"THE WARRIORS," a baroquely stylized chase thriller about a New York street gang pursued from the Bronx to Coney Island by rival gangs, opened at 670 theaters on Feb. 9 without advance screenings or an impressive publicity buildup.
Nevertheless, it grossed $3.5 million that weekend, presumably on whatever expectations were encouraged by ads depicting a mob of gaudily costumed, surly young people who were described ominously: "These are the Armies of the Nigh.... They outnumber the cops five to one."
By the follwoing weekend the film continued to do crisp business, but without benefit of conventional advertising. Sporadic outbreaks of vandalism and three killings (two in Southern California, one in Boston) involving young patrons on their way to or from showings of "The Warriros" had obliged the distributor, Paramount, to cancel radio and TV advertising completely. Display ads in the press were reduced to the informational bare necessities of title, rating (an R) and participating theaters.
Paramount also offered to let nervous exhibitors drop the film without penalty and encouraged the hiring of extra security guards, whose salaries would be deducted from the company's film rentals. The theaters in Oxnard and Palm Springs where killings had occurred did stop showing "The Warriors." Gordon Weaver, Paramount's senior vice president for woridwide marketing, estimates that about 200 theaters added security personnel. "Most said no," Weaver recalled, "becasue they anticipated no trouble."
Then, after two weeks free of incidents, Paramount expanded the display ads to take advantage of favorable reviews that were beginning to accumulate. Curiously, the company singled out a quote from Janet Maslin of The New York %times that criticized the orginal ads for being misleading. The studio also selected excerpts from Pauline kael's detailed appreciation of "The Warriors" in her farewell review fro The New Yorker: "The literate shouldn't miss out on it. 'The Warriors' is a real moviemaker's movie." The sentence that preceded these lines may be worth recalling: "Probably the assumption was that the audience for this picture doesn't read reviews."
Now in its sixth week of release, "The Warriors" has grossed $16.4 million (on a production cost somewhere between $6 and $7 million) and ceased to loom as an immediate threat to public safety.
In a Reuter's story Sol Yurick, the author of the 1965 novel that inspired the movie, expressed disappointment in the film version but dismissed its inflammatory reputation, pointing out that there was more violence, with more upsetting implications, in his book and in another current film, "The Deer Hunter." Yurick predicted that "reams of nonsense" would flow from behavioral scientists because of "The Warriors." At the same time he speculated that the film frightened some people because "it appeals to the fear of a demonic uprising by lumpen youth" and captivated many teenagers because it "hits a series of collective fantasies."
Writing on couple of weeks after the film had been in circulation, Kael concluded that "There is bound to be trouble in some places when a movie comes along that's bursting with energy and is set in the imaginary kids-and-cops city of youth."
Could the violent events have been foreseen? Weaver insists that Paramount expected no trouble: "We are not naive, but it never crossed our minds." Nevertheless, the studio's press material mentions a few apprehensive nights of shooting on location last summer when real New York gang members hovcred around the sets and random acts of vandalism occurred.
Hill's conception was deliberately fantastic, removing the gangs from realistically imagined nocturnal battle zones and relocating them in a fanciful, expansive night city landscape conducive to prolonged sprints and show-stopping punch/outs in streets, parks or subway stations illuminated with moody brilliance by cinematographer Andrew Lazslo.
Hill migh not have created such a dreamworld if he had been a New Yorker. Yurick's novel also was constructed as a fable with mythic references, specilically invoking one of the Lost Patrol chronicies of antiquity, Xenophon's "Anabasis." However, Yurick remained too aware of the reality and pathology of street gangs to ignore their lamentable aspects. His returning urban battlers, a Coney Island gang called the Dominators. leave violence in their wake that can't be dismissed as action movie stuntwork and pyrotechnics. Hill, a native Californian who grew up in Long Beach, may be able to glamorize the Warriors because they don't seem nearly as threatening to him. His romantic, estheticizing tendencies were concentrated on a satisfying hero figure in the first movie he directed, "Hard Times" with Charles Bronson. In both "The Driver" and "The Warriors" one feels emotionally split between the excitement of contemplating a sensational technique and the discomfort of putting up with superficial, sordid content.
Hill's interpretation of "The Warriors" is closer to dance than either drama or urban social reality. Indeed, it has such kinetic appeal that you wish Hill would try his hand at a dance musical. "Grease" could have used his precision framing, lighting, cutting and choreographing.
In "The Warriors," however, Hill has actually pulled his punches by playing the story as a swift juvenile adventure fantasy. Anyone who saw his depiction of the cold-blooded murder of the Ronee Blakley character in "The Driver" will appreciate how much more powerful Hill can be. None of the choreographed mayhem in "The Warriors" anproaches the horrifying suddenness and impact of Blakley's murder, an episode so chilling that it puts a lust for vengeance in your heart.
In addition, it's not all certain that amoral or stimulating movies are the only ones that can cause social problems. The prevailing judgment of "Roots" as a worthy enterprise was not seriously threatened by accounts of urban black kids influenced to regard white contemporaries as the enslavers of Kunta Kinte. Who can forget the most subtly violent scene in "Taxi Driver" -- Robert DeNiro pointing his newly purchased.44 Magnum at the inspipid lovers in a TV soap opera and ever so slowly tipping over the set with his foot.
While it's impossible to pin a definitive rap on "The Warriors," it's also difficult to shake the feeling that the movie is socially irresponsible in some respect. Hill's talent for abstraction doesn't redeem the savagery and social deprivation permeating the lives of authentic gang members. His movie is a stylistic triumph, but Yurick's characters don't lend themselves to heroic myth as persuasively as, say, the rabbits in Richard Adams' "Watership Down." in any case, domestic box-office receipts declined for the first time in two years during February. The only commericial bright spots among the snowbound slump were Michael Crichton's "The Great Train Robbery," which figured to be a success, and Walter Hill's "The Warriors." which didn't seem to figure at all. CAPTION: Picture 1, "The Warriors": $3.5 million in one weekend.; Picture 2, Gang members on the move.