Review – Yurick, “The Warriors”

Sol Yurick, “The Warriors” (1965) (read aloud by Joel Richards) – The sports teams of my hometown high school (which I did not attend because I am a special prince) are called “the Warriors,” and I’ve been told that none of their rivals, in the unnamed corner of Massachusetts from which I came, taunt them by calling out “Waaaaaarriors, come out and plaaaaaaaaay!” You’re leaving money on the table, Mansfield, Sharon, King Philip, North Attleboro! Money on the table.

Maybe kids don’t watch “The Warriors” these days, but they should, because it’s a fun movie. It’s based on a book! Sol Yurick was a journeyman writer of what today might be called thrillers when his experience as a schoolteacher and social worker in his native New York inspired him to write a novel about the youth gangs that were, at the time, a city institution. He famously based the plot on Xenophon’s “Anabasis,” an Athenian account of ten thousand Greek mercenaries, stranded deep in the Persian Empire after a botched job, fighting their way back to Greece. Here, a youth gang from Coney Island has gone to the North Bronx for a big meeting of the gangs. The meeting goes badly wrong, all the gangs flee, and these kids have to make their way home in the dark, weird 1960s New York night. Complications ensue!

This isn’t the most dramatic example of a book being worse than the cinematic adaptation – “Children of Men” probably takes the cake there, though “The Godfather” and “Starship Troopers” are also in the running – but the movie is definitely better. Yurick (who grew up with the Popular Front and was a SDS supporter at this time) was trying to do a pulpy version of social realism. That’s cool and all, but it’s not as fun as the movie’s delirious world. The gangs are all more or less the same in the book, maybe with different racial makeups or outfits, but nothing like the Baseball Furies or the kaleidoscope of opposing forces in the movie. The meeting of the gangs and the speech the biggest gang leader makes, calling on them to seize the city, lacks the intensity of the speech in the movie, no refrain of “Caaaaan… you… DIG IT??!!” There’s no plot to blame the protagonists for the betrayal of the gang king in the book, no real rival gang- just the difficulties of traversing the city at night when you’re a gang kid in a city of rival gang kids. The Warriors in the movie have some other silly name in the book. Basically, the screenwriters and directors of the adaptation took the kernel of the story and made it cooler, and arguably got the classical world Yurick was borrowing from better, in its “gigantism and ineptitude” as Borges put it, its comic book colors. 

One thing both the filmmakers and Yurick strive to get across is a sort of non-Christian (or non-post-Christian, fairly similar), Achaean-style ethics motivating the gang youth. Whatever money-making schemes they might have, these aren’t the sort of youth gangs we got familiar from with the crack epidemic. These are just neighborhood kids who fight other neighbor kids, have their own little street world with its own rules and rituals. It may be a counter-world but there’s no hippie levity- they take it deadly seriously. Probably the most interesting parts of the book for me were the negotiations over status and ritual between rival gangs, as the Warriors try to move from place to place, gang territory to gang territory, without violence. It’s a world seriously invested in the manner in which people, other kids mostly, walk down a sidewalk, where their eyes go. People have potentially lethal fights over that! I’m acquainted with the desire for violence, especially on the part of teenage boys, but even at my most testosterone-poisoned, I never paid that much attention to gait (probably helped that I was in the suburbs- people drove). There’s also distinctly different ideas about gender and consent. Rape is considered to be on the spectrum with provocative eyeballing, more severe, but very much “on the table” and in the open as far as the moral code of the rumbling kids is concerned. That’s something the filmmakers softened- one of the Warriors in the movie gets fresh with a woman in the park and winds up in cuffs, but things get a lot worse in the book. Yurick observes all this in a cool, detached, somewhat regretful (“the cast-offs of society,” contrasts between gestures of childlike innocence and desire for a sense of family with the violent and amoral behavior of the gang kids) air. A “this is the way it is” from someone on the social work front lines. It’s not bad. Paul Verhoeven found the kernel of satire in a deeply bad book when he adapted “Starship Troopers,” the exploitation filmmakers who adapted “The Warriors” found the epic that was always there in the somewhat self-serious novel that couldn’t decide if it was about thrills or about sadness. ***

Review – Yurick, “The Warriors”

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