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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Based on a novel by Richard Price, Philip Kaufman's 1979 film The Wanderers
is a surreal comedy about teenage gangs in the Bronx during the sixties that
is both a coming of age film and an homage to the end of an era. The film
was considered too strange for American audiences but gained popularity in
Europe and eventually landed a theatrical re-release in the U.S. in 1996.
Set in 1963 just prior to the Kennedy assassination, The Wanderers deals
with a group of high school friends who must ward off challenges from rival
gangs while coming to grips with the problems of growing up during rapidly
changing times. The film has great music, an authentic sixty'ish look,
colorful characters, and nostalgia for the days when alcohol was the
favorite drug and the football field was the only battleground. In the film,
ethnic gangs populate the Bronx but there are no guns and no knives. We meet
the Wanderers (Italian), the Del Bombers (Black), the Wongs (Asian Kung Fu),
and the Fordham Baldies (oversized bald guys). All except the sadistic Ducky
Boys who seem to suddenly materialize at the opportune moment, are more like
social clubs and do little besides partying and hanging
Led by slick, good-looking Richie (Ken Wahl), a pizza parlor employee discovered by Kaufman, and his friend Joey (John Friedrich), The Wanderers have their hands full fighting the Baldies and their 6' 7'', 400 lb. leader named Terror (Erland van Lidth de Jeude). One of their members Turkey (Alan Rosenberg) even crosses over and enlists in the Baldies to keep his gang connections going after graduation but the Baldies comically end up enlisting in the Marines. When newcomer Perry (Tony Ganios) comes to the Wanderers' rescue during a street brawl, they recruit him for their gang and become confident enough to challenge the Del Bombers to a fight. After an abortive attempt to discuss racism in class ends in a brawl, the stage is set for a rumble but local mobsters channel this energy into a football game. When the Ducky Boys show up, however, the game turns into a free for all. Although there is lots of violence, it is of the comic book variety and never seems quite real.
The energy never flags throughout The Wanderers and the film is assisted by a great soundtrack that includes many sixties favorites: "Runaround Sue'' performed by Dion and other classic oldies such as The Contours' "Do You Love Me,'' the Shirelles' "Soldier Boy,'' and the Surfaris' "Wipe Out''. Karen Allen plays Nina, Richie's new crush who competes for his attention with his long time girl friend Despie (Toni Galem), the daughter of a local mobster. One of the best scenes is a hilarious game of strip poker with Nina and Despie that is fixed by Richie and Joey to achieve an inevitable outcome. When Nina, the symbol of the new generation, goes to Folk City to hear Bob Dylan sing "The Times They Are a-Changin'', and the boys watch television accounts of the Kennedy assassination, it is clear something has shifted and their lives will never be the same. For those who lived during this time, The Wanderers will bring back many memories. For others, it is an entertaining but often sad journey back to a time of innocence that now seems so very long ago.
One of the greatest scenes ever put on film is in this movie: Ken Wahl, about to get married, facing the transition between youth and responsibility, peers through a window at the action at Gerdes' Folk City in Greenwich Village, where, he dimly senses, there's a whole new world beyond his comprehension...it's pure gold, like most everything in this movie. I don't recall rock'n'roll songs ever being put to better or more appropriate use in a sound track. I don't recall a movie ever shifting more seamlessly, effortlessly, from gritty naturalism to bizarro impressionism and back. The cast is great! Whatever happened to some of these actors? There really was a Fordham Baldies, and I grew up not far from the old Alexander's in the Bronx, so I can't pretend to objectivity. For me, this is rather like a New York version of American Graffiti; it creates a world that I feel at home in, even if I never was a gang member and we left the Bronx when I was eight. By the way, the adaptation from Richard Price's book is, I think, remarkable. The book is a series of thematically linked stories that become a single organic story in the film. And I can't blame Ken Wahl--or his character--from being besotted by Karen Allen. Personally, I'd have gone right into Gerdes and flung myself at her feet. Oh yeah, the late Dolph Sweet is superb here.
