Reel Brooklyn is a monthly column chronicling the definitive history of Brooklyn on-screen, one film—and neighborhood—at a time.
A pulp legend onto itself, Walter Hill’s 1979 The Warriors begins and ends under the Coney Island Wonder Wheel, but this isn’t the Coney of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), when the resort town itself and its sky-high distractions epitomized the postwar leisure life America had earned with its worry and suffering and loss, as well as with the middle-class prosperity that followed. (I have an old snapshot my mother took in 1948 on Coney Island of Al Jolson, smiling in the sand wearing swimming trunks—everybody could and did go to that beach.) More than a quarter century of social eruptions later, Hill’s New York is of a different vintage, a spray-painted wasteland of peak crime and poverty and crumbling infrastructure, a place in which people were forced to live but did not willingly visit. In fact, the Abe Beame/Ed Koch-era New York on view here is more familiar to us than other eras’, if only because the films of the American New Wave, of which Hill was an adjunct, documented it so acutely.
But Hill went further: this is a vision of the boroughs as a rock-opera-slash-modern-dance daydream dystopia, so redolent with territory-marking youth gangs that the narrative takes on the feel of a scifi-fantasy projection into the near-future, when things have gone utterly to hell. The eponymous band of misfits, led by battling bosses/cheekbone sculptures Michael Beck and James Remar, might be exactly the kind of low-ball street gang Coney Island would have, underdogs every step of the way from a near-revolutionary gang convocation in the Bronx, where they’re falsely accused of assassinating a Bolivar-like leader, all the way back to the beach, with every gang in between looking to collect the bounty. Only a New Yorker can appreciate the scale of the journey. It’s preposterous comic-book stuff, of course, and Hill knows it, ramping up the unreality by making the network of gangs almost as organized as Fritz Lang’s underground governments in M (1931) and the Mabuse films, and pretending other forms of social organization have all but vanished. Each neighborhood is like a new frontier, with a new Apache or Cherokee band to face off against. What’s more, and very much to the film’s persona, the film dares to both salute and satirize the teenage (and post-teen) impulse to outfit and dress up in tribal unison, giving the individual gangs a hilarious succession of coordinated uniforms, from clown-painted droogs in Yankee pinstripes to combos of roller skates, Hawaiian shirts, fedoras, you name it. What you get is an urban maze of subway platforms and empty streets in which polyglot American youth has gone insane self-mythologizing its own rebellions, just as the aggressive and homogeneous tribal fashion codes of punk were beginning to tell the mainstream where to go.
Having the Warriors’ Odyssean voyage narrated all the while by a local DJ (Lynne Thigpen) only provides the echo chamber all mythologies require. At any rate, at the Stillwell Avenue stop in the end, we see Coney Island at dusk, the Cyclone still, the boardwalk shops shuttered, the neighborhood as it was already going thoroughly to seed, the decaying American Dream it’s always been and always tried to disguise. “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” a Warrior moans, and in this crazy-quilt context, we feels his defeat.