between him and Lenin. The Riffs are the strongest, most influential of the New York gangs; Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the majority party, were the vanguard of Russia’s labour movement.
All the gangs, though mere lumpenproletariat, can nonetheless be seen to represent the Soviets, to whom Lenin would have given all power over Russia. Though many gangs aren’t yet organized, under Cyrus’ leadership, they can be; without a revolutionary vanguard, the Russian proletariat and peasantry had might as well have been lumpen, for without proper organization and leadership, they wouldn’t have had any more revolutionary potential than your average criminals.
Charismatic Cyrus is loved by many of the gangs, as Lenin was loved by many workers and peasants in Russia. Lenin also had enemies, though, as does Cyrus, who is shot by Luther, who then frames the murder on the Warriors; an attempt was made on Lenin’s life, too, and though he didn’t immediately die, his injury is believed to have hastened his death six years later. And without his leadership, the leaders of the Russian proletarians and peasants were forced to resort to authoritarian, even violent, measures to keep the ship of the USSR afloat on treacherous waters…as the Riffs have to get tough in catching Cyrus’ killer. Luther thus represents reactionary treachery.
In Cyrus’ speech, he mentions how, if all the gangs were united, they would outnumber the police three to one. “We could tax the crime syndicates, the police, because WE got the streets,” he says. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the crime syndicates, or mafia, can easily symbolize capitalists; and the police have always protected them.
Cyrus is organizing a dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat, which in this revolutionary form means the lumpen is being erased. The taxing of the mafia families and police is reminiscent of what Marx proposed at the end of the second section of the Communist Manifesto, “Proletarians and Communists,” item 2: “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.” (Marx, page 56)
Cyrus points out that the “problem in the past has been the man turning us against one another. We have been unable to see the truth…” Indeed, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie uses a variety of sophisticated methods to keep the people fighting with each other–man vs. woman, black vs. white, gay vs. straight, cis vs. trans, nation vs. nation, etc.–instead of allowing us all to unite.
We can’t see the truth because the bourgeoisie uses the media to distract and dazzle us. As Marx pointed out: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” (Marx, The German Ideology, ‘Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas’)
“We take one borough at a time,” Cyrus says, reminding us of the notion of ‘socialism in one country,’ which by the way wasn’t just something Stalin invented–Lenin alluded to the idea in a speech back in 1918. The gangs can’t realistically take over all of New York City in one fell swoop: each section has to be taken carefully and secured before taking any more.
Cyrus’ assassination could also represent that of Kirov, which similarly set in motion a wave of upheaval, treason, and sabotage leading to the Great Purge of the late 1930s. (Errors, excesses, and cruelties of the time, incidentally, were much more the fault of the corruption of men like Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov in the NKVD than of Stalin himself.) In any case, this lack of solidarity, be it in the form of reactionary violence, or an authoritarian reaction to leftist opposition, is one of many obstacles the people have to bringing about their liberation, as symbolized in the gang violence in this movie.
When the Warriors flee for their lives from the gathering of gangs (without their presumably killed leader, Cleon) and the raid of cops, they find themselves in a graveyard, an appropriate visual representing their predicament. This is the lowest point for them, the hindmost area of the ouroboros, just ahead of the bitten tail, where Cyrus and Cleon have died, with the hope of a lasting truce.
The Riffs, believing Luther’s lie that the Warriors are responsible for the shooting of Cyrus, have–through an announcement from a female DJ, (who, in keeping with the links between this story and ancient Greece, seems to be playing a narrative/commentary role similar to that of a Chorus in Greek drama)–commanded all gangs hunt down and catch the Warriors…dead or alive. Luther’s misleading of the Riffs parallels NKVD corruption (i.e., Luther = Yezhov) in tracking down traitors in the Soviet proletarian dictatorship.
During this tense moment in the graveyard, there’s fragmentation even within the ranks of the Warriors, for after Cleon’s demise, Swan, the new war chief, is arguing with ambitious, obnoxious Ajax, over who should be the new leader. Is this not unlike such power struggles as those between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin’s death?
