Gangs of New York / Article
All historical films are bound to have inaccuracies. However, contextually and broadly, the film portrays many truisms. Scorsese does a fine job in accurately portraying life in the Five Points. Him and his staff paid close attention to costumes, set design, accents and slang leaving the audience to fell as if they were in the Five Points. The Five Points was notorious for Irish and Nativist street gangs. There was also strife amongst the Irish, the Blacks, the Catholics, and the Protestants. And the film does portray the draft riot in response to the 1863 Conscription Act with a high degree of historical accuracy. However, when deconstructed, there are places that are almost pure fiction. The film does gain some inspiration and some history from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. Asbury, was newspaperman who wrote salacious tales about the New York underworld and was known for recycling long held urban myths rather than actual fact. While the Five Points was a violent city, the film seems to exaggerate this point with overly bloody battle scenes and explosions. Professor Tyler Anbinder author of The Five Points said, that the neighborhood was less dangerous, less violent and more productive than it’s image said and much of the violence and murder was overstated. Many of the immigrants in real life were seamstresses and skilled workers, such as tailors, shoemakers, and day laborers. With that being said, there are three main issues that I am focusing on that drastically impact the big picture.
One of the most disappointing historical inaccuracies is the fictionalization of characters. Mid-19th century New York was indeed a violent place. Gangs and rioting were common. There were famous gang members and leaders that could have been implemented into the film rather than to make up almost all of the characters. The most pronounced fictional aspect is Bill “the Butcher” Cutting. Cutting is a fictionalized character based on an infamous butcher from an earlier era, Bill “the Butcher” Poole. William Poole (July 24, 1821 – March 8, 1855), also
known as Bill the Butcher, was the leader of the New York City gang Bowery Boys, a bare-knuckle boxer, and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. The Gangs of New York antagonist incorporates many aspects of Poole’s character and history; notorious, a butcher, a Nativist etc. Cutting is also depicted as living through the Civil War and being killed in a gang fight during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. The real Butcher, Poole had been murdered eight years prior. Poole’s last spoken words;” Good-bye boys; I die a true American” are almost exactly the same as Cutting’s “Thank God I die a true American.”
All three of the protagonists, the Priest, Amsterdam, and Jenny are also fictionalized. While there was some Irish- American gang leaders that could have been the heroes of our film, Scorsese chose to make up these characters instead. This could have been done to fit a broader picture and to symbolize facets of Irish Americans of the time. He could have made this choice because fictional characters were more interesting than real people and made for a more exciting story. Either way, we come away from the film with a martyr, a hero, and a love interest that never existed. The fictional depiction made for a great story but was not historically accurate.
The Gangs of New York also shows a lot of interaction with Asians, specifically the Chinese. This depiction is quite inaccurate. In a review of the film done by J. Matthew Gallman, “we see more Chinese characters in the film then there probably were in the entire state”. Ah Ken is claimed to be the first Chinese individual to have arrived in the fringe of the Five Points in the 1840’s. He is the first Chinese person credited as having permanently immigrated to “Chinatown”. Chinatown started on Mott, Park, Pell, and Doyers Streets, just east of the Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of a little over 200. The Sparrow Pagoda and the amount of Chinese interaction is not accurate and can most likely be attributed to the time this film was made. Martin Scorsese says as much. Sparrow’s Chinese Pagoda was a saloon in the 1880’s. And Scorsese also said the depiction of the pagoda was fantasy and based on The Shanghai Gesture a Boris Leven film.
Another instance that is not historically accurate are the “catacombs” at the Old Brewery. The “catacombs” in the Old Brewery are a virtual impossibility due to the ground they were built on. According to Ashbury, the Old Brewery held over 1,000 men, women and children, though this fact, like many others, is most likely distorted. The Five Points was built on what the Dutch called the Collect Pond. In the 18th century, the pond was used as a picnic area during summer and a skating rink during the winter. It was the areas fresh water supply as well. However, industries began to use the water and dump waste there. These included tanneries, breweries, ropewalks, and slaughterhouses. By the late 18th century, the pond was already considered a common sewer. It was summarily filled in from land and refuge removed from nearby Bayard’s Mount, and leveled between 1803 and 1811. So it is highly unlikely than an area that was a pond in a short period of time could be dug as catacombs.
