THE WANDERERS

The 1970’s saw an explosion in gang movies and I mean those outside of ones about the Mafia because those are really their own genre. The 70’s saw a rise in movies about other types of gangs like street gangs, black, white and brown (The Warriors, Lords of Flatbush, Slaughter). Bikersploitation was a big in the grindhouse world (The Hard Ride, Chrome and Hot Leather). Southern Dixie “mafia” and bootlegger flicks were all the rage (White Lightning, Walking Tall) but there is one excellent and consistently overlooked film from that era and that is the 1979 classic coming of age movie, The Wanderers. Why is it overlooked? Probably because it came out just after The Warriors.

The Wanderers takes place in 1963 Bronx NYC and centers around The Wanderers, the biggest Italian American gang in the area and in their mind, the toughest (untrue). The movie focuses on the trials and tribulation of The Wanders leader Richie Gennaro and his best friend Joey Capra. The movie deals with racial tensions, the nascent hippie movement, teen pregnancy, child abuse, family issues, crime, what it means to be a man and how the macho culture is limiting and just about every human emotion and experience possible, all in a believable and true manner. As per usual I am just giving a quick run down of the movie and now onto what I thought was great in the movie.

First off, the writer of the movie is the director Phillip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Raiders of the Lost Ark (story) and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid) and his wife Rose. They did a fantastic job of adapting a complex and finely written book by Richard Price which was based on him growing up in the same area/era as the movie. The Kaufman’s used a fine and delicate hand in adapting the book and it shows on the screen. Nothing seems heavy handed or forced and there is a sense of authenticity that runs through the film.

As the director, Kaufman made a bright, shiny and somewhat comic book looking film but it works. The way he filmed the movie almost reminds me of a memory somebody was having of that time in their lives or maybe the memories generated by two guys like Richie and Joey talking sometime in the future. The technical aspects of the movie are all done well and the “brightness” gives the film a sense of possibility that existed in pre-hippie New York. This is important because later in the movie, when things break down for some of the characters, the cheeriness is juxtaposed against death or with the death of possibility, that some characters face, and has a deeper impact. Also, since the movie was shot on the actual streets of the Bronx, it has a “lived in” feeling to it that gives it another layer realism a lot of period piece movies lack.

Last bit of technical slobbering I am going to do is about the big fight scene near the end. The local mobsters, both black and white, engineer a football game between The Wanderers and the preeminent Black gang, The Del Bombers, to theoretically ease racial tension and gain respect for each another on the football field. In reality, it was to make enormous bets for the mobsters and to gain “face” or power in the neighborhood. The game is brutal. At first both sides engage in cheap shots like crazy then playing it straight as respect grows. That is, until a third gang arrives on the scene to start a rumble for pay back, the Ducky Boys.

The Ducky Boys are a semi-mystical, religious tattooed mute Irish gang. They are also psychotic and near midget killers. The Ducks have a twisted take on Catholicism to them It is alright to maim and kill as long as you go to mass and confess. Hmmmmm….I guess it’s not that twisted really. They want payback on The Wanderers because a couple of members got lost on their turf and hurt a Ducky Boy.

The giant fight scene is well shot and is one of the better large scale fights scenes on film. You have four gangs going at it, the Del Bombers, Ducky Boys, Wanderers and a Chinese gang called the Wongs (“don’t fuck with the Wongs!” – best line in the movie) and at no point is the viewer short changed in brutality, danger or unable to follow what’s happening on screen. Kaufman. or who ever shot it, has an eye for action and an ability to seamlessly integrate a large number of actors into a fight scene. Good job to all involved.

I want to talk about the acting which is good across the board but I am going to focus on the top two leads and the nice supporting turn by Karen Allen. All acting discussion about The Wanderers starts with Ken Wahl. Does this guy have a boat load of charisma or what? I mean beyond being a good looking kid he has that it factor that demands your attention whenever he is on screen which is a lot of the movie. Is Wahl’s acting range large? No, not really but as Richie Gennaro he was perfectly cast and in his first acting role Wahl hit a home run.

Richie Genarro has big dreams for The Wanderers and for himself but as a leader and a person he is lacking in many respects. Richie is the flawed hero figure straight out of a Greek tragedy and Ken Wahl gets that. Wahl portrays Gennaro as a noble man but his Achilles heel will always undo him in the end. The final scene of Richie and the boys together for one last time wearing their cuts and singing the “The Wanderer” by Dion as his life is imploding around him was one of the most devastating downbeat endings of a movie I’ve ever seen, even though the events surrounding it were allegedly happy. I respect Kaufman for having the balls to put this ending in the movie over what I would imagine were loud howling protests by the studio.

