Gangs of New York (2002)


Directed by
--Martin Scorsese

Written by
--Jay Cocks (story and screenplay)
--Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
--Kenneth Lonergan (screenplay)

Cast
Leonardo DiCaprio -- Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis -- Bill the Butcher
Cameron Diaz-- Jenny Everdeane
Jim Broadbent -- Boss Tweed
John C. Reilly -- Happy Jack
Henry Thomas -- Johnny Sirocco
Brendan Gleeson -- Monk
Roger Ashton-Griffiths -- P. T. Barnum
Andrew Gallagher -- Young Johnny Sirocco
Liam Neeson -- Priest Vallon

Music
--Peter Gabriel
-- Bono (“The Hands that Built America”)
-- Howard Shore (“Brooklyn Heights”)

Summary

1846 - Priest Vallon and his Dead Rabbit gang (of Irish Catholics) go to battle against William Cutting (Bill the Butcher)'s Native Americans (British-American Protestants) in the Five Points of New York City. The Butcher kills the Priest. Priest Vallon's son watched, and was taken away to an orphanage.

1863 - Young "Amsterdam" Vallon returns to the Five Points, swearing to kill Bill the Butcher to avenge his father. We do not hear "Dead Rabbit", it is not permitted to speak of them. Instead there are the Plug Uglies, Chichesters, Roach Guards, Shirt Tails, Bowery Boys, True Blue Americans, American Guards, O'Connell Guards, Atlantic Guards and, again, the Natives. Amsterdam enters Bill's inner circle and quickly earns his respect. It is here that we meet the charming Jenny Everdeane, a beautiful pickpocket that wins Amsterdam's heart. We see the tension build up between the gangs as Amsterdam resurrects the Dead Rabbits to fight for Irish rights and against the Draft.

Background

The Five Points

"This is the place-- these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?"
-Charles Dickens, 1842

No one wants to build a slum, but mid 19th Century New York City succeeded when the Five Points was erected. Built on a swampy section of old farmland, the buildings caved in as quickly as they went up. And they continued to decay for years, as nobody living there could afford to pay for their resurrection. Dicken's description of the horrible conditions was accurate; the buildings were filled to the brim with dirt and bugs and disease. It was here that the nations newly arriving immigrants, mostly Irish, came to live. And the Irish came by the boatload, overcrowding the dingy slum. Racial tensions and poor wages made this neighborhood the most notorious, crime ridden parts of the city.


Gangs

To all who thought the Mafia was the first evidence of organized crime in America, here is a history lesson. Ever since there has been America, there has been organized crime. Here is some info on the gangs of the mid 19th Century:

Gangs took part in the usual scandals; pickpocketing, mugging, murder. But they also had control over the government. In the same way the Mafia in Sicily got its start, the gangs in America supplied votes for politicians. These politicians granted the gangs power in exchange.

There was no fire force in New York City (or really any city); instead, there were quite a few volunteer firefighters (many of which were gangs). The city paid a bonus for whoever was the first to arrive at the scene, causing quite a few gang wars over the spot. Sometimes a member of a gang would arrive at the fire and sit on the fire hydrant, waiting for their gang to arrive. Oftentimes the fires would burn uncontrollably to the next house, allowing for more fires and thus, more bonuses. Quite a bit of New York became ashes before they made a paid fire force.

Some famous gangs:

Dead Rabbits - Lasted for nearly 20 years as one of the most notorious gangs. Specialized in mugging and pickpocketting. Carried a giant spear with a dead rabbit on it to all battles.
Plug Uglies - Rumored to be named for either