Philip Kaufman is a great director (true some of his films are not my cup of
tea, so to speak, such as "Quills" & "the Unbearable Lightness of Being",
but he's had his hand in "The Right Stuff", "Indiana Jones" & "the Outlaw
Josey Wales", and that ALONE qualifies him for greatness) This film is one
of my favorite coming-of-age movies, having never read the book it was based
on didn't deter me from falling in love with this movie. The whole cast does
spot-on performances and you grow to really feel for these characters and
while it seems a bit episodic, it all ties together in the end. Many
memorable scenes and an amazingly good soundtrack. Definately in my top 20
My Grade: A
DVD Extras: Commentary by Philip Kaufman; Theatrical Trailer
This may appear to be your typical coming-of-age-in-da-Bronx movie, but it actually is a lot more than that. It has a surreal quality in the form of the Duckie Boys, who appear and disappear with equal ease. Of course they are symbolic of the troubled times to come in the 60's. Throughout the issues the film deals with, there are great performances, a killer soundtrack and a real feel for the period. I can't imagine anyone not getting something from viewing this fine movie.
This film has so much more to it than other 'gang' films of the era. I remember when it came out at the cinema and was unfairly compared to 'The Warriors' which is a very different film (although both have the gangs in New York setting). I love this film as it is witty, funny, sad, and has a dark and stylistic tone. PHILIP KAUFMAN is a great director and really proves it here. The acting is great, and it is interesting that only KAREN ALLEN 'made it' to Hollywood fame and went onto make films like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Starman', 'Scrooged' and 'Perfect Storm'. What happened to the other actors? This is a 'cult' epic if ever there was one and it seems to have grown in popularity over the years. Deservedly so in my opinion. Timeless and charming - THE WANDERERS are forever!
This film made a BIG impression on me when I was growing up. More than any other film, it captured the timelessness of the transition from being a boy to becomming a man and how you leave childish things behind. Funny, raucous and, at times, both disturbing and moving,this film has it all. If you've never seen "The Wanderers", please do yourself a favour- you won't regret it.
Interestingly enough, most of the gangs portrayed in the film were neither
symbolic nor imaginary, but were based on various real gangs who existed at
different periods throughout the fifties and early sixties.
Many of these gangs were not real gangs in the common theatrical sense, but were specific ethnic groups of teens from different Bronx and Manhattan neighborhoods. Of course, each group developed its own mythical idea of what the other groups were like, and in his novel, Richard Price used much of this teenage myth and lore.
Of all the well-embellished epics common to the teens in the Wanderers' neighborhood , those dealing with the Duckies were the most detailed and commonly accepted. The Duckies, whether or not they were truly an organized group with such a name, were "the guys across the tracks", insofar as The Wanderers were concerned (the tracks being the NY Central's Harlem Line). They lived in the predominantly Irish neighborhood directly across Bronx Park. I believe their frightening, near demonic quality in the movie was based on a single actual event when two of the Wanderers were actually attacked in the park. Since The Wanderers had never really engaged in any real "gang wars" (or any significant fighting for that matter), that particular episode was the source of most of their perceptions of the Duckie Boys' penchant for unbridled violence.
I came across this movie by accident. It showed up on Cinemax one day and I was hooked just by the first two minutes. This ranks up there as one of my favorite movies of all time. From the opening scenes of the Bronx in 1963 while The Four Seasons "Walk like a Man" is playing to the end when we hear Dion's "The Wanderers" this is truly a special movie. All the actors in this movie are wonderful too. How could you not love Ritchie (Ken Whal)? He is so handsome. I also loved Perry "Leave the kid alone". You have all the gangs like The Baldies, The Wongs, The Ducky Boys etc... and I crack up over Terror & Pee Wee (what a couple). If you like "The Bronx Tale", "The Outsiders", or "Grease", then you will love this even more. Don't pass this one up. It's one of the best!
A memorable film about a "club" of Italian-American teenagers in The Bronx
of 1963. (Today we'd call them a "gang," but if you compare the
to today's "Bloods", "Gangster Disciples", etc., those l963 kids were
The movie is unpretentious, Its structure, pace, and acting are outstanding, with special kudos for the renditions of various neighborhood "characters" by largely unknown players. (Karen Allen, Ken Wahl, and Olympia Dukakis went on to later fame, but I don't think they were well-known in 1979). Not since "Marty" has a film captured the essence of so many day-to-day denizens of its neighborhood.
The settings are authentic (I lived two blocks away from the hangout of the fictional "Fordham Baldies" in 1963), as is the soundtrack, featuring Dion & The Belmonts, The Ventures, and others. Try it!
Those halcyon "Happy Days" weren't all happy! Ken Wahl and Karen Allen give gritty, gutsy gusto and pre-Beatles gestalt to this uncompromising teen tale from the doo wop era.
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