The Wanderers

Dir: Philip Kaufman, 1979. Starring: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Karen Allen. Drama.
The Wanderers

That period in American history as the country moved from the Eisenhower conformism of the ‘50s to the freedom of the ‘60s has made for some wonderful films (American GraffitiBaby It’s You), even if they often prove to be overly wistful. The Philip Kaufman film The Wanderers, based on Richard Price’s great novel, captures this period perfectly. It takes place in 1963 and though these teenagers of the Bronx who are the film's subject do stop to watch some JFK assassination news, they have no idea that a cultural youth quake could soon open them up to a whole new world. Not since West Side Story had gang life been as romanticized as it was in the ‘70s with the T-Birds of GreaseThe WarriorsThe Hollywood Knights andThe Lords of Flatbush (only of note because of the presence of a pre-stardom Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone). Though perhaps now a cult film because of years of people discovering it on cable, The Wanderers really is a lost gem and the best of its genre.

In a newly integrated Bronx neighborhood, Ritchie (Ken Wahl, an actor who had the toothy good looks and acting chops to be a big star, but his personal life derailed his career) leads the Italian American gang the Wanderers. He’s a stud and has his sights on bohemian chick Nina (played by the adorable Karen Allen), but when he knocks up the daughter of a local mobster, he’s pushed into a shotgun marriage. The Wanderers’ tough-talking runt Joey (John Friedrich) shows potential as an artist but his overly macho father discourages his sensitive side. He befriends his new neighbor Perry (Tony Ganios of Porky's fame), a big sweet brute with his own parental problems. The other main gang member is Turkey (Alan Rosenberg), but he has his sights on joining the much tougher posse, the Fordham Baldies (they’re lead by Erland van Lidt, the big bald dude in Stir Crazy). Turkey shaves his head to look like them but still never seems to win them over.

The detailed world of 1960s gang culture is less “comic book” than, say, The Warriors, but still completely exotic. Most of the gangs are realistically race based—the Wongs, for example, are Asian kids, while the Ducky Boys are almost mythically monstrous. The film flashes between the gang’s boyish antics, like cheating at strip poker, with the almost surrealistic predatory danger of life in the Bronx. Like Mean Streets and American Graffiti before it, The Wanderers is loaded with classic doo wop and rock n’ roll music, most notably The Four Seasons and Dion. This helps to give the film’s sense of period detail an even stronger feel. Late in the film, as Ritchie questions what to do with his life, he wanders into a Greenwich Village bar and sees Bob Dylan singing. Just like at the end of Apocalypto when the Spanish arrive, you know the world is about to change, but can Ritchie change with it?

The episodic nature of Richard Price’s novel is still evident, but director Kaufman and his wife Rose were able to craft it into a mostly coherent screenplay. Exuberantly made with a lot of grainy ‘70s style, Kaufman proved again to be one of the more underappreciated directors of his generation. Early in his career he had been responsible for a number of above average flicks, including his Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, The Right Stuff, and later The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. As a screenwriter he wrote the great Eastwood western The Outlaw Josey Wales and was one of the writers on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately after the suspense dud Twisted, he seems to have vanished from the scene; maybe he will have a Terrence Malick-esque comeback some day.

The Wanderers really is a tribute to the imagination of Richard Price. He wrote the book while still in his early twenties and went on to pen the best novel about the modern drug trade, Clockers. Spike Lee made an okay film version of it, but its impact can be more authentically felt on TV’s The Wire (which Price ended up writing for). He became a go-to-guy for gritty urban screenplays with The Color of Money, Sea of Love and Shaft probably being his most memorable. Still, though he didn’t write the actual screenplay, The Wanderers may be the strongest onscreen interpretation of the tough way he sees the world. It’s also a quintessential ‘60s period piece and maybe still the quintessential street gang movie.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 31, 2011 4:55pm
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