This is bound to be a bit of a controversial post, because in it I’m going to take on a cultural artifact that inspires a strangely vehement mythos: the 1979 Walter Hill film The Warriors, which is something of a holy relic among fans of underground cult films. But first things first, while I dislike the film, this article isn’t really a review of it or the story behind it. Instead, I want to use the case of The Warriors to illustrate a key issue in the craft of storytelling: what can happen when a writer (or director) ignores a very serious plot hole. This article is primarily about storytelling.
The Warriors is a movie ostensibly about gang warfare, but it’s presented, at least in spirit, in the manner of Greek mythology. Basically the plot is this. In a slightly dystopian New York City, era roughly modern but somewhat indeterminate, a criminal kingpin named Cyrus calls a summit meeting of all the city’s street gangs in Pelham Bay Park. At this meeting–never mind why–Cyrus is assassinated, and a gang called the Warriors, from Coney Island–our heroes–are unfairly implicated. Now on the run, they must fight their way across the whole of New York City, across many miles of hostile gang territory, to get to their home turf in Coney Island. The movie takes place all in one night (and the following morning), involving various violent encounters with enemy gang members. Toward the end of the film, one of the Warriors, surveying the urban wreckage of Coney Island, says something to the effect of, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?”
The geography of New York City–a topic I’ve blogged about before–is important to the plot, which is why I brought up this image on my Google Earth. This shows you where Pelham Bay Park is in relation to Coney Island. As you can see, the movie’s basic situation covers a lot of territory.
But here’s the plot hole. The Warriors, in the film, have to cover all this territory on foot. Only once do they get the idea of taking the subway, but they’re chased by police before they can board a train. Convenient. When I first saw The Warriors, after the premise of the story became clear, I asked myself, “Why don’t they just catch a cab? Wouldn’t that be a lot easier?” The answer, of course, is that they can’t just catch a cab–if they did there would be no movie, because the whole movie is about them fighting to get back to their own territory. But this single plot hole ruined the entire picture for me. Unexplained by even a single word of dialogue, this gaping defect at the basic conceptual level of the story–before even a single word was put down on paper–ultimately destroyed the entire movie.
You may think this is unnecessarily nit-picky. I mean, it’s one “minor” plot hole. The Warriors is a 93-minute movie made with great care by a talented director, Walter Hill, with a lot of interesting visuals and an extremely unique take on gang warfare and other urban ills. I’m being unfair or short-sighted, you may think, by letting seven simple words in my mind–Why don’t they just catch a cab?–overshadow everything else The Warriors has to offer.
Indeed, for years I thought I simply was being nit-picky, and I was one of those unfortunate people whose lives will be forever incomplete because he just doesn’t grok on the awesomeness of The Warriors, which most of my friends revere on the level of Citizen Kane or (in my case) Remains of the Day. There’s also the issue that The Warriors, as urban mythology, is not supposed to be taken literally. It’s a fantasy, pure and simple; the gangs aren’t realistic and aren’t meant to be, the depiction of New York is not realistic in the slightest, and the entire film might as well take place in an alternate Bizarro universe.
But here’s the thing: the writers of The Warriors, David Shaber and Walter Hill, should never have allowed this plot hole to go unfixed. It’s not the type of thing you can just paper over by saying, “Oh, the movie isn’t meant to be taken literally,” or “Oh, no one will notice.” Even if The Warriors did take place, literally and expressly, in an alternate universe, a story must still abide by certain logical rules, or the reader will be completely adrift without at least an attempt at an explanation of what those rules are. If there are no taxicabs in the Bizarro alternate universe of New York for whatever reason, that needs to be explained. It could be done easily, with maybe two sentences of dialogue. But Shaber and Hill didn’t even expend that little bit of effort on it. It’s as if they just expected the audience would buy the premise without any serious thought. That’s why it matters so much–it’s not just sloppy storytelling, but it’s outright contempt for the intelligence of the viewers.
Furthermore, even if the cab situation was explained, the premise is still flimsy. No cabs, OK–surely one of the guys in the gang knows somebody who owns a car, right? Barring that, this is a criminal gang. The thought of stealing a car, or even carjacking someone, never occurs to these hardened criminals? Not once, in the entire night they’re out there, getting attacked by rival gangs? Not once does someone in the Warriors gang say, “You know what, guys, this is stupid–why don’t we just [fill in the blank with a simple solution]?” But that never happens. It’s never hinted at. It never comes up. The issue, from the screenplay’s standpoint, seemingly does not exist.
“The Warriors”: a story premise so incredibly fragile that the appearance of one of these could completely destroy it.
If you know the history of this film, it’s instantly apparent how this plot hole got into The Warriors in the first place. The movie is based on a 1965 novel, which itself is a modern adaptation of the ancient Greek epic Anabasis, which chronicles the adventures of a cadre of Greek mercenaries stranded on enemy soil who have to fight their way back home. There you go. Anabasis deals with an army winding its way through the entire ancient Near East. Obviously in 490 BCE you don’t have a lot of transportation options. Transpose this scenario onto a modern, smaller-scale setting, and you inherently have “Well, why don’t they just…?” sort of problems that don’t exist in the ancient original. But Shaber and Hill evidently decided that the best way to handle this problem was to ignore it and hide behind the movie’s sense of “mythology.”
In one sense I suppose I can understand why they chose to do that. As an experienced writer, I spent some time thinking about how I, if I was assigned to write The Warriors screenplay, would have fixed this plot hole. I can’t do it. You can come up easily with a reason why they can’t catch a cab; maybe there’s a taxi driver’s strike. But try coming up with a plausible reason why they can’t catch a cab and why they can’t get on a bus. Then try to come up with one that explains not only that, but why they can’t steal a car, or carjack somebody. Good luck.
The bottom line is that the plot hole in The Warriors, which on the face of it seems trivial, is in fact nothing less than a live grenade that blows the entire story to smithereens before the first frame flickers on the screen. “Why don’t they just catch a cab?” is an ultimately fatal question, because there’s no answer to it that doesn’t make the entire premise of the movie completely unworkable. It may sound harsh–and it is–but the inviolable rules of story dynamics are sometimes unforgiving masters. Some story ideas simply can’t be fixed. The Warriors is a rare example of a wonderful idea, and a very dynamic vision, that was destroyed by something very simple–the kingdom lost for want of a nail.