It turns out people really, really can dig The Warriors. Though, at the time of its release, the low-budget 1979 action movie was mostly known for inspiring a string of vandalism and violent acts, it has gathered a fiendish cult devotion over the years. Fans frequently quote the lingo of its young New York City street gang members (“Warriors, come out to play!”), and the actors who played the film’s titular crew reunited on the city’s subway in 2015 to breathless reactions.
Whether you’re already indoctrinated in the ways of The Warriors, or you’ve yet to experience the movie’s fantastical thrills, here are some interesting facts and moments to keep in mind when watching.
1. IT'S BASED ON A GRAPHIC NOVEL—AND AN ANCIENT GREEK STORY.
The script for The Warriors was adapted from Sol Yurick’s graphic novel of the same name, which in turn quotes and borrows elements from Anabasis, a seven-book adventure by the ancient Greek soldier and writer Xenophon. So just know that while The Warriors might seem very time-stamped, it has roots going back to BC times.
2. IT’S NOT A VERY FAITHFUL ADAPTATION, THOUGH.
After being handed Yurick’s novel, director Walter Hill immediately had an idea for a fun movie. “I felt very strongly that it certainly was not a very realistic book, and I wanted to make it even less so,” he told Esquire. “I wanted to take it into a fantasy element, but at the same time add some contemporary flash.” The Warriors in the novel are actually the Coney Island Dominators, a black and Hispanic gang. In Hill’s cinematic rendering, the main crew is a diverse group of white and nonwhite misfits.
3. IT HAS COMIC BOOK STYLE.
The filmmakers used a cool trick to integrate animation into the live-action photography. Sections of the movie are broken up by drawn images, which then seamlessly transition into shots of the human actors. For a late 1970s feature made on a shoestring budget, it’s quite a feat.
4. YES, THAT’S THE REAL WONDER WHEEL.
The Warriors was shot in the Big Apple almost entirely in darkness. That proved tremendously difficult, since it was summer and the nights didn’t last long. But the cast and crew got a lot of leeway to roam from the city, which was dealing with a fiscal crisis. The Warriors showcases a metropolis that truly was teetering on the brink of chaos.
5. THE WARRIORS OFFERS A GREAT EDUCATION IN THE NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY SYSTEM.
Innumerable scenes take place in the real New York City subways, run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including both underground and elevated trains. As seen on the screen, the trains did operate with tokens back then. The characters also avoid paying by jumping the turnstiles, which seems perfectly acceptable when running for your life.
6. WHY IS THERE A GANG OF ... MIMES?
The Warriors takes a lot of humorous liberties in concocting its fictional street gangs, which seem to have free rein in a dystopian, futuristic version of New York City. One of the more eccentric tribes is a cluster of mimes in full costume. It begs a number of questions, most importantly: How do they get anything done?
7. IT'S NOT EXACTLY POLITICALLY CORRECT.
Then again, neither was 1979. The first “f*ggot” is uttered by Warriors member Ajax after Vermin gives him a hard time for only ever thinking about women. (Side note: What did Vermin ever do to deserve that nickname?) Ajax’s go-to defense mechanism is to accuse his friend of being gay with a slur. Some version of the word is used several times throughout the movie. Though it might seem like the film is being homophobic, which is certainly possible, the dialogue is also fairly faithful to the way young men in a tough world at the time would trash-talk each other.
8. THIS IS ONE LONG CHASE FROM A CHASE MASTER.
The Warriors is one of the more exceptional works from director Walter Hill, who earned a deserved reputation for his hard-boiled tough-guy movies made with elegance. While he’ll always be most famous for 48 Hrs., the hit starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, his other features like The Driver and The Long Riders are worth seeking out. In particular, The Driver, featuring Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern, perfected the car-chase move long before Ryan Gosling’s Drive liberally took inspiration from it.
9. YOU’RE WATCHING REAL GANG MEMBERS.
The real action in The Warriors kicks off with an impressively epic meeting of various gangs in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park (though it was actually filmed in Riverside Park). Cyrus, the leader of the city’s most powerful gang, invites everyone in an attempt to forge an alliance and increase the gangs’ leverage over police, before being abruptly shot and killed. Hill refers to it as “our big production number.” In order to pull off the sequence, the filmmakers asked real gangs to be extras. So The Warriors feels legit for good reason.
10. IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ALL THAT VIOLENT.
Well, that is, by the standards of today’s superhero movies watched by young children. While the R-rated film puts on a tough pose, beginning with the murder of Cyrus, most of the violence is contained to non-lethal, hand-to-hand combat. The death toll is low relative to the movie’s image, and includes Warriors leader Cleon, who’s framed for Cyrus’s death, and Fox, who’s a victim of a moving train.
11. A DJ STARTS THE TROUBLE.
Messages are relayed to the gangs by an unnamed female DJ, played by Lynne Thigpen, to whom they all apparently have their radios tuned. We never even see her full face, but her hip attitude is memorable. She may or may not have been an influence on Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ Señor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing, who’s shot in a similar style and hovers over the proceedings of that other New York-to-its-core narrative.
12. A NEW YORK BASEBALL GANG MAKES A LOT OF SENSE.
If you’ve ever met a passionate Yankees fan, you might already feel like you’ve been in the presence of a baseball gang member. The infamous Baseball Furies in The Warriors are decked out in uniforms strikingly similar to the Bronx-based MLB team. They wield bats as weapons and wear terrifying face makeup. It’s not so dissimilar from what you might find at a brawl outside Yankee Stadium.
13. THE LEADING LADY HAD A HIDDEN INJURY.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh plays the fiery Mercy, a sexy woman who catches Swan’s (Michael Beck) eye and joins the Warriors on their journey and turns out to be as tough as the boys. While she’s scantily clad when we first meet her, she’s later dressed in a long-sleeved jacket. That’s likely because, as Hill explained, Van Valkenburgh broke her wrist and had to wear a cast, forcing the crew to get creative.
14. THE REAL VILLAINS ARE THE DISCO DANCERS.
One of the more quietly powerful scenes goes by nearly wordlessly. A pack of merry partiers board the subway and, based on their ruffled attire, seem to be coming from or going to some wholesome disco dancing. They fall silent upon seeing the bruised Swan and Mercy, then leave at the next station. The audience, of course, instantly despises them. It seems like a bit of an overreaction from people on a graffiti-splattered train in then-grimy New York, but the point is clear. Two years after Saturday Night Fever, disco had reached peak saturation. And in fact Hill has complained that Paramount hoped The Warriors would be something like the John Travolta hit. Maybe this was his quiet revenge.
15. THE WARRIORS IS ESSENTIALLY AN URBAN WESTERN.
The Warriors emerge at the end of the movie in their native Coney Island after morning has come, where they face Luther (David Patrick Kelly) and his rival gang who pinned Cyrus’s death on them. It’s striking how much this standoff is filmed like a Western—except on the shores of Brooklyn—but it’s not surprising. Hill’s movies are heavily indebted to Westerns, and The Warriors often resembles one in a different context. It’s also notable that the final duel goes off with only minor injury: Swan throws a switchblade into Luther’s arm. What happens to Luther after the end credits roll—well, that’ll have to be explained in a sequel.