The Five Points of Gangs of New York
The Gangs of New York historical background is greatly entrenched within the history and climate of the Five Points neighborhood of the time. It was given the name of the Five Points because of the intersection of Mulberry Street, Orange Street (now Baxter), Cross Street (now Mosco), Worth Street and Little Water Street to create the plot of land known as Paradise Square. One of the great Gangs of New York quotes from Bill The Butcher is when he explains the intersection of the Five Points to William Tweed, "Mulberry Street... and Worth... Cross and Orange... and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you."The Five Points area was built on what was known as the Collect Pond. The pond was a main source of fresh drinking water for the city. As a result, business erected along the shores of the pond and contaminated it in a short period of time.The pollution became a problem and a hazard. It was proposed to be cleaned and used as a centerpiece or a recreational park, but that proposal was rejected. Instead, it was decided to fill in the pond, and the landfill was done poorly.
Buried vegetation began to release methane gas, which is a natural by-product of decomposition. The area also lacked adequate storm sewers. Because of the poorly filled in land, houses and buildings shifted on their foundations. The place was infested with mosquito due to the poor drainage.
In essence, it stunk and the place was filled with disease. Nobody wanted to live there except the poorest of the poor. When the Irish began immigrating to the city in large droves largely due to the Great Irish famine of 1845–1852, Irish immigrants began piling into the Five Points and making the neighborhood their new home.
The Attitudes Towards The Irish During The Gangs Of New York
It's hard to imagine anti-Irish sentiments in America today. They've assimilated deep into American culture, and it seems like I'm always meeting someone who has Irish blood and ancestry. Concerning the real history of the Gangs of New York, the movie genuinely captured the hatred and distrust towards the Irish by Americans or Natives of the time.Newspapers of time demonized Irish immigrants and often depicted them in cartoon drawings as slovenly, drunk and hostile creatures with no morality or decency. They were received by most of America as an unwanted threat to the country.
In a scene in Gangs of New York where both William Tweed and Bill "The Butcher" Cutting are at the docks watching newly Irish immigrants walk off the ship onto American soil, Tweed makes a remark about new Americans being born.
Bill The Butcher retorts, "I don't see no Americans. I see trespassers - Irish harps who would do a job for a nickel what a n*gg*r does for a dime and what a white man use to get a quarter for."
That quote in Gangs of New York was absolutely genuine to how Americans saw Irish immigrants as a threat to stealing jobs from Americans. Many Irish were willing to work for less than the free black labor force during the time. It should be noted that there were many resentments from the Irish towards the blacks during the time as well.
Near the beginning of Gangs of New York, Bill Cutting and his Natives are walking down the street while protesters hold up signs that read New York Succeed From The Union and Lincoln Will Make All White Men Slaves while Union Troops parade by. In this scene, Bill The Butcher snidely remarks to the Union soldiers, "That's the spirit boys, go off and die for your blackie friends."
Bill then remarks about how they should've run a better man against Lincoln. The character of McGloin, a defected Irish Dead Rabbit and now running with the Natives, angrily shouts out, "What are they trying to say? That we're no better than n*gg*rs?"
Bill The Butcher then turns to him and says, "You ain't."
The two Gangs of New York quotes used was to illustrate the economic threat that Americans perceived with the Irish, but also to depict how the Irish were also seen by Americans as lower or equal to blacks. This is a huge part of the Gangs of New York historical back ground.
The Irish were roundly regarded as a disease for the country than a benefit. This attitude was also contributed to the fact that Irish immigration also brought a huge number of Catholics to a country that was largely Protestant.
