One of the most underrated films of the late ’70s by one of the most underrated American directors of the last few decades has finally made its way onto hi-def in a terrific Blu-ray package that should pique the interest of any movie lover.
Between 1972 and 2000, Philip Kaufman’s films included The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,Invasion of the Body Snatchers,The Right Stuff,The Unbearable Lightness of Being,Henry and June and Quills—an impressive body of work, in a variety of genres, equal to any contemporary filmmaker. He also wrote the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark and the screenplay for The Outlaw Josey Wales.
When The Wanderers debuted in 1979, though, it met mostly negative reviews, then it vanished.
In his intro to the film’s 2016 release, Kaufman (now 81 years old) discusses that dismissal. He recalls how he and his wife Rose (his close collaborator on most films) struggled for years to bring Richard Price’s novel to the big screen. At the time Wanderers opened, gang violence was on every front page, in part tinged by Walter Hill’s The Warriors out five months earlier. So Kaufman’s work was prime fodder for pundits of the day.
Kaufman quotes one reviewer’s condemnation: “[The Wanderers] was like a rape or a mugging, leaving the viewer stripped of dignity … [and when Joey and Perry head to California] I can only pray they stay there. New York has enough pollution already.” Ruefully noting that Huckleberry Finn had also been denounced as “trash and suitable only for the slums,” Kaufman summarizes his film’s death knell: “And so it was shunned, relegated to oblivion, and released in 17 drive-ins and two theaters. Fucked.”
I saw the movie here in the summer of ’79. But you get Kaufman’s bitter disappointment. The good news? The movie caught on abroad, hitting near-cult status there and in film circles here.
Now, first-time viewers will see a raunchy, funny, lyrical and astute coming-of-age tale of Bronx youth in the fall of ’63. Over the Orion Pictures logo, we hear the opening chords of a Three Stooges short before the movie proper begins, as a couple makes out in front of a TV showing a Three Stooges film. Near the end of Wanderers, the same couple is outside an appliance store with weeping onlookers watching news of JFK’s assassination on a display TV model, to the strains of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.”
Those two scenes highlight the film’s emotional range and reliance on historical and musical themes. Throughout, a badass Bronx gang, the Baldies, hang out by a U.S. Marine recruiting office, their antics ever in the eye of the no-nonsense recruiter. After they unwittingly enlist one drunken night, he dismisses them with a gun and a warning: “Don’t worry, the Marines will make men of you. You mean mothers might enjoy a real war.”
Audiences in 1979 knew exactly what war he meant.
The story’s main focus is on Richie (Ken Wahl), charismatic leader of the Wanderers (an Italian-American group), and his efforts, such as they are, to find his place in this world. In the beginning, that entails getting what he can from girlfriend Despie (Toni Kalem), and his homework done by the class geek, while leading the Wanderers to glory on the gridiron against the Del Bombers, an African-American gang.
Richie’s best friend Joey (John Friedrich) is a big-hearted banty rooster. Their friendship is tested over Nina (Karen Allen), an outsider. All the boys swear they’re girl-crazy, but their real loyalties and evanescent identities lie with pals. Outside the gang’s shelter are forces onerous (family) and dangerous (surreal Irish Ducky Boys).
The ferocious exuberance and comic antics of Wanderers are balanced by Kaufman’s delineation of tough choices intrinsic to maturation. Richie, with looks and charm, is trapped in his girlfriend’s family (ruled by her dad, a minor mob boss) while Joey and new buddy Perry (Tony Ganios) leave their oppressive families (and the Wanderers) and go West (like Huck Finn) for glorious California.
Blindsided by the film’s profanity and comedy, many early reviewers failed to see the wisdom and creative imagination that so richly fuels The Wanderers. Kaufman’s paean to youth and the times a-changing in the early ’60s has finally gotten the critical respect and rep it deserves.