The Wanderers (1979) is a great, still largely unacknowledged mini-masterpiece. Directed and co-adapted by Philip Kaufman from Richard Price's novel, it received lukewarm reviews and box-office wise it didn't do nearly as well as it should have. (Sources like Wikipedia don't mention it, but clearly part of the reason was that audiences confused it with the similarly-titled The Warriors, released earlier that same year and which had a similar premise and setting.) However, the film was too good to ignore: it quickly developed a cult following, prompting a surprising 1996 rerelease.
The picture is typically regarded as a coming-of-age story, and while it's certainly partly that, The Wanderers is far more ambitious than superficial, better-known movies like Stand By Me. It's most similar to George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973) in that The Wanderers is a collage of intensely personal, vivid memories of a particular time and place, memories subtly intensified cinematically. American Graffiti was about middle-class high school graduates in Modesto, California in the summer of 1962. In The Wanderers, it's same-aged students and gang members in the Bronx during the fall of 1963.
American Graffiti is emotionally honest and largely anecdotal, where in The Wanderers life in the Bronx is much harsher and less forgiving, yet also almost mythical in depicting its varying street gangs and their clashes with one another. And, like American Graffiti, it's hilarious and deeply sad, often simultaneously. Their times and places are vividly recreated, and may be completely unlike the times and places you and I grew up, yet many of their experiences are recognizably universal and fascinating when they're different.
Kino gives the picture the deluxe treatment it deserves, offering two different cuts on two discs, two commentary tracks, and loads of audio/video extras.
The story primarily focuses around four members of an Italian-American street gang, The Wanderers. Richie (Ken Wahl) is the horny, handsome leader, who in the opening scene has sex with Despie Galasso (Toni Kalem), daughter of Chubby Galasso (Dolph Sweet), the local mafia boss.
Richie's best friend is compact, eager-to-please Joey Capra (John Friedrich), a talented artist ignored by his abusive, philandering father (William Andrews). Turkey (Alan Rosenberg) is a wayward member, a lost soul flirting with joining the Fordham Baldies, a rival gang of especially tough thugs.
Perry LaGuardia (Tony Ganios), newly moved to Joey's apartment building from New Jersey, joins the gang after rescuing Joey from hostile Baldies. He lives across the hall with his mother, a hopeless alcoholic.
Much of what happens revolves around the Wanderers' clashes with rival gangs; the conflict that arises when Richie and Joey are both attracted to Nina Kalem (Karen Allen), a culturally curious young woman whose mixture of delicate femininity (versus the harder-edged Despie) and lack of inhibition they find attractive; and Joey's emerging friendship with shy, dissatisfied Perry.
The Wanderers expands upon American Graffiti's period verisimilitude and nearly wall-to-wall rock-and-roll soundtrack by making the various gangs almost like characters out of Greek mythology. The Fordham Baldies, with their shaved heads and propensity for violent rumbles are a formidable threat, especially Terror (Erland van Lidth), a towering, fat, Tor Johnson type. The Baldies' weakness is that they're also comically stupid: (spoilers) in a wonderful scene both hilarious and sad at once, the gang gets drunk and the local Marine recruiter, eyeing them all the while like a vulture, swoops in, signing them up en masse, as Terror's diminutive girlfriend, Peewee (the immensely talented Linda Manz, of Days of Heaven) looks on, horrified and helpless to stop them.
Examples of the mythic qualities given these gangs include the exaggerated martial arts prowess (or is it all show?) of the Wongs, a Chinese gang, all of whom are named Wong (!), who come and go as mysteriously as ninja; and the Long Island Ducky Boys, silent types as unstoppable as the George Romero's Living Dead.
The Wanderers is so richly layered and superbly acted by all every scene is nuanced by wry observations: about a changing America in the wake of the Kennedy assassination and the rise of new voices like Bob Dylan. (The latter's unexpected appearance, kind of, near the end of the film is unexpectedly moving.) The Wanderers might call a couple of blocks their turf, but the story makes clear they're little more than pawns and amusing diversions for men like Chubby, fat slobs in loud Hawaiian shirts quietly wielding all the real power in the neighborhood.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 widescreen, The Wanderers gets a 2K restoration that makes the film look better than ever, though one should keep in mind that it was still shot on a relatively low budget (anachronistic ‘70s cars are often visible down the block in exterior shots) and with a lot of scrappy but effective, hand-held camerawork. "The Preview Cut," curiously on a second disc (why no seamless branching?) is in slightly rougher shape in some scenes. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is generally excellent, and English subtitles are offered on these region "A" discs.
In addition to the preview cut, nearly eight minutes longer, supplements abound: short introductions to both cuts; a commentary on the theatrical cut by Kaufman, and on the preview cut by film professor Annette Insdorf; a "Back to the Bronx" featurette (35 minutes) with Richard Price; a 2016 reunion segment, "Wanderers Forever," shot at the Film Forum and featuring Allen, Kalem, Ganios (who also participate in audio segments; "Wanderers Q&A at the CineFamily," with Kaufman and Rosenberg; trailers and TV spots.
Researching The Wanderers for this review, I was struck by how many contemporary and new reviews completely misread Price and Kaufman's intent, and how easily they dismiss its ingenious heightened sense of memory as "cartoonish" escapism and use other similar adjectives. The Wanderers shares elements with other coming-of-age stories, but just as Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983) goes far beyond conventional historical drama, The Wanderers takes its genre to an entirely new level. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.