Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Warriors: Greece Meets West

                Walter Hill has said, "Every film I've done has been a Western.”  He doesn’t mean this, obviously, in a literal sense, but it’s an interesting way of reading his body of work.  After all, what are the key thematic components of the western genre?  1. The protagonist(s), whether hero or anti-hero, have a strict code.  2. A good western treats the landscape as an actual environment and not a mere backdrop.  The small, bustling community, the arid desert, snowy plains or dangerous forests—these places force reactions from the characters.  They help inform us of the story we are about to experience because they show us that these are characters of means.  It constantly has to be fought back, tamed—the location cannot be ignored.  3. Westerns are about taking a stand.  It can be personal or more global, righteous or evil, but every Western, bottom-line, has someone willing to fight and die for what they believe.  You have that in Streets of Fire, you have that in Last Man Standing, Hickey and Boggs, not so much in 48 Hours (although Eddie Murphy does put on a cowboy hat and go to a western bar, so maybe that counts for something) and you sure as hell have that in The Warriors.
                Now, with The Warriors not only must you must keep the Western framework in the forefront, but you also have to carry another thought in the back of your mind: That of ancient Greece.  I’m serious.  Depending on the version you are watching Walter Hill may come and spell it out for you during the prologue, but there is a specific historical event that inspired how he shaped the direction of the story.  It is The Anabasis, the Greek story of The Ten Thousand and their arduous journey back to their homeland. 
                To make a long story short, The Ten Thousand fought a somewhat successful battle deep in enemy territory which would have been an outright victory had their leader not been one of the small few killed during the siege.  Now they had a conquered kingdom and no leader to take it over.  They were left with no other option now but to fight their way back, make allegiances or use trickery to pass through the other controlled kingdoms to make their way—wait for it…waaaait for it—to the sea.  Sounds familiar?

                American history has always been fascinated with outlaws and villains, almost as much as gallants and lawmen.  Look at the string of films dedicated to Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Capone, etc.  It stands to reason that the Western, as a decidedly American genre, should work equally well when the protagonists are heroes or anti-heroes.  Let us not forget: As much as The Warriors might have ingratiated themselves to us through the course of the story, they are still criminals.  But they are criminals with a system of honor.
                In the story The Rogues certainly act villainous and provide the initial incident, turning The Warriors into fugitives, but they aren’t necessarily the villains.  The role of primary antagonists is reserved for The Gramercy Riffs.  They are organized (to extent that you can begin using the word militant), disciplined and last, but not least, statesmen.  It was after all their group who organized the summit meeting and it is they who are pushing for peace between the scattered gangs.  And when the meeting falls apart it is The Riffs who put the bounty on The Warriors’ heads.  Keeping in mind the theme of ancient Greece, The Gramercy Riffs are a true city-state and are steps away from uniting the smaller rabble into an empire.

The Riffs getting tuned up.

                What’s interesting in all of this is how this all feeds back into the Western format.  The Warriors and The Gramercy Riffs are not traditional enemies—there is no vendetta to clear nor is the conflict of the night economically or territorially motivated.  The Riffs are after all THE gang and I’m sure they are a template that the much, much smaller Warriors outfit has looked to.  The Warriors’ sense of duty and honor seem very parallel to The Gramercy Riffs.  No, the reason for the evening’s violence is based on a misunderstanding—The Warriors allegedly broke the ceasefire and killed a prominent member of their group—and clearly the Riffs’ code of honor cannot suffer such a grievance without retribution.
                Naturally, having a code and being willing to die making a stand are deeply connected.  One cannot exist without the other.  They are compulsory elements of the genre and the reason why I have listed them as two separate components comes down to the following:  In the Western the antagonists have as strict a code as well.  The villains are always willing to kill to meet their ends, but only the heroes are willing to die for theirs.
               Their whole situation could be ended by turning themselves in, surrendering to the next gang they meet or taking off their colors.  But if any of them were to suggest that, they wouldn't be wearing that Warriors vest in the first place.  To them it's better to face death a Warrior than to live life as anything less.