John Friedrich played Joey Capra and he had the harder task of the main actors. Joey is the son of an abusive, alcoholic father who is a giant of a man that lifts weights, is a firemen, war hero and compulsive womanizer that beats on both him and his mother. Joey is small but tough and likes art and drawing which of course his old man ridicules him for and calls him queer. Joey may be small but he is a ball of anger because of his old man’s abuse and is willing fight anybody so I respect him. Friedrich struck the exact right tone as Joey. He nailed all the issues that kids of “heroic” and “legendary” parents face especially those of abusive rummies. Capra’s artistic nature is what will ultimately save him even though it is the part of himself he both loves and loathes equally. What happens at the end of big rumble with his father is heartbreaking. His old man dealt some serious damage during the course of the battle.

Lastly there is Karen Allen who plays Nina, the on the cusp hippie girl (on the cusp since in ’63 there weren’t any hippies yet). She has a twofold purpose. First she represents a possibility that Richie never thought of, one that its past the block he grew up on. It’s a world where people talk instead of fight, where the music is by Dylan and not Dion and most importantly, it is a life not shackled to his shrill princess girlfriend whose father and uncles are the local wiseguys. Nina also represents the changing face of NYC and of the world. She is youth personified with her free love ethos, pot use and political outlook. All things that are foreign and enticing to Richie.

Allen played Nina as a gently mocking sort of girl but basically a sweet one. Her pointed jibes about how Richie and Joey and the rest of The Wanderers act with their macho attitudes are some of the funniest in a pretty funny movie. And come on, whose heart wouldn’t melt when Karen Allen pops that smile of hers?

I enthusiastically recommend this movie. If you haven’t seen it in a while you will be surprised how good it holds up. If you have not seen it you will be surprised just how good it is. Hell, if you just want to be entertained for an hour and half, give The Wanderers a look.

Mahalo,

Xiphos

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About Xiphos0311

Sporadic genius but mostly IDGAF.

30 responses to “THE WANDERERS”

  1. Droid says :

    Haven’t seen it. Sounds good.

  2. MORBIUS says :

    You had me at Karen Allen. For me (mostly) she seemed
    to exude a certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’, and for that reason (mainly) I shall seek out this flick.

    Where were the ‘sharks’ and the ‘jets’? And Maria?

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Karen Allen was excellent in the movie.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      The sharks and Jets were getting their asses deservedly kicked by the Fordham Street Baldies.

      Karen Allen was really strong in this movie. Think of her as sort of a Marion Ravenwood like character if Marion went to Vassar or somewhere like that and was a proto-hippie.

  3. Tom_Bando says :

    Oh I like this one. The whole bit where they wind up walking into the recruiters is funny. And isn’t there a bald/head shaving scene-?

    ’63 was the last year of the whole Fifties/American Graffiti era, you can just put any number of top 20 hits from that year vs. say ’64 or ’65 and it’s night and day. JFk/LBJ, Pre-Beatles, Beatles, etc. You know what I mean. This film plays into that end of an era feel too.

    Dion was a fave act of mine—he lived that whole Bronx experience, ran w/ the gangs, picked up a severe long-lasting heroin habit that nearly did him in, etc.

    He’s still w/ us and shockingly, so is Mr. Ken Wahl.

    Ken Wahl is another of those guys like Jan-Michael Vincent whose VERY promising career was de-railed by personal demons-in his case, booze and a back injury-which is a crying shame. You see him in ‘Wiseguy’–he was very, very good.

    Anyways, I like this one, a fine pick by Noted_Sage Xiphos.

    • M. Blitz says :

      Dion Albanese? How do you know about him, imdb lists this as his only credit? Is imdb short-changing him? Sorry, I’ve got a soft-spot for junkies who make it out alive…

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Tom,

      1. You’re thinking of the Baldies, a real gang as opposed to the Wanderers which were more like a club. One of the weaker members of the Wanderers wanted to join them and shaved his head. I took out a bunch of stuff from this review becasue of length and the Baldies were one of them. The recruiter scene, the way I wrote it, was me ripping into recruiters. Unfortunately I also lost the passage about how gangs and The military are alike in the sense that they appeal to certain lost kids needs.

      2. I agree Tom 63′ was the last year of the 50’s after that the world rapidly changed in every way. There is a scene in the movie about Kennedy’s death but it was not done that good one of the few really clunker scenes in the movie.

      3. I like Dion also and I like the whole “electric” do-wop style from the early 60’s.

      4. Agreed about Wahl and Vincent to talented guys that let themselves get distracted by problems.

      5. Thank you

  4. kloipy says :

    great review Xi. I’ve never seen this one before. I’ll have to put it on Netflix

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Thanks Kliopy. It is by no means a perfect film but at the very least it is entertaining and well put together.

