38 years later and cult gang film The Warriors is still one of the definitive accounts of 70s New York and its seedy underbelly – a grittier time where each neighbourhood was ruled by menacing street gangs. Walter Hill’s version – a spaghetti western about a gang wrongly blamed for the death of Cyrus, a more prominent gang’s leader – was plagued by production problems, marred by actual gang violence and roadblocked by an unfortunate incident once the film hit cinemas. As the original cast reunites where it all went down, here’s a look at some of the lesser-known details about the coolest gang film ever.
In The Warriors, the Brooklyn posse must battle rival gangs to move through New York’s boroughs back to their home turf, Coney Island. The film was based on a novel written by author Sol Yurick, which in turn was an adaptation from the Ancient Greek text Anabasis by Xenophon. The text told of Greek mercenaries stranded 1,000 miles behind Persian lines trying to fight their way back home.
How do you keep a film about warring gangs authentic without actually killing off your cast? The director remembers that once, during a scene below an elevated subway track, a local gang began pissing on the actors from above. Another time, a shoot had to be called off when “dozens of kids swarmed the block’s abandoned buildings, jeering the Warriors incessantly from the normally vacant windows.”
Paramount was, at the time, notorious for its shoestring budgets and ability to crank out films on a dime. That translated to a costume department that couldn’t afford to dress extras – a huge problem for the film’s opening scene. The warring gangs meet in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park (although it was shot at Riverside Park on the Upper West Side) where Cyrus declares a truce to stop the violence. So how did they solve the issue? They called up a few local gang members who were already dressed to the nines to fill out the scene. They kept them in check by hiring police to cameo, which also added a bit of authenticity.
With filming taking place only during the wee morning hours of darkness, and in between being urinated on and jeered at, Thomas Waites found solace in a bit of reefer. Waites began to sneak off between takes to get high, returning stoned and belligerent. The violence was getting too much for Waites, who had originally signed up for what he thought would be more redemptive love story than face-off after face-off. “We started shooting and we were labouring over these scenes with all this violence. Labouring over them and I was getting really fucking frustrated, because I could see this was almost obscene with violence. It wasn‘t what I signed up for. I signed up to be part of a love story, in difficult circumstances, that changes these people.”
The Warriors’ stunt coordinator, Craig Baxley, recalls Hill saying, “You have to come up with a way to kill this guy, because I don’t want him in the movie anymore. I don’t give a shit how you kill him. Kill him.” Baxley then found a crew member who resembled Waites from behind, then jimmied together a stunt in which Fox is thrown onto the subway tracks just as a train shoots through the station. “It was like someone cut my soul out and left a shell,” Waites remembers. He ended up asking for his name to be removed from the cast altogether; even now, he remains uncredited.
Although it was rolled out in theatres across America and easily made back its paltry production budget, it was quickly spoiled by a tragic incident that took place in Palm Springs. Members of the Blue Coats, an African-American gang, took on members of a white gang, The Family. On Monday, February 12, 1979, a 19-year-old boy and member of The Family was fatally shot at a drive-in showing of the film. That same night, an 18-year-old bled out after being stabbed in a movie theatre 165 miles away in Oxnard. As a result, Paramount gave theatre chains an out, saying they wouldn’t take it to court if the theatres opted not to show the film.