                The encroaching police force, mercenary gangs, inclement weather and diverting subway trains offer the second component in the Western equation.  The setting is not a static, placid backdrop.  Cataloguing these events and the group’s responses to them would result in nothing more than a plot recap.  I think it’s something to keep in mind though while you watch the film.  The key difference in this—between backdrop and an active landscape—is how it forces character development.  In a more traditional story, interactions between the protagonist(s) and other characters force them into action and to change, but in the western that connection is removed.  The characters and gangs The Warriors meet are incidental and tied to that specific location.  They don’t exist beyond one mere scene.  Westerns are solitary, stoic, bleak.  With these exchanges, nothing is revealed about the people they meet, instead it focuses solely on our heroes.  These scenes are less a dialogue and more a reaction.
                Coming back to the theme of classical Greece, there are three locations/events in particular that I feel offer a modern reading of the Odyssey and Greek myth.  The beautiful undercover vice officer who leads—ahem—Ajax to his doom bears great resemblance to a siren.  The hilariously named Lizzies and their ensnarement of The Warriors (possibly the closest to succeeding in the film) parallel Odysseus’ crews disastrous stay on Circe’s island.  And the shutdown of the subway train when they were on a direct route home can be seen as the storm that drives Odysseus’ ship back to where it started when they were already within eyesight of Ithaca.

In clockwise fashion: 1. The Siren 2. Waylaid by the bag of winds 3. The chorus 4.  Circe's Island
               The simple fact that these allusions are built into this not-too-distant-future gang beat ‘em up movie shows what a subtle and well versed writer Walter Hill is.  This movie is so unassuming, so basic in its appearance that I’m sure these references go unnoticed by a majority of viewers.


                I want to end this, befittingly enough, with the end of the story.  Not the last few minutes before the credits roll, but the real, emotional ending. Because after this point it’s simply a matter of closing the ledger.  This is the most important moment in the movie; it’s beautiful, poignant, but most of all, fragile.  What remains of the group has finally made it to the train; the last leg of their quest is ending.  They are bloodied and exhausted.  Simply put, they stand out.  But we have to remember, they are “outcasts” and always will be.  No matter what, they will always stand out.  Whether their vests are torn from fighting or not, The Warriors live on the fringe, outside the normal scope of society.  And it’s here, when they should be feeling victorious, that they run into the disco kids.
                This group, unlike The Warriors, hasn’t spent the night fighting for their lives and never will.  They have nice clothes and nice smiles.  And when this group notices The Warriors it’s never been clearer that they don’t have these things and maybe never will. 
                It’s so painfully simple that if you’re not paying attention you might miss it.  Mercy reaches up, embarrassedly, to fix her hair and Swan stops her. 
               She doesn’t have to apologize. 

                In that one moment, Swan tells us that none of us need to be ashamed of who we are. 
                To me, this is the climax of the film.  The showdown on the beach with Luther certainly feels necessary and rectifies the false accusations from earlier.  We are allowed that satisfaction.  But it seems to me that we reach those final scenes solely from the momentum of preceding events.  There is a distinct feeling of…inevitableness about how it plays out.  Housekeeping.
                This whole time we’ve been searching for the exact thing that The Warriors are making their stand for and I say it’s a fight for their very existence.  Not a fight for their lives but a fight to exist.  They can’t fit into a conformed societal role, but they have to be somewhere.  That’s what this was all for; they are carving out their own place.  They are the social misfits that can never really connect to the mainstream.  This midway is their home and they will stand and fall together.  These notions of loyalty and valor and duty they were carrying around are no longer play-acting, but now real after being tempered by the events of the night.   
               The odyssey really ended back there on that train.  It was a subtle, elegant moment, but it spoke volumes.  The way of The Warriors is not for me or most others, but there is a certain nobility to it all.  To be able to stand up tall and declare that this is me and I refuse to compromise ever again.  That—right there—is something we all should be fighting for. 
                                “Thálatta! Thálatta!”


It might just be the confluence of emotions, but I'm always struck by how simply fitting and epic the closing credits song is.  It always leaves me feeling like we've all really accomplished something here.  God I want to go to the beach and have a showdown rightfuckingnow!!!