Even though much of the nation had this racist attitude toward the Irish, it was largely felt in the Five Points, in which Native born Americans and Irish immigrants would clash in bloody street fights for supremacy of turf, resources, and political favors.
The Gangs of New York
Did you know that firefighters back in the day were a gang? Because the threat of fire burning New York to ashes was a major concern and since there were no city nor state funded fire departments, many citizens volunteered as firemen and gangs formed around various firehouses and companies.
The Plug Uglies got their name by putting a wooden barrel over a fire plug and guarded it so rival fire departments could not use it to put out the fire. Cash rewards were given out by insurance companies to the first fire company on the scene, and the second company on the scene got less. It was not uncommon for rival fire companies to duke it out for the privilege of putting out a fire while a home or building burned down.
Gangs such as the Bowery Boys, Broadway Boys, and The 40 Thieves were all real gangs mentioned in the movie Gangs of New York. The Gangs of New York movie also used one of the most powerful and prominent Irish gangs in the five points during the 1850s - The Dead Rabbits!
The Dead Rabbits
There are many tales of how The Dead Rabbits received their name. One tale is possibly of an American journalist at the time misunderstanding of the Irish word ráibéad, meaning "man to be feared". "Dead" was a slang intensifier meaning "very." Since the phonetic sounds were similar, the press dubbed the gang The Dead Rabbits.
The Dead Rabbits were originally part of The Roach Guards, an Irish street gang in the Five Points formed during the early 19th century to protect the liquor merchants of the area. The gang would soon begin committing robbery and murder. The Roach Guards were known for their fighting uniforms which had a blue stripe on their pantaloons. When members of The Roach Guard defected to form The Dead Rabbits, they replaced the blue stripe with a red stripe. The two gangs constantly fought each other, but also aligned against gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Natives.
The Dead Rabbits Riots of 1857
The famous Dead Rabbits Riots started on July 4, 1857 when the gang raided and destroyed the headquarters of the Bowery Boys at 26 Bowery. The Bowery Boys retaliated and this led to a large scale riot that waged back and forth on Bayard Street between Bowery and Mulberry street.
The very next day, The Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits rumbled again in front of 40 and 42 Bowery Street. They erected barricades in the street. On July 6, the fighting spread as the Bowery Boys fought the Kerryonians, another gang of Irishmen from County Kerry, at Anthony and Centre Street.
Because the police force at the time was disorganized and was ravaged with conflicts between the Municipal and Metropolitan police, the gangs took advantage. Widespread looting and property damage was committed by the gangs from the Five Points as well other parts of the city.
Order was restored by the New York State Militia, who were supported by detachments of city police under the behest of Major-General Charles W. Sandford. The aftermath of The Dead Rabbit Riots concluded eight people killed and at least 100 seriously injured.
William Poole - The Real "Bill The Butcher"
While the character of Priest Vallon, played by Liam Neeson was fictional and not based off real historical figures, the character of Bill Cutting was.
Brilliantly by Daniel Day Lewis, the character of Bill Cutting was directly based off the real historical figure William Poole. The last name may have been changed but William Poole's real nickname "Bill The Butcher" was used in the movie Gangs of New York.
William Poole was a Nativist enforcer of The Native American Party, also known as The Know Nothing Party, which was a faction of the American Republican Party. The Know Nothing was a movement created by Nativists whom believed that the overwhelming immigration of German and Irish Catholic immigrants were a threat to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.
They were dubbed the Know Nothings by outsiders of their semi-secret organization. This had nothing to do with them knowing anything. It had to do with their reply when asked of the organization's activities, often stating, "I know nothing."
The real Bill The Butcher was a leader of The Bowery Boys and known for his skills as being a good bare knuckle boxer. Poole's trade was that of a butcher, and was infuriated when many butchering licenses were being handed out to Irish immigrants.
