Wild in the Aisle: Why The Warriors Rumble
March 5, 1979
On Church and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, directly across the street from a graveyard where scenes in Arsenic and Old Lace took place, stands the RKO Kenmore. It was once a plush old movie palace, but it’s been sliced into four tiny portions. Each plays a different film. Superman, The Brink’s Job, and The Wiz are getting the family trade this frigid Sunday. The Warriors is getting the kids.
Bundled up next to the ticket tearer is Inspector Isaacs, the head security guard for the International Bureau of Investigation. “There have been fights this week,” he admits, “but we move them outside. Probably every youth gang in Brooklyn has been here for this one. They go in noisy, they try to take over the theatre. The movie makes them do bad things. Some of them come in with weapons. But it wouldn’t be wise for them to threaten us with guns because we have guns and we know how to use them. When they get real rough, we kick them out and they threaten to come back. But talk is cheap.”
During the late afternoon show, there’s plenty of noise but only one incident. A guard, who weighs in at about 350, escorts a kid to the lobby and curses under his breath. “They don’t like to be called kids, so we treat them as adults. They don’t come here looking for trouble, but they see this movie and it ends up trouble.”
“RKO went to a lot of trouble,” claims the Kenmore’s manager: “They gave us extra security guards for The Warriors. It cost the company $1800 for the week. This is a bad one.”
In the lobby, a 16 year old, who claims to be a member of the Tomahawks, remarks that “the movie makes me wanna do the same things the Warriors do.” What things? “You know. Bopping.”
Paramount pulled the Warriors ad for six days last week. The illustration showed a vast mob of black and white teenagers in various postures of menace. They had skinned skulls, Arab turbans, hippie vests, leather jackets, black glasses. Some held baseball bats and scowled, ready to attack. “These are the armies of the night,” read the copy.
Three killings have been linked to showings of The Warriors during the first week of its release. An 18 year old was stabbed to death during a rumble in the Esplanade Theatre in Oxnard, California. In Palm Springs, a 19-year-old Hells Angel was shot in the head at the snack bar of the drive-in where the film was playing. And in Boston, a 16 year old was killed with a hunting knife by assailants who had just seen the movie.
Isolated incidents have occurred in New York, too — mainly minor skirmishes inside and outside theatres. And subway token attendants in the Times Square area report an increase in the amount of turnstile jumping this past week. Much of The Warriors takes place in the subways, and a key scene features a choreographed escape to an oncoming IRT, in which the Warriors leap over turnstiles. It’s a scene that has adults as well as children rooting for the gang.
The actor who plays Rembrandt, the graffiti artist in The Warriors, is Marcelino Sanchez. A Sal Mineo look-alike, he accompanied me to three different theatres where his movie is playing. Although Sanchez has had his Afro cut to standard disco length, he is still recognizable. At the RKO Kenmore, he wears a Sly Stallone F.I.S.T. cap and a coat large enough to hide Robert Morley. Yet the manager is apprehensive, sneaks him in and sneaks him out.
Sanchez lives in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn with his parents. He’s the oldest of four children. The family came to this country from Puerto Rico when Marcelino was six. “I grew up in a rough ghetto,” he says. “When I attended junior high school, I was ripped off almost daily for nickels and dimes. If I took money to school, I had to hide it in my socks.”
A gang called the Devil Rebels operated a clubhouse two doors away from the Sanchez home. “The Rebels didn’t terrorize the neighborhood. If anything, they protected us. They’d bum cigarettes from my mother: she’d throw them one or two. You couldn’t treat them badly, because they weren’t really bad at heart. They kept other gangs from coming to our neighborhood. I remember watching the Rebels take off in a large group, one day, to rumble. It was frightening and stimulating.”
While the Rebels were cleaning their cuticles with switchblades and smoking a substance stronger than his mother’s cigarettes, Marcelino enrolled at the High School of Art and Design. He studied graphics then switched to acting. A couple of years ago, he toured Spain in Hair. When his agent heard about The Warriors, he arranged for Marcelino to audition for writer-director Walter Hill. Hill signed the 21-year-old actor immediately to play the passive but quick-witted Warrior.
All through production, the cast worked as a unit. No one was a star. Sanchez declares, “We had no idea of the waves the film would make. The original screenplay had more realism and moralistic views. It was crude, violent, and hit the gut. They switched it to a fantasy script, with super heroes and Star War-type confrontations. The end result is like a cartoon.”
Most of the players in The Warriors are card-carrying Screen Actors Guild professionals, though some of the extras are chartered members of neighborhood gangs. Word of real trouble reached the Voice during the shooting of the conclave scene in Riverside Park last summer: muggings and threats of physical violence among the extras. But no gang warfare.
Sanchez admits he was oblivious to trouble. “I found myself loving those guys in the movie who were my Warrior brothers. It was a family unit, like being part of a gang: a gang that cared for each other. The surrogate family has to be a reason for gangs in the first place.”