The Warriors get chased by the Turnbull ACs, and barely escape through the subway. Swan advises not to be too optimistic, for it’s still a long way, even by subway, to Coney Island. Indeed, they soon come to a dead end, a fire preventing the subway from continuing on its course. They’re still in the fiery Hell of the hind area of the ouroboros, and they must continue their way along the length of the coiled serpent’s body towards its head…and now they must go on foot.
Next, they come into the neighbourhood of the Orphans, a low-status gang not included in Cyrus’ park meeting (Is there, in the name of this gang, a trace of Ismael‘s name slipped into the film from the novel?). The Warriors must ask the Orphans to be allowed safe passage through their turf. The Orphans are insecure about their low status among the gangs, and so they are easily goaded into fighting the Warriors by a local neighbourhood girl named–fortuitously?–Mercy (Deborah van Valkenburgh).
Where the Warriors are is still in the hind area of the ouroboros, a depressing neighbourhood for Mercy to live in, so she joins the unarmed Warriors as they escape a fight with the Orphans after Swan destroys a car with a tossed Molotov cocktail. As she and Swan travel, so to speak, up the length of the ouroboros towards the head, where safety and better fortune are in the Warriors’ Coney Island turf, the tension between the two of them will gradually grow into a friendship.
The police aren’t as involved as one would think they’d be amid all this gang violence (after all, this is an allegory of proletarian dictatorship, so the bourgeoisie’s muscle will be scanted here), but cops do at one point chase the Warriors, causing them to split up. Fox (Thomas G. Waites) gets killed in the chase, run over by a train. Swan, Ajax, Snow, and Cowboy end up in Riverside Park, where they have to fight the Baseball Furies.
One of the cheesier elements of this movie is also one of the more interesting, in terms of theme and symbol: the flamboyant costuming of each gang, the colourful ‘uniforms,’ so to speak, of the gangs. These suggest the divisiveness of identity politics, a plague upon the left that vitiates solidarity.
Identity politics, typically associated with the left, can obscure the more fundamental issue of class consciousness, causing legitimate leftism to degenerate into mere liberalism. What many forget, however, is the right-wing versions of idpol, including White Nationalism and similar scourges. Prior to the truce, each gang was just fighting to defend its own “little piece of turf”–nationalism…fascism. That’s crap, brothers!
Ajax, sick of “runnin’ from these wimps,” is happy to fight the Furies, beating one of them without need of a baseball bat. Later, though, he allows his lust to distract him from loyalty to the Warriors, and allows himself to be entrapped by an undercover female cop who pretends to offer him an easy lay. To make things worse for himself, he gets rough with her as they make out; then she handcuffs him to a park bench, and he’s arrested. One of the lessons men on the left need to learn is to stop thinking of a woman as only something for their sexual sport.
[His name, incidentally, is an interesting choice, again in keeping with the connection of The Warriors with ancient Greek culture: Ajax is named after the huge warrior in Greek myth who fought admirably in the Trojan War; but who also went mad killing a herd of cattle he’d been deluded into thinking were warriors, and, after coming to his senses, preferred to kill himself than live in shame over what he’d done in his brief madness.]
Speaking of being distracted by femmes fatales, Vermin, Cochise, and Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) arrive at Union Square and run into the Lizzies, an all-female gang who use their charms to lure them into their lair. These three Warriors foolishly think their troubles are over, and pleasure is about to begin…they think they’re closer to the ouroboros’ head than they really are. As the party goes on–with a joint being passed around, the song ‘Love Is a Fire’ (sung by Genya Ravan) playing, and two beautiful Lizzies dancing erotically (this last observation, combined with the name of a gang in Yurick’s novel, the ‘Intervale Avenue Lesbos,’ should tell us about the girl gang’s real orientation, and symbolically, their political identity)–only Rembrandt grows suspicious.