William Poole was born in Sussex County, New Jersey to parents of English protestant descent. His family moved to New York City in 1832 to open a butcher shop in Washington Market, Manhattan.
Unlike the movie which Bill "The Butcher" Cutting mentions his father dying fighting against the British, the real William Poole's father did not die fighting the British. In fact, Bill Poole trained in his father's trade and eventually took over the family store. In the 1840s, he worked with the Howard (Red Rover) Volunteer Fire Engine Company #34, Hudson & Christopher Street. Also unlike in the movie, William "The Butcher" Poole was shot in real life. However, he was shot at Stanwix Hall, a bar on Broadway near Prince. William Poole did not die in a glorious street battle against his Irish enemies. Instead, he died from the gun wound at his home on Christopher Street. His last words were: "Goodbye, boys. I die a true American." What was true in the movie was the conflict the real Bill The Butcher had with the Irish immigrant gang the Dead Rabbits. The Dead Rabbits were William Poole's The Bowery Boys most hated enemy, and the leader of the Dead Rabbit's was Bill The Butcher's most hated archenemy.
Although the character of Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, was greatly a work of fiction, it can also be argued that the character of Amsterdam in the movie Gangs of New York was very loosely based on the historical figure of John Morrissey.
John was born in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland in 1831. Two years later, his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Troy, New York. Like William Poole, he was well known as a highly skilled boxer, gambler, and gang leader of the Dead Rabbits.
Unlike the movie, Morrissey's father was not killed by Bill The Butcher and revenge was not his true motif in going head to head with The Butcher. In reality, he became Poole's adversary when he was hired to prevent Poole from seizing ballot boxes and rigging an election. Morrissey and the Dead Rabbit gang were rewarded by Tammany Hall to open a gambling house without police interference. Poole and Morrissey would go toe-to-toe, but not in an epic gang battle. The two fought in a boxing match, in which Morrissey lost. A few weeks later, Lew Baker, a friend of Morrissey, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at a saloon on Broadway in 1855.
Morrissey was a champion boxer, but when he retired, he ran for Congress and was backed by Tammany Hall. He ended up serving two terms (1867-1871) in the House for the 40th and 41st Congress, representing the 5th Congressional District. As a Congressman, Morrissey always looked out for the interests of the Irish. Much like William Poole was an enforcer of The Native American Party, John Morrissey and his Dead Rabbits were often used an enforcers for the Democratic Party and the muscle for the leader of Tammany Hall - William "Boss" Tweed.
William "Boss" Tweed
What would the Gangs of New York historical back ground be without mentioning William Tweed also known as the "Boss" of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine that played a major political role in New York City during the 19th Century. Within the movie, his character is perhaps the most historically accurate and genuine according to Tweed's historical legacy. Much like the movie, Tweed used Irish gangs like the Dead Rabbits as muscle to rig and combat the rigging of ballots and votes from opposing parties. He was extremely popular with the voters, especially Irish immigrants in which he promised jobs and assistance from the city. Tweed in real life was extremely corrupt and used politics as a pure means to profit. At the height of his power, William "Boss" Tweed was the third-largest landowner in New York City, one of the directors of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company. He was also the proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel.
The New York Times had attacked Tweed constantly of corruption. With the help of cartoonist Thomas Nast, whom drew unflattering pictures of Tweed and his corrupt group of cronies, known as the Tweed Ring, was able to create a negative portrayal of Tweed.
A little before Tweed was finally brought down for corruption in New York politics, Tweed remarked on Nast's pictures by saying:
"Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"
After the Orange Riots, support against Tweed grew in large numbers and he was eventually convicted for political corruption. An estimate by an aldermen's committee in 1877, suggested that William Tweed stole around $25 million and $45 million from New York City taxpayers. Jim Morrissey would testify against Tweed in court.
The New York City Draft Riots
The Union cause of preserving the United States and the abolition of slavery was not a harmonious one. A great many in the northern states opposed the war and had no wish for the freedom of blacks.
