In1979 a marathon was run in New York City that not exactly everyone knows about.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about the race won by Bill Russell, by the way on his fourth marathon success in a row in the Big Apple. The race I want to tell you about was run at night, it did not have the signage we usually find along the route (even the distance was rather sloppy compared to the strict forty-two kilometers and one hundred and ninety-five meters), there was no cheering audience, and there were only nine participants. Six of them reached the finish line, two died and one was arrested.
Even today it’s still considered one of the most dangerous races in history and also one of the most important films of the New Hollywood.
The adventure of The Warriors originated from Sol Yurick’s eponymous novel and became popular thanks to Walter Hill’s adaptation, as well as the many problems that arose during filming in New York.
A gathering is convened in a Bronx park among all the youth gangs that control New York City neighborhoods, the purpose being to overcome all rivalries and unite against police authority. This is the vision of Cyrus, leader of the Riffs, who takes the floor gathering the consensus of almost everyone present. Some gangs, however, frown upon Cyrus’s united spirit, who, having reached the climax of his speech, is killed by gunshots. The perpetrators take advantage of the confusion to blame the “Warriors,” a Coney Island gang that arrived on the scene with a nine-member delegation and was immediately forced to flee. From the Bronx to Coney Island beach there are forty-five miles, practically having to split New York in two with all the gangs ready to avenge Cyrus’ murder. It’s a manhunt, a frantic race in the middle of the night where every neighborhood traversed looks like a minefield.
On these premises, Walter Hill designs one of the finest action films made at the time, able to withstand the years thanks to a concentration of pace, imagination and style (for more information, cite costume designers Bobbie Mannix and Mary Ellen Winston).
What makes The Warriors so powerful is the concept of escape that is mixed with the injustice into which the protagonists are catapulted. Running becomes the only hope for survival in a city gone mad. There is a lot of violence, but it is not a film “about” violence in the style of A Clockwork Orange. Walter Hill, in fact, takes a comic book approach, going far in advance to propose narrative patterns typical of the video games to come, with a focus on aspects such as loyalty, sacrifice to the group, and the importance of charisma.
The fisticuffs are only part of the journey, and when they come, they show up as true cinematic gems: how great is the fight scene in the public bathroom against the Punks? Five minutes of sublime direction achieved through a hard effort of the crew (in interviews with the actors they talk about more than sixty hours of necessary processing spread over five days in a row).
Invention or realism?
The film also had the virtue of chronicling the undergrowth of petty crime that imprisoned many areas of New York City at that time, often off limits even to law enforcement. During filming, Walter Hill’s crew went through quite a bit of trouble coming into contact with real gangs from different neighborhoods: at best, demands were made to appear in certain scenes in the film (there are many extras taken from city gangs), and at worst, outside takes became a pretext for dating and picking fights, throwing bricks at equipment, and getting threatening letters to the crew. These were all aspects that convinced the producers to hire real criminals as security guards at the modest sum of $50 a day each, in addition to the several plainclothes policemen already roaming around.
Just to make sure he didn’t miss anything, Walter Hill was forced to cut an entire sequence from Warriors on the Run in the Bronx because a double murder had taken place at the site only a few days earlier.
Some have considered the film extreme in so many of its aspects, almost an exaggeration of violence. Many have even gone so far as to place The Warriors on the list of dystopian films. Yet the record around the film’s shooting tells us something else: Walter Hill had to deal with real problems that he was in fact already filming, resulting in a hidden, dirty, and damnably authentic New York.
The 1990s, dominated by the massive policy of criminal repression carried out by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are still a long way off.
The Warriors, moreover, enjoys a fanbase that not only endures through the years but continues to fascinate different generations. So many fans still visit the Bronx park and Coney Island beach today, even some try to retrace (by subway) the route of that fateful night.
Somebody got excited when in 2018 part of the cast came to the Bronx, complete with original leather vests, for an unexpected reunion where white hair and a few extra pounds did not alter the group’s charm.
“Sometimes I wonder if this is a movie or a marathon,” was a sentence said by actor Marcelino Sanchez (Rembrandt in the film) during an interview.
Perhaps the truth lies in the middle. It is not a movie, it is not a marathon.
It’s New York.