Best known for his role as the charismatic gang leader Cyrus in Walter Hill’s The Warriors, actor Roger Hill passed away this week at age 65. Most people didn’t know Hill by his given name, though some recognized him from his time on the soap opera One Life to Live, and diehard fans of 1970s black cinema easily spotted him in The Education of Sonny Carson. But for millions of cinemaniacs, Hill was simply Cyrus, the ill-fated leader of the Gramercy Riffs, with the audacious plan to unite all the gangs of New York into an army to fight back against the police, organized crime, and the other oppressive forces that kept the poor people of New York enslaved by poverty, dope, and crime.
The Warriors was based on a novel by Sol Yurick, with a screenplay by David Shaber and director Hill. What many fans of The Warriors don’t know is that is was very loosely based on Xenophon’s Anabasis, the epic true tale of Greek mercenaries working for Cyrus the Younger, who became trapped behind enemy lines after their leader was killed in the Battle of Cunaxa, and they had to fight their way back to the sea. All of this took place around 401 BC, and recognizing the connection between Anabasis and The Warriors is reserved solely for history buffs or anyone talking time to watch the bonus features on The Warriors DVD (and folks like me, who studied as much as they could about the movie from the moment it came out in 1979).
Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Warriors. And as the film’s cult status has continued to grow, more and more people have become aware of how the film was influenced by the real-life events chronicled by Xenophon. But I’ve often wondered about the other real-life events that possibly influenced The Warriors, and especially the character of Cyrus, who was in fact inspired by Cyrus the Younger, son of Darius II of Persia. As far as I know, no one else has ever written about this (and if they have, I apologize for not giving them credit), but I can’t help but feel that Cyrus was partially influenced by two very important 20th century leaders more than a 4th century BC prince. Those two men would be Fred Hampton of Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Afrika Bambaataa, hip-hop pioneer and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation.
For all of its over-the-top action and melodrama, The Warriors has at is core a very subversive political message. This is the message delivered by Cyrus, moments before he is gunned down. It is the message of taking back the streets, of organizing the criminalized and the oppressed to protect the community. Ultimately, he is talking about politicizing non-political people, and taking control of city that has left the oppressed to either starve, die, or rot in jail. Without going into the incredible history of the late great Fred Hampton, take a look at what he was doing to politicize the street gangs of Chicago, until he was murdered by the police department. Take a look at how Afrika Bambaataa helped transform the notorious Black Spades street gang into the Universal Zulu Nation.
Now, I could be off in my reading of Cyrus in The Warriors. Maybe there are no influences to be found in the lives and accomplishments of Hampton and Bambaataa. Maybe Roger Hill’s performance was not inspired at all by Fred Hampton or Afrika Bambaataa. Maybe, instead, with his light complexion, Cyrus was an alternate universe version of Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton, two dynamic leaders that also struggled to politicize the Black community. Imagine for a moment a fictional world where Malcolm Little never joined the Nation of Islam and became Malcolm X, but instead became a gang leader in New York, where in time he began to recognize the systems of oppression that kept him and the community dehumanized.
I know all of this may seem ridiculous to some people—and perhaps it is pointless to think about these things. But this is all part of what makes the film so compelling to me. Part of appreciating and critically examining film (and pop culture) is learning to look at it through a larger lens, to recognize the possibility of what certain moments may mean, or what influenced these moments. Perhaps nothing went into the character of Cyrus other than writing his speech, casting Roger Hill, and shooting his scene. But I doubt that. The reason Cyrus and his speech has resonated with so many people for so long is because there is within him something recognizable that we all are looking for—at least those of us who have known the realities of sociopolitical oppression and police brutality. To put it simply, Cyrus had a plan to stick it to The Man.