The Gangs of New York captured this dissension, and The New York City Draft Riots actually did happen as depicted in the movie. This response to the Emancipation Proclamation started on July 13, 1863.
The movie was true about the fact that there was a clause written that allowed persons able to produce $300 dollars to be exempt from serving in the war. This clause actually meant that those who could afford $300 would in essence hire a substitute to take their place in military duty.
Many were outraged and saw this as a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. It has also been theorized that this riot was led by the Irish in fear of an overwhelming amount of freed black slaves migrating to New York City after the war to compete with Irish jobs.
It would be The Black Joke fire company who would kick off the riot by leading a crowd of around 500 to attack and ransack the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, where the drawing of the draft was taking place.
Rioters would continue throughout the city looting, burning, fighting, and killing. Blacks were highly targeted and used as scapegoats for the rioters to vent their rage on. Brutality among the blacks during this riot was the worst the city has ever seen.
Any blacks who fell into the grasps of the angry mob were beaten, tortured and killed. One black man was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones. He was then hanged from a tree and set alight. As the movie depicts and acknowledges, the attack on The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was historically accurate. A black child died as a result. The police were able to secure enough time for the remaining orphans to escape, but the police were greatly outmatched by the rioters. The state militia was sent to help Union troops in Pennsylvania, and the police were the only force left to subdue the rioters.. The rioting was finally quelled on July 16th. New York's State Militia returned as well as several thousand Federal troops entered the city. The Draft's Riots final confrontation took place on that Thursday evening near Gramercy Park.
Final Words About The Real History of Gangs Of New York
Although not completely 100% accurate, the real history of Gangs of New York is greatly depicted in this movie. The attitudes that reflected anti-Irish sentiments, dissension about the Civil War among New York citizens, and the attitudes towards the blacks by Nativists and Irish immigrants was thick with historical realism. Gangs of New York is a massive achievement and a movie masterpiece that captures one of the worst times in American history - a time that shows us a part of our past. However, like they say, the past is never far behind.
Even though we may have not known about these events prior to the movie, these turmoils and attitudes are nothing new and have followed America throughout it's history. Perhaps, even to the present day. The real history of Gangs of New York isn't really that far behind us at all, and maybe or maybe not, this was Scorsese's intention to show us that in this movie.
Great Article from different Resource about Gangs of New York / Take A Read / Director Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese says he’s wanted to create Gangs of New York for 30 years. That was when he first read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 historical saga of the same name. The film is loosely based on that book, and the story that emerges is an engrossing and terrible tale of war, hatred, lust and revenge. The epic begins in 1846 with a street war between Irish-Catholic immigrants and Protestant New York "nativists." The immigrants, led by a man known as Priest Vallon, fight to carve out a piece of the new world for themselves and for those who follow. William "The Butcher" Cutting and his warriors aim to fend off what they see as the invading hordes. Both fight in the name of God. Both fight for dignity and life.
That initial battle is won by The Butcher. As Cutting’s knife takes Vallon’s life, and scatters the immigrant mob, Vallon’s young son (who later becomes known as Amsterdam) watches every wound, soaking in the malevolence that causes them. Sixteen years later, after growing up in an orphanage far from sight and out of mind, he arrives back at the Five Points, bent on revenge. Known for its sweltering night life, fast-fingered pickpockets and lawless violence, the Five Points serves as Cutting’s headquarters. To get close to The Butcher, Amsterdam joins his gang and works his way up to the status of second-in-command. Then, on the anniversary of his father’s death, he stages his attack.