Far from Brooklyn, Tom Esty, age 14, white, precocious, from a well-heeled family, says he’s seen The Warriors twice at the Kips Bay Cinema and once at Loew’s Cine on East 86th Street. He keeps going back because “my generation seems to be inspired not by violence, although there are psychopaths, but by stories of people who overcome trouble. Like odysseys. The movie is like a modem-day odyssey.”
The movie is also R-rated. Ostensibly, anyone under 17 is not admitted unless accompanied by an adult. According to Tom Esty, that’s no problem. He’ll ask a young man or a couple in line if they’ll take him in as their kid brother. Naturally, he pays his own way. Many of his school chums at Trinity do likewise.
At the Loew’s Cine, there were “too many guards and a feeling of apprehension in the audience, like something might happen,” recalls Esty. “During certain parts, people threw beer cans and bottles toward the screen.”
If taken realistically, The Warriors is a silly film with extraordinary visuals. But repeated viewings reveal a revolutionary and romantic movie that subliminally canonizes gangs. The world inhabited by the Warriors is adolescent, with not a single adult to wag a moralistic finger. Yet the kids emulate their oppressors. There’s an assassination of a Malcolm X type which the Warriors are accused of committing. The black gang leaders represent an outraged formal government. They send out other gangs — or armies — to get the wrongdoers. The pursuit is a fight to the death for both sides. We know the Warriors are innocent, and we root for them. They’re basically sweet, sexy kids. We want them to win. But we also like the pursuers. The real villains are in another film, much as they’re at another theatre, like Cinema I, say, watching Agatha.
Appealing, too, are the artifacts of the movie — the children’s toys used in warfare. Roller skates become terrifying. Baseball bats menace, especially in light of the beatings that erupted at the Ramble in Central Park last summer. A scene with a girl gang — the Lizzies — starts off with the Lizzies sympathetic to the Warriors. But it’s just an act; they turn against them with guns. The women’s movement could do plenty with that one. And sociologists could have a field day with the fact that the Warriors gang is integrated — the movie never mentions race. It doesn’t have to. The authority figure is black and compassionate. The assassination victim is black. The assassin is a demented white.
On the surface, The Warriors is cowboys and Indians, and, to this viewer, the most lovingly moral and beautiful film of the past year. It’s also the most disturbing.
The New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, just off Broadway, is a throwback to the days of Ziegfeld. Its architecture is early birdbath, with cherubs, curliques, gold mirrors, bas reliefs, stars, moons, all the little necessities that signaled posh during the ’20s.
Those in line waiting to catch the 5:15 show on Washington’s birthday are black, male, and young. Had they arrived a couple of hours earlier, they would have smelled a peculiar odor: two stink bombs had been tossed in the theatre. The smell is hardly noticeable now. Grass is a better deodorant than Airwick.
Inside, a nonstop game of ants in the pants takes place, featuring moving, shuffling, drinking, and bumming of cigarettes. Men wander through the house calling out the names of other men whom they’ve lost.
Suddenly, from the back of the theater, a shout.
Two cops, followed by an usher, run up the balcony stairs, and roughly drag two kids — each about 13 — to a basement office. The office door locks in back of them. An older man, about 22, follows. He’s screaming:
“That’s my cousin and his friend, you motherfuckers. Hit him and you’ll have to account to me.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“It was snowing outside,” he says, “and I told my cousin and his friends I’d take them to The Warriors, see. We didn’t have enough money and some of them sneaked in. If these fuckers throw my cousin in jail, there’s gonna be blood. Hear me. Their blood. They’re gonna account to me. What are you writing?”
“Just what you said. Why did you come here?”
“I’ve come every day since The Warriors started.”
“Do you belong to a gang?”
“Fuck that. I used to be with a gang that protected the 79th Precinct in Bed-Stuy. All those cops knew us. Don’t write down the name of the gang. Then I served 2½ years. They’re gonna throw my cousin in jail, those fuckers.”
The door to the basement office opens. A security guard comes out. The older man pulls at the door. He’s muttering obscenities. He yells at the cop, “What are you gonna do to my cousin?”
The guard tells him to get out of the lobby. He starts to push the manager, too. The older man shouts, “You don’t care about my cousin, you motherfuckers. You’re gonna get it.”
He’s thrown out of the theatre.
High up in the Gulf+Western Building, Gordon Weaver, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing for Paramount, explains the violence. “There are events, such as a rock concert, or a political rally, or a sports happening that by their very nature bring together groups of people from diverse backgrounds, individuals who wouldn’t ordinarily be at the same place at the same time. Bringing them together creates kindling wood. Anything can trigger trouble. Whether it’s throwing popcorn in the air, or, as in Oxnard, where someone in line asked for money, and the next thing you know, someone else is dead.”
Did Paramount brass have any idea of the violence that the film would cause? “None whatsoever,” answers Weaver. “And we are not naïve. We previewed the film for a mixed audience in Long Beach and showed it a number of times at the studio. There was simply no indication.”
