• U.S.

Nation: The Flick of Violence

5 minute read

A gang film called The Warriors attracts off-screen rumbles

Staring from the poster, they looked like a nightmare of what might be, that terrifying day when the street gangs take over the city, any city. Some of them wore leather vests over bare chests. Others had on Arab headdresses. A few, their faces painted harlequin colors, wore baseball uniforms and carried bats. Massed as far as the eye could see, all looked menacing, and the threat was underscored by the text above the picture: “These are the Armies of the Night.

They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City. Tonight they’re all out to get the Warriors.”

That Paramount ad was chillingly effective, bringing into 670 theaters around the country thousands of youths keen to see The Warriors—and eager for trouble. Since the film opened on Feb. 9, three young men have been killed by Warrior-inspired fights, and other brawls have broken out at moviehouses in several cities. More than half a dozen theaters have dropped the film entirely; others are hiring some muscle of their own, which Paramount will pay for. In Washington, B.C., two full-time guards were on duty last week at the Town Downtown and will stay there until The Warriors finishes its run. Not since Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange opened in 1971 has a movie generated such anxiety about the seeming power of a film to engender gang violence in those who see it.

The first killing occurred on Feb. 12 at a drive-in showing the movie in Palm Springs, Calif.

During an intermission a white girl drew comment from blacks belonging to a youth gang called the Blue Coats. Their white counterparts, the Family, came to her rescue. In the shooting that followed, one of the Family, Marvin Kenneth Eller, 19, was killed by a .22-cal. bullet.

Another racial incident took place the following night in Oxnard, Calif, a town of farm workers 40 miles from Los Angeles. A scuffle broke out in a the ater lobby after the first showing of The Warriors, and Timothy Gitchel, 18, white, was stabbed to death by a black youth.

The third killing, in Boston on Feb. 15, was not a racial clash. Returning .Tom the movie, several members of a white DorChester gang apparently got into an argument with Marty Yakubowicz, 16. Someone yelled, “I want you!”—a line from the script—and Yakubowicz was attacked with a knife. He died six hours later.

The Warriors’ sin may lie not in its content so much as in the way it attracts crowds like a lightning rod. It is not particularly violent, and what violence there is is curiously abstract and unemotional. More gore can often be seen on the television screen, and any number of films—Marathon Man, Death Wish, just about any Peckinpah film and certainly A Clockwork Orange—have contained far more stomach-churning brutality. Indeed, The Warriors’ director, Walter Hill, goes out of his way to expunge any feeling of genuine menace or racial animosity. The gang called the Warriors is integrated; there are no scenes of sexual assault, so typical of this kind of film, and there is no attempt to scorn or bait the white middle class.

As the picture opens, all the gangs of New York City have gathered in convention at a park in The Bronx, where they plot to take over the town, borough by borough. If they cooperate, instead of fighting one another, says Cyrus (Roger Hill), the Jim Jones-like figure who has brought them together, they can do whatever they want. Before he can go much further, however, Cyrus is assassinated, and the Warriors, who have come up to the meeting from Brooklyn, are wrongly blamed for his death. With that, all the assembled gangs, not to mention the police, are after them, and the Warriors have to fight them off before they can reach the safety of their far-off home, the sands of Coney Island.

Why has a movie like this caused such trouble? One reason may be, of course, that it is so stylized. Violence in films and TV has become so common that most audiences are inured to it. Hill’s rendering may strike the deeper chords of instinct; the film does set audiences cheering in sympathy for the Warriors’ run for freedom.

Another explanation, however, is that the original ad, which Paramount has withdrawn, simply brought all the toughs in town to one spot, and trouble was sure to come with them. “If you bring that sort of crowd into the moviehouse,” says one Paramount executive, “you will have the same trouble with The Sound of Music.”

If so, more may be on the way. The Warriors is only the first of a series of gang movies soon to be released or made.

The furor over The Warriors has made everyone in Hollywood a little nervous. But it cost less than $6 million, and its receipts, $14.6 million so far, are likely to drown any second thoughts about releasing the rest of the gang films.

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