Suddenly, the Lizzies show their true intentions, shooting at them, slashing switchblades at them, and informing them of the real reason all the gangs are after them: they’ve been framed for the killing of Cyrus! The Lizzies’ Bower of Bliss isn’t the haven these credulous Warriors thought it was, it is no arrival at the ouroboros’ head: they must keep on going, non-stop, to Coney Island to be safe.
Eventually, the Riffs learn the truth of who killed Cyrus; they learn this from a member of a gang who saw Luther, leader of the Rogues (fitting name for his reactionary gang), point a pistol at Cyrus and shoot him. This revelation parallels when Stalin realized how corrupt Yezhov was; he who as leader of the NKVD had suppressed, persecuted, and killed a number of innocent Soviets during the Great Purge, just as Luther has framed the Warriors for Cyrus’ murder.
After Swan reunites with the remaining Warriors and Mercy, who then even helps them a bit in fighting off the Punks in a men’s room in Union Square, our protagonists take the train to Coney Island (sharing it with some people higher than they on the social ladder, people who clearly feel uncomfortable sitting near them) and finally reach their turf. The Wonder Wheel can be seen in the background. The gang is finally “packed.”
Luther and the Rogues are there, too, eager to fight the Warriors. Luther, we learn, killed Cyrus for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it, as he hopes to kill Swan in a one-on-one fight. Luther, as instigator of this rupture in the truce and solidarity of the gangs, is demonstrating his psychopathic addiction to excitement as a relief to boredom.
In contrast to Luther’s viciousness is the Warriors’ pleasure in seeing the peaceful ocean (a parallel to the ten thousand Greeks’ delight in seeing “the sea! The sea!” from Mount Theches at the end of their journey home, after their failed march with Cyrus the Younger against the Persian Empire in 401 BCE). The ocean, my symbol for the nirvana of Brahman, is something I use as another symbol for the gang’s final arrival at their turf, the ouroboros’ biting head, their goal of peace and security.
Yet as I’ve said above, there’s the dialectical danger of peace and security shifting into their opposite, the bitten tail of another rumble. Luther, clicking bottles together and chanting his threat in that squeaky, grating voice of his, demonstrates that danger.
Swan is able to fling a switchblade into Luther’s upper arm before he can shoot his pistol. Doubly fortunate for the Warriors, the Riffs arrive to exact vengeance on the Rogues. This parallels how Stalin had Yezhov arrested and executed for his crimes.
In the Riffs’ saying, “You Warriors are good–real good,” to which Swan replies, “The best,” we see the Warriors having earned their street cred. This parallels how Stalin, knowing Yezhov had imprisoned and persecuted innocent Soviet citizens, now had Yezhov’s surviving victims all released and rehabilitated.
So, the Warriors are off the hook. The DJ acknowledges this with an apology to the hitherto-stained gang, who can now roam the beach in peace and enjoy the sight of the ocean, for they have reached the ouroboros’ head of peace and security. This story about a gang returning to their home turf represents the growth all socialists must make: learning from their mistakes, as the Warriors learn from such mistakes as gratuitous fighting and womanizing. We must stick together and go the long haul, avoiding the temptation of quick and easy solutions, such as counting on the trains always running on time…which, by the way, even the fascists never pulled off.
It is useful to see the New York gangs as a symbol for socialist revolutionaries. Both use violence to achieve their ends, which involve an upsetting of the established order. The police protect that establishment–private property, which makes communists seem criminal.
Through a unifying of the many leftist factions–historically, the anarchists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries, as represented by the many gangs in the movie–under a revolutionary vanguard (symbolized here by the Gramercy Riffs), we see the possibility of replacing the endless violence of permanent revolution with the building of socialism, for the benefit of everyone.
Taking over one borough at a time (a symbol for socialism in one country), the unified gangs–with their truce resumed–can transform society into one that provides for everyone, exposing who the real criminals are: the capitalist class and their mafia gangs of politicians and police.
Can you dig it?