Cinematic Soulmates: Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors

Since the dawn of Man, we have used stories as a way of understanding both ourselves and the world around us.  Many of the best stories are about journeys, both metaphorical and actual.  Some follow a character or characters from one location to another, and others serve as a chronicle of the progression from one stage of a character’s life to the next.  It makes sense that these types of stories would resonate so deeply with us, as life itself is essentially one long journey, and we never truly know where it is going to take us.  All of this brings us to the latest installment of Cinematic Soulmates, in which we look at two films that feature journeys that are interrupted by violence, uncertainty, and ambiguous conclusions.  Furthermore, both films embody the cities in which they are set, and offer interesting insights into the prevailing mindset of the era in which they were produced.

In director John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) is being transferred to Death Row.  Along the way, one of the other convicts is overcome by a mysterious illness, and the bus makes an emergency stop at an empty, run down police station in a crime-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood.  The station is about to shut down permanently, and is being manned by a skeleton crew that includes Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) and a tough secretary named Leigh (Laurie Zimmer).  Meanwhile, a man watches as his young daughter is gunned down in the street by a vicious gang leader who is out for revenge against the cops who killed his friends.  The man hunts down the gang, but when he catches up to them, he’s too afraid to actually do anything to them.  Instead, they chase him to the police station, and lay siege to the building.  What follows is a tense and bloody standoff between the gang members outside, and the cops and the criminals trapped inside.

Directed by Walter Hill, The Warriors (1979) follows the titular gang as they travel from their usual stomping ground of Coney Island all the way to New York City, to attend a huge gang summit arranged by Cyrus (Roger Hill), leader of the Gramercy Riffs.  Cyrus wants to negotiate a truce between all the gangs in the city.  He believes that if they all work together, they could rule all of New York, with him as supreme overlord.  Most of the gangs seem to agree, but before Cyrus can convince the rest, he is gunned down in cold blood.  In the ensuing panic, the Warriors are blamed for the crime, and before they can get out of the city, the Gramercy Riffs put a huge bounty on their heads.  Now the Warriors must make their way home to Coney Island, all while avoiding every other gang in the city, all of whom are out to get them.

While both films manage to carve out their own unique identities, they are both paying homage to earlier stories.  Assault on Precinct 13 is essentially a remake of Rio Bravo, while The Warriors is a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey.  While the relative merits of each film are certainly debatable, they nonetheless belong to a tradition of storytelling that goes back a long way.  They both manage to transcend their low budget roots by presenting stories that resonate deeply with the viewer.  They each chronicle journeys that are fraught with peril, and feature heroes that bravely charge headlong into uncertain outcomes.  This is a perfect metaphor for life, and thus viewers become emotionally invested in the journey (not to mention the films themselves).

In Assault on Precinct 13, it is Napoleon Wilson who embarks upon a journey, albeit unwillingly.  He is being carted off to death row, a place where journeys normally come to an end.  However, his voyage toward death is interrupted when he is forced to stop at the police station in Anderson.  Even though Wilson is heading toward his own demise, he nonetheless rises to the challenge, and becomes a hero when he stands alongside Lt. Bishop in defense of the station.  Similarly, when the Warriors find themselves stranded in hostile territory, they must embark upon a journey to get back home to Coney Island.  While this is not the death sentence that awaits Napoleon Wilson at the end of his journey, it is nonetheless a bit of an anticlimax.  Worse yet, the Warriors seem to know it.  When the survivors finally reach their destination, one of the gang member’s looks around and says, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”  To some, this may seem foolish, but it actually speaks to the heroism of the Warriors.  Sure, Coney Island may be a depressed and rundown area, but for the Warriors, it is the embodiment of home.  If that isn’t worth fighting for, then nothing is.

There are a number of other themes that run through both films.  Both are essentially siege movies.  In Assault on Precinct 13, the heroes are trapped in a single building, whereas in The Warriors, the main characters find themselves trapped in a strange city.  This brings us to the themes of escape and survival that run through both films.  The characters simply want to get out of their predicaments alive, even though the tactics they use may differ.  In one, the heroes are forced to hunker down and fend off their attackers, while in the other, they have to keep running, hiding, and fighting in order to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

There is also a sense of urban decay that runs through both films.  In Assault on Precinct 13, the city seems cheerful and bright during the day, but at night, the decay becomes wholly apparent.  More to the point, the whole plot of the film is predicated on the fact that even the systems we put in place to protect ourselves are unsustainable, and subject to collapse.  Due to budget cuts, the police station in Anderson is being closed, and all the personnel being relocated to another precinct.  Furthermore, there are constant reports about the rampant gang violence that is plaguing Los Angeles, and it is almost as though this is meant to signify that civilization itself is breaking down.

This theme of urban decay is also prevalent in The Warriors.  The film takes place in a New York that is devoid of life.  As the Warriors fight to get home, they travel through empty streets that are lined with trash and the occasional burning car.  In fact, the only time we see anyone who isn’t a member of one of the cartoonish gangs that prowl the streets is when the Warriors are riding the subway, and encounter a group of young people who look as though they are heading home after a night at the prom.  It is almost as if the film is trying to imply that all of the civilized people have abandoned the underbelly of the city, and are simply letting it fester and die.  Only the strongest can survive there, and that is why the gangs have moved in and taken over, their battle cries serving as the city’s death knell.

We love stories about journeys, as each and every one of us embarks on a journey from the moment we’re born.  We spend every day of our lives never knowing where our path will lead, or when the journey will end.  It is at once thrilling and frightening, exhilarating and heartbreaking, but it is always unpredictable.  This is why we are so fascinated by stories about journeys.  We hope that they will help us understand our own journey, and that that understanding will bring us comfort.  While Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors may not necessarily provide any sort of deep insight into the human condition, they nevertheless take viewers on exciting and gripping journeys.  That alone is enough to watch them back to back.  The fact that they share so many themes in common is what makes them cinematic soul mates.

  • I liked your comments about urban decay, and how the movies are, in a roundabout way, making comments about the culture/society from whence they came. I’d seen the remake of Assault before seeing this one, and I don’t recall anything as profound in that one. And I would love to see how they would do Warriors today, in this world of economic depression and gangs rioting in the Mall of America. Heck, that might be the perfect setting for a remake.

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