The Wanderers’ juxtaposition of gang rivalries-cum-urban fantasies and its truly racially charged scenes are what sets the film apart.
There are a host of gang and greaser coming-of-age films, many of which were released in the late ‘70s. That saturation itself may be the reason why Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers still plays second fiddle to contemporaries like The Warriors. Even at the time, in the summer of 1979, this story of high school gangs in the early ’60s didn’t find the audience it deserved. But Kaufman’s film is a strikingly thorough portrait of an era and its embittered end. Adapted from Richard Price’s novel by Kaufman and his wife, Rose, where The Wanderers stands to eclipse the starry-eyed nostalgia of the likes of American Graffiti is in its willingness to depict the extent of gang violence and frankly portray alcoholism, racism and unplanned pregnancy.
That’s a lot to cover, even in a two-hour film, and The Wanderers rightly plays like an ode to a bygone era. There is a fascinating balance between elaborate, yet highly choreographed, set-pieces and organic scenes that follow members of The Wanderers as they cruise the Bronx streets or attempt to cop a feel from unsuspecting women walking by. The opening sequence alone is enough to bring viewers to the edge of their seats, as Richie (Ken Wahl), Joey (John Friedrich) and Turkey (Alan Rosenberg) face off against rival gang, the Fordham Baldies, and find themselves running for their lives. The final showdown between Terror (Erland van Lidth) and new kid Perry (Tony Ganios) is straight out of a Western.
The Wanderers’ juxtaposition of these gang rivalries-cum-urban fantasies and its truly racially charged scenes are what sets the film apart. Kaufman goes from alleyway Western to classroom racial profiling without skipping a beat. In a scene that could have played like any other “put yourself in their shoes” feel-good spiel from a teacher, the focus is instead on the students, namely the racial tension between the Italian Wanderers and the African-American gang the Del Bombers. Just as the scene threatens to uncover some shred of brotherhood, all hell breaks loose and a date and time for a brawl is set. Rounding out the racial representation are the Irish Ducky Boys gang and the ambiguously Asian kung fu fighters, the Wongs. Each group draws their battle lines, but they all eventually join forces against the Ducky Boys when they derail a relatively violence-free football game.
In the midst of heavier subject matter, there’s also plenty of teen angst and romance. Richie, for his part, is torn between his girlfriend, Despie (Toni Kalem), and Nina (Karen Allen), a girl he met purely by chance. Thanks to his burgeoning libido, the decision is made for him by Despie’s father and obvious mobster (Dolph Sweet), but that’s only after a rigged game of strip poker between Richie, Despie, Joey and Nina ends with Richie and Nina in the back of her car, much to poor Joey’s chagrin. For all the focus on gangland survival, The Wanderers features its share of teen rebellion and clandestine parties.
But whereas American Graffiti stuck to a schmaltzier depiction of coming-of-age and left its darker themes in subtext or literally for the on-screen epilogue, Kaufman keeps drastic change and the looming threat of the Vietnam War always in the fore. Whether it’s Richie rounding a corner to see a huddled mass of pedestrians watching the news report of JFK’s assassination or the Marine recruiter, a silent witness to much of the gang rivalry, roping some drunken Baldies into signing away their lives, The Wanderers can be a bit heavy-handed with its historic touchstones and finality of youth.
The film ends with a surprise party celebrating Richie and Despie’s imminent marriage. In the intimate setting of the little Italian restaurant where Richie cleans dishes, we see him begin to resign himself to his future, even accepting an over-sized Hawaiian shirt from Despie’s father (the uniform of the Italian mob). Who should walk by but Nina. Richie can’t help but follow her all the way to a dimly lit folk night, and he stands looking in through the window while Bob Dylan himself croons “The times they are a-changin’.” Undoubtedly, the words linger in his mind all the way back to his engagement party.
Even if the final scenes are heavy-handed, you can’t deny that hearing “The Times There Are A-Changin’” and the trio of the Wanderers, the Del Bombers and the Wongs singing “I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around/ I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town” doesn’t bring to life the crushing realization that Richie and the others could be doomed to remain stuck in the past while the world moves swiftly on.