While Civil War rages in the South, and life and death swirls through the Five Points, love and lust grimly fight for dominance under cover of night. Amsterdam meets Jenny, a skilled pickpocket and "turtledove" (a woman who dresses up as a maid to steal from the rich), and the two kindred spirits immediately begin smooching and sparring. It’s his best friend, Johnny, who is responsible for introducing him to Cutting and his gang, but turbulence lies ahead for the two men as well. Ultimately, Amsterdam’s private grudge match with Cutting is transcended by the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots. And what has seemed like such a monumental issue throughout the story is submerged in a hail of cannon fire. Laced with as much character development as a Jeff Shaara novel, Gangs bludgeons sensibility while delicately tapping a wide range of subconscious fears. The themes are astonishingly human, the history spectacular and more than little frightening.
spiritual content: Faith in God (or at least lip service to such a faith) fuels war as Protestants and Catholics clash in the New World just as they had in the Old. The Priest and his men take communion before facing off with The Butcher. Everyone prays that God will bless their endeavors and scour their enemies from the face of the earth. Vallon teaches his son to pray to St. Michael, who "cast Satan out of Paradise." Taunting the immigrants before a battle, Cutting yells, "Let the Christian Lord guide my hand!" Vallon retorts, "Prepare to receive the true Lord!" Years later, after being exhorted by a priest to forgive those who wronged him, Amsterdam tosses his Bible into the river and sets off to seek their death. After picking a person’s pocket, Jenny is fond of smirking, "I leave you in the grace and favor of the Lord." When a preacher urges Amsterdam to come to church, Amsterdam responds, "Go to h---." One man credits Shakespeare for writing the King James Bible. The Holy Spirit is said to give men the courage to kill ("I’ve got the steam of the Holy Spirit in my spine"). To indict a politician for straddling the fence on immigration issues, Cutting quotes Revelation 3:16.
nudity and sexual content: Dances and drunken parties turn into orgies of exhibitionism and public sex. Classic statues of nude women are displayed, but those stone ladies aren’t the only ones who are naked. Bare-breasted women (many of them prostitutes) are seen dancing, being groped and having sex. Completely nude, two women cuddle together on a bed while Cutting watches. In another scene, two nude women drape themselves over Cutting. Amsterdam has sex with Jenny (she isn’t nude, but the depiction of their activity is graphic). Worse, their intercourse is preceded by an angry altercation. Later, Cutting sneaks into their room and watches the two sleeping. When Amsterdam wakes up, Cutting make a vulgar reference about them having had oral sex. A man dressed as a woman lines up with the rest of the ladies at a dance.
violent content: The violence in Gangs of New York is so pervasive and graphic that to itemize it all would be at best nauseating. What struck me throughout the nearly 3-hour film was that nearly every social gathering triggered some sort of brawl or riot. Various police forces fight one another more than they fight crime. Competing fire departments battle each other while untended buildings blaze beside them. Dances turn into dirges as dead bodies pile up. Politicians make public speeches, and if someone doesn’t like what they have to say, they murder them in the doorways of their own homes. Blood flows thick on the cobblestone streets as flesh is pummeled with axes, spears, knives, clubs, bullets and bricks. Dozens of scenes include gore. One, so extreme I’m compelled to mention it only in the broadest strokes, shows The Butcher ripping a man’s intestines from his belly and dumping them on the floor. Arms are severed. Bones broken. Throats slit. Skulls split. Chests impaled. Cannon fire decimates buildings, kills hundreds of people and sets large sections of the city on fire (the billowing smoke that covers Manhattan sends shivers up and down your spine). Four men are executed in a public hanging. More than once, a knife that is plunged into a man’s gut is twisted and turned to cause as much damage as possible. A dead man is hung on a makeshift cross for passersby to see. Amsterdam’s face is branded with a red-hot knife blade.
crude or profane language: Six f-words (one of them used to reference sex) and one s-word. A dozen milder profanities are all but drowned out in the din, but the same number of profane uses of the Lord’s name stand out starkly (seven or eight times, characters abuse the names "Jesus" and "Christ").
drug and alcohol content: Drinking is common. Several scenes are shot in pubs and at wild parties. Amsterdam and others in Cutting’s gang smoke an unnamed drug from a long pipe. Amsterdam and Cutting smoke cigars and pipes. Others smoke cigarettes.