  5. Continentalop says :

    Great review X. I personally think this is a very flawed movie, but sometimes flawed movies make for very good movie experiences and resonate. This is like a time capsule to a period and a group of people all but forgotten.

    And the scene with Ken Wahl standing outside the coffee shop watching Karen Allen and realizing (or convincing himself) that she was part of a world he could never belong to one of those scenes I call “male emotional scenes” where as a guy you totally relate to it.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Conti,

      yeah it’s not a perfect film I agree but at least for me it does resonate and it is defiantly a look at a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore.

      There are a more then one scene that is “male emotional scenes” in the movie and I thought they were all handled well.

      • Continentalop says :

        I agree. This film is kind of like Breaking Away where you have all these scenes that a lot of guys can relate to and feel completely honest. Like you said about living in the shadow of his dad, that is something I can relate to and have experienced myself or with friends (my dad wasn’t a dick though; some of my friends’ dads are).

  6. M. Blitz says :

    I’d like to see this. And agree with Morbius re: Karen Allen. Plus it’s got the Shirelles on the soundtrack, so ya know.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Blitz the sound track for the movie is great it adds to the movie in so many ways.

    • MORBIUS says :

      Good call on the Shirelles, Blitz.

      Soldier Boy…
      Will You Love Me Tomorrow…
      Foolish Little Girl …
      Baby It’s You…

  7. Tom_Bando says :

    Shirelles were cool. Longtime junkie for that 55-63 era in music, done in by my over-exposure to Happy Days and Sha-na-na as a kid. I remember hearing Beach Baby on the radio and even then it was clear that was pointing at something back aways.

    I liked Ken Wahl in Wiseguy–Jonathon Banks there was his super and did a good job. Ray Sharkey and Kevin Spacey as baddies ditto. It’s a show that could have been that much more.

    • M. Blitz says :

      Did you ever hear that (adorably silly, of course) Dead Milkmen song, In Praise of Sha-na-na?

      …..You can move to Montana, and listen to Santana
      but you still won’t be as cool as Sha-na-naaaaa…….!

      Would be interested to hear your ‘essentials’ from that era, don’t want to put you to any trouble though. Email if you want, menstrual_blitz at yahoo.

      • Tom_Bando says :

        Never heard that one Menstrual.

        Sure let me toss that around a bit and I’ll see what sorta list I can give you. Pretty predictable list am sure.

      • M. Blitz says :

        Looking forward to it Bando.

  8. lordbronco says :

    Xi-best review yet. Your writing is getting more and more polished.

    Best-lb

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Thank You Bronco but I think it turned out a bit choppy because I took a lot out, it became way longer then I meant it to. Thanks though I’m glad you liked it.

      Any polish this has is due to Barfy’s fine editing skill. She somehow beats my illiteracy and natural slowness into a somewhat readable form. How she accomplishes this Herculaneum task I have no clue. Direct all praise towards her, she earns it, for every time she has to wade into the early drafts I send her.

    • Barfy says :

      Awwww, my cheeks are burning.

      Don’t let him kid you Bronco. Xi is far too generous. No more than a gentle refining is ever called for.

  9. ThereWolf says :

    I must admit to overlooking The Wanderers in favour of The Warriors. I remember a bunch of us used to go round to a mates house and he had both movies and he’d go – “What’re we watching?” and waggle both cases in front of us. As one, we’d all point at The Warriors.

    So, guilty as charged. Will have to reappraise The Wanderers now that I’m all growed up and sensible.

    Excellent review – Barfy’s yer secret weapon, eh!

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Wolf keep in mind that the Wanderers is way different then the Warriors even though they came out within 4 or so months of each other. Wanders is way more based in reality then the Warriors and isn’t as stylized.

      Both movies are really good but don’t have anything in common except for the gang angle and quality production values.

      I need all the weapons I can get, secret or otherwise.

  10. Ant says :

    Great movie !! Shows a better era in the US than what is today. Ken Wahl is great in it too. If you see the hall way of the High School there is another gang -The Golden Guinea’s
    They were also a real gang.

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Good point Ant all the gang names were from real life. Richard Pryce the writer of the book based it on his real experience growing up in the area during the time period of the movie.

  11. Richie Vöcking says :

    Sorry ,mein Englisch ist nicht gut genug um hier zu schreiben. Ich bin einer der ersten 9 Wanderers aus Münster und immer stolz darauf gewesen.Seit 1981 bin ich nun schon dabei. Der Film ist und bleibt für mich mein Lebensgefühl. Wanderers forever. Lg.Richie G.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Danke mein Freund.

      unfortunately I have never mastered written German, though I can speak it OK, I choose to not insult your language by trying to write it. congratulations on being the among the first Wanderer in Munster.

      Hope you liked the write up.

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