Yet the movie was not shown to critics in New York until the day before it opened. According to a report in Variety, Paramount claimed the screenings were late due to last-minute editing and unavailability of prints. “That explanation doesn’t hold up,” notes the trade paper, “since Paramount opened the film in 670 theatres on February 9. It takes at least two weeks for that many prints to be struck.”
Does the studio have a moral obligation to pull The Warriors? The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, in a front-page story, insists that it does. Gordon Weaver is evasive. “Everything we do,” he says, “has the potential to influence great numbers around the world. Our obligation is to make sure that our films can withstand a reasonable moral-ethical test.” Can The Warriors withstand that test? Weaver responds that the company doesn’t have a position, but his personal feeling is that the film’s intent is not to be inflammatory, “no more than the movie of Superman is responsible for making children fly.”
Nevertheless, Superman has made one little boy attempt to fly, just as The Eddie Duchin Story made people fall in love, as The Exorcist made the queasy vomit, as Top Hat inspired the nation to buy black and white furniture. The trend for Madame Curie and The Life of Louis Pasteur inspirational biography died with Louis B. Mayer.
In fact, we may be in for a rocky summer since a gang-war film cycle is in full swing. Rumbles are big business — The Warriors grossed $12 million in its first 16 days — but movie moguls have already pressed the panic button. Universal has scheduled Walk Proud for June release. Until last week, the film was titled Gang. It was shot in Marina Del Ray and Venice, California; is “a romantic drama set against a background of Chicano rivalry”; has a screenplay by Evan Hunter, whose sensitivity quotient you can fit into the bellybutton of a cockroach; and stars Robby Benson, whose acting ability you can squeeze into the same navel.
Orion has The Wanderers, directed by Phil (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Kaufman, set for a July 10 multiple-theatre release through Warner Brothers. Gabe Sumner, Orion’s senior vice-president of distribution and marketing, calls The Wanderers “a stylized and funny bigger-than-life look at a group of gangs in the New York area.” Like The Warriors, its cast is made up of unknowns. And like The Warriors, the action is heavy on street fights. “The public tends to lump things together too easily,” insists Sumner. “Our film is a satire.” Does he foresee trouble? “There could be, but I want to emphasize that the violence is in the context of something far greater than just violence, like in West Side Story, Rocky, and Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Sumner didn’t explain just what that context is.
Meanwhile, a “good” gang, the Magnificent 13, is picketing theatres showing The Warriors, contending that it glorifies street violence. Last week they took to the Lexington Avenue No. 4 IRT train, making like a vigilante patrol unit. They happened upon a knifepoint robbery and broke it up, though not without casualties. One of the Magnificent 13 was hit in the jaw, knocked senseless, and taken to North Central Bronx Hospital. The gang insists they’ll continue the struggle, but the Transit Authority cops aren’t pleased with their “good” intentions.
Thursday, February 22. An evening subway ride on the No. 4 IRT to the RKO Fordham in the Bronx. Torn pages from the Daily News cover some of the crud on the floor. Graffiti on the doors, on the windows. Blank faces on the young men who sit with their legs spread apart. “WABC wants to make you a star,” reads an overhead poster. Under the poster sits Marcelino Sanchez.
At the theatre, he is spotted. A mob forms. It’s as if a local warrior has returned to the scene of his conquests.
Boys in imitation leather treat him with subdued respect. They want to know how much money he earns. They talk about their gangs: the Reefers, the Skulls, the Savage Nomads, the Playboys. A girl says, “I want to ask you a question, but I don’t know what to ask you.” Another asks if he’ll come to her sister’s wedding.
In the outer lobby a fracas occurs. A kid in a red jacket is refused admission. He keeps trying to break through the guard brigade. Another child, no more than 12, curses and paces, ready to pounce. He is handsome — a dwarf version of Robert De Niro — tough, mean. Saliva forms at the side of his mouth; he’s furious. But there’s no way he can get in.
A clique follows Marcelino into the theatre, and sits behind him in the balcony. Several groupies say they’ve lived at the Fordham since The Warriors opened, nearly two weeks ago. Because they know exactly what to expect, they’re not as hostile as the New Amsterdam audience. The Warriors is a cultural event to them, in the tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, except this is not a trendy piece for downtown wimps. The Warriors, man, is family.
They hoot and holler, recite lines with the actors, talk back to the screen, but they keep the peace. Sure, last week someone pulled a knife, but no one got nicked. Sure, they come in with their joints, and tell the security guard to fuck off when he warns “you better chill that racket,” or “take your feet down from the furniture, you with the shirt.”
Ten minutes before the final scene, the guard approaches Marcelino. “See that wheelchair over there,” he says. “Sit in it, and we’ll push you out so you won’t attract attention.”
Marcelino looks at the guard as if he’s crazy. These are the guys who make the rules?
Onward with the armies of the night. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 10, 2020