other negative elements: Men wager on everything from brutal boxing matches to animal fights. When Vallon is about to die, he holds his young son’s head in his hands and forces him to watch as Cutting turns the knife in his gut. One of the men who is hanged calls out to his watching son and entreats him to watch. Both of these scenes are used to communicate an intense commitment to avenging loved one’s deaths, a mission Amsterdam devotes his life to. In contrast, God tells us that vengeance is His, and that we are to trust Him with our lives and with our death (Romans 12:19). Racism rears its ugly head repeatedly in the film. Epithets are hurled against Blacks, Chinese and other immigrants. Such sentiments and the cruel behavior it inspires aren’t condoned in the story; neither are they condemned. They just are. Politicians set a disturbing example, clinging to popularity and power rather than truth and ethics. "The appearance of the law must be upheld," declares one such man of considerable sway, "especially while it is being broken." Citizens are forced to vote (sometimes more than once, and at the point of a knife) for the candidate with the most devoted henchmen.
conclusion: Oddly enough, Gangs of New York was shot in Rome. The ancient streets and teetering tenements found there made a perfect backdrop for 19th century New York. "We cocooned ourselves in this little environment," Leonardo DiCaprio said. "We woke up every day and went on set and went back in time." That commitment to authenticity and realism radiates from every nook and cranny of the film. As Daniel Day-Lewis is apt to do, he completely loses himself in his role as The Butcher. It’s one of his most distinctive roles yet, and he’s had a lot of them. DiCaprio has fully rebounded from his Titanic slump, giving Amsterdam layers of complexity and conflicted nuance. He’s at his best when tormented by the fact that his desire for revenge is softening under an inscrutable affection for his enemy. "I’ve been taken under the wing of the dragon," Amsterdam mutters. "And I’ve found it to be surprisingly warm."
The history lesson proffered here is well taken. I’ll leave its accuracy for the historians to debate, and suffice it to say that I walked away more grateful than ever for my cushy 21st century life. What’s missing from New York in 1863 is the rule of law. And that makes all the difference. Today we thrive in a society governed by law and order to be envied by all other countries, and this movie makes one immensely grateful for that. If the actual events of Civil War New York were only one-fifth as frightening as what emanates from Scorsese’s imagination, not many of us would dare wish its return.
What’s not so well taken is the level of brutality and sexual arousal shown openly and enthusiastically onscreen. Its violence puts Gangs in the same league as Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers and Windtalkers. Some of its viciousness actually surpasses that of such modern war movies because it is so intensely gruesome, with knives and clubs getting more close-up screen time than bullets and bombs. Likewise, its nudity and sexual activity teeter just shy of NC-17 territory. This is as far from a PBS documentary as Scorsese could possibly get. He’s proud of that, but it makes his long-awaited vision of the past inaccessible to millions of families in the present who, preferring not to risk psychological desensitization, keep their appetites for destruction in check.
Gangs of New York tells the story of New York City in the mid 19th Century and the trials and tribulations of the immigrant Irish people as they come up against rampant prejudice from the “native” protestant Americans born in the country. The movie follows the life of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of a Catholic Priest (a minor role played by Liam Neeson) in the rough Five Points area of New York.
The tone of the movie is set in the first five minutes as the nine-year-old Amsterdam is given a medallion of Michael and blessed by his father. Soon they move through the bowels of an abandoned brewery, a bizarre wooden structure that is a dark combination of a church, condominium, brothel, and catacombs, as they prepare to battle against an enemy. Men and hard-looking women are gathering weapons of all types and are soon marching out-of-doors into a snowy town square that is the center of Five Points.
In a minute, 100 men with various weapons appear opposite them and array for combat. The “natives” are a combination of street gangs, as are the Irish that the camera follows outside. The leader of the Americans is Bill-the-Butcher, played with sick fierceness by Daniel Day-Lewis. Billy the Butcher tells them they are here to drive the foreign pestilence from their shores. The Priest says they will establish once and for all their right to be there and end the harassment placed upon them by “the Butcher’s” tyrannical reign.
