Film critic, actor, and legendary personality, Joe Bob Briggs is coming to the Cinedelphia Film Festival to present Walter Hill’s 1979 gang classic, The Warriors. Cinedelphia sat down with the former host of MonsterVision to discuss the upcoming event as well as the magic of film as a communal experience:
You’ll be screening The Warriors at the film festival. Tell us a bit about the film.
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite movies. When I did it on Monster Vision years ago it was always one of the favorite episodes. We would get out the subway map and we would trace the course of the – I’m sure you’re familiar with the movie, right?
Absolutely. I believe the first time I ever saw it was on Monster Vision.
Well we traced the course of the Warriors as they get stranded in the Bronx and have to fight their way back to Coney Island and I make a lot of observations about the source material that the movie was based on. And it’s a lot of fun for a lot of reasons. I talk about Walter Hill. I talk about Michael Beck, the star of it. Michael Beck was a redneck from rural Arkansas who played quarterback at Milsaps college in Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t know what is compare that to. Everybody in Mississippi goes to either Ole Miss or Mississippi State, and then the few intellectuals go to Milsaps College. It’s this tiny college in Jackson. I don’t know what the equivalent would be like in Pennsylvania. It would be like playing quarterback at Drexel. You wouldn’t get an NFL contract from there. I guess it was the film that made him famous.
It’s certainly where I first heard of him.
I won’t say Walter Hill hates women, but women in his films are always sort of conniving sluts. The gang “The Lizzies” you know, who are just completely rotten to the core. And hen there’s the one girl character played by Debra Van Valkenburgh who, very early in the movie, Michael Beck says “you should just strap a mattress to your back,” which is a typical Walter Hill line.
Does it differ from the source material in its handling of women characters?
Yeah. He messed with the source material greatly. It’s based on a novel by Sol Yurick who is a communist social worker in New York. The novel came out in 1965, and the main gang was the Coney Island Dominators. And it was a black gang.
Almost all black. There were Hispanic members but the Hispanics were also black. It was supposed to be an insight into black culture. It was a rough gang and it was a rural gang, and among the things that they took out of the movie version was a gang rape and a thrill murder. So it’s bleak. The novel is bleak. And of course they didn’t wear baseball uniforms. So Walter Hill took that and decided to make a cartoon, and Sol Yurick said he wanted to come to the set and they freaked out. They didn’t want him to see what they were doing to his novel, but he was okay with it.
The other thing about this material is that Sol Yurick based the story on the story of the Ten Thousand, which is a work written by the Greek writer Xenophon, called the Anabasis which is the story of these Greek mercenaries who got stranded in Persia and had to get back to Greece. So he took that basic story and changed it to a 1960s gang that has to fight is way back from the Bronx to Coney island. Using only the subways. I always thought “why didn’t they just take a cab, ya know?” They didn’t have any money, but they could just mug the cab driver. It’s an easier way than fighting through every gang territory.
I guess there’s a lot of cinematic value to jumping turnstiles. You lose that if they jump in a cab.
When the movie came out there was violence in the theaters. There was a gang shooting in Oxnard California. There was another guy shot at a drive-in in Palm Springs. But in New York the only thing that happened is people were horrified by the turnstile jumping. They thought it was encouraging young people to jump turnstiles, and that was bad thing. That was the only controversy in New York.
Well, good thing they cut out the thrill kill.
(Laughs). The turnstiles today are much lower than turnstiles then, I think because of little people’s rights, and so it’s actually easier to jump turnstiles today, but I don’t see anybody doing it. It’s a fashion that passed.
If I remember, when Giuliani became Mayor he lead a crackdown on turnstile jumping.
He sent them all to Riker’s Island. Twenty years in Attica.
“What are you in for?” “I jumped a turnstile”
There in the same cell as the squeegee guy.
::Here we began to chat about the different cuts of The Warriors::
There was a director’s cut put out in 2005 or 2006 and most people don’t like it. They put these cartoon transitions between the scenes and nobody liked those. It was something that they decided not to do in 1979 and they were looking for things to put in the director’s cut so they just put it in. Nobody liked that cut.
I can’t imagine cartoon wipes in the theater in my head.
In know! (The Warriors) is actually a beautiful film. The cinematography … and it very well blocked. If you’ve seen it more than once you can appreciate the color and the photography. It’s really beautiful. I guess that’s partly how they were able to sell the idea of the Baseball Furies and the roller skater gang, and the Riffs. The Gramercy Park Riffs! (laughs). Can you pick a better neighborhood? The meanest, biggest gang was the Gramercy Park Riffs! They had the locked park where you can’t get in unless you’re a member. Do the Riffs go over the fence or do they have keys?
The image of New York has changed so much since then, but when I picture Coney Island it still looks to me the way that it looks in The Warriors.
That’s one thing that’s never changed. I think the last gentrified neighborhood in all five boroughs will be Coney Island.
I could see that.
It never quite becomes fashionable. You know it’s never been fashionable, even in its heyday. The only thing that’s different it that you don’t see the graffiti on the trains like you do in the movie. Coney Island is still kind of a wasteland after all these years.
I was recently introduced to a movie called The Super Cops. It has a very similar warmth in its depiction of New York to The Warriors.
On the one hand The Warriors is very warm and colorful. On the other hand all those trains are empty, and it’s a little bit like a ghost city in the way that they filmed it. Occasionally there’s some old lady sitting in the corner of the subway car or something. You’ll see the occasional random extra. But for the most part they’re going through a city where there’s no people except for the other gangs. What a choice.
I guess it would play differently if there were some sense of collateral damage to it, but it almost seems like at nighttime the city sleeps and The Warriors come out to play.
Yeah occasionally the cops show up but no normal people show up.
To jump away from The Warriors for a second, I know that you are a proponent of theatrical viewings of movies. So I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on the dawn of streaming video and home viewing.
The more exhibition we have, the better. I’m not opposed to streaming. Streaming is a lot better than what we had prior to streaming, which was where you had to do downloads. If we continued along that road the film industry would’ve gone the way of the music industry. Basically everyone would be just ripped off everything forever. At least streaming returns some money to the filmmaker and gives us an economic model where the filmmakers can continue to make films.
That’s always a good thing.
You know, I don’t think theatrical will ever go away. It’s been predicted for years that theatrical will die, but there’s always a richer experience that people are seeking that’s only in the theater. There’s been sort of a return to special events. I mean, it’s never going to be like the 1930s where everybody went to the theater three times a week.
People would get dressed up for the movies.
You would have two features and a newsreel and a cartoon. But (the market) for special events seems to be increasing. I do special events all the time where virtually everybody in the audience has seen the movie, but they come anyway for the group experience.
Final question: When the inevitable Joe Bob Briggs biopic is made, who should play you?
Oh wow. Unfortunately he’s gone, but I would’ve liked Dennis Hopper to play me, but I’m gonna have to say Sasha Baron Cohen.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.