In the horrendous battle that ensues, the audience sees every effect of Middle Ages weaponry upon the human body. The Priest battles well against the opposite force as his young son and other children watch nearby. Soon, however, Billy wounds him and the battle comes to a grinding halt. The little boy Amsterdam comes to his father’s stricken side and is there to hear Billy’s proclamation of victory and declaration of “rules” to the surviving Irish. He then stabs a dagger into the heart of the Priest and the little boy runs and hides his father’s dagger and the Saint Michael medal he was given minutes before. He is captured and sent off to a boy’s home and reform school where he apparently stews about revenge.
Sixteen years later, Amsterdam is released from the school, where he hugs the minister, takes a new Bible and heads out the door. The next scene is Amsterdam throwing the bible into the river. Amsterdam’s entire goal is to kill Billy the Butcher, who yearly celebrates the victory over the Irish and his father.
Learning how to survive in the hellhole called Five Points, Amsterdam is soon infiltrating Billy’s gang, and, in a strange twist of fate, becomes a close minion of Billy the Butcher. In the 16 years that have passed, many of the Irishmen who fought in the famous battle turned sides and now work for Billy, even though he constantly abuses their heritage and their people. Amsterdam is in constant danger of being discovered as he gets closer and closer to Billy and is even considered a “son.” He states, “It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wings of the dragon . . . it’s warmer than you think.”
Coinciding with the tension and violence of the rival gangs and corrupt police is the constant pressure of the Civil War on the populace. Apparently, the North, being desperate for troops, began to instate a draft. This draft could be “dodged” legally by paying $300. The average person of the day could not afford this fee, much less a poor immigrant. Soon there are riots in the street that are cruelly crushed by the Army, even going as far as ships shelling the shore from the harbor!
Martin Scorsese delivers a powerful, big scale movie with GANGS OF NEW YORK. Regrettably, it is littered with bodies oozing blood, as well as graphic sex scenes and full nudity. Equally disturbing is Mr. Scorsese’s constant references to God, most of which are spouted by the sick villain, Bill the Butcher, who says that it is Faith that divides the Irish from the Natives. There is even a scene where Amsterdam, Billy and a wealthy, corrupt family are all praying simultaneously for God’s Blessings, as two of the three parties are preparing to carve the hearts out of their enemies. Just as pitiful is the use of Scripture, mostly quotations where King David is asking God to help him trample down his enemies. There is one Protestant Mission that tries to help, but it is basically the brunt of jokes as the bumbling preacher tries to reach the people of the streets.
If one could sum up the GANGS OF NEW YORK in two words they would be “angry” and “cruel.” Scorsese’s premise is that this bloodbath part of history was the beginning of New York City and the United States, and that the patriotism of Billy (rubbed constantly in the viewer’s face), combined with his Xenophobia, is the real problem. It is unclear whether Scorsese created a violent “history” movie, or a not so subtle “anti-American” film by his constant use of traditional symbols being tied to the antagonist (who literally wraps himself in the flag for one scene). It is clear he is preaching from his “pulpit,” and it’s an anti-god, anti-American, anti-religion message. God fearing and patriotic audiences, whether Catholic or Protestant, will be offended.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is a dark, violent and disturbing “gangster” movie. This is possibly the most blood spilled on screen since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and GLADIATOR. Many wise and moral audiences will avoid supporting Scorsese’s elaborate and expensive method of using his art to take a potshot at the United States of America and at God.
Scorsese is part of the 1960s anti-war generation that, instead of trying to reform the U.S. government policies that created so many terrible mistakes and so much destruction during the Vietnam War, translated their anger against that war into an anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, leftist ideology. GANGS OF NEW YORK seems to reflect the same kind of revisionist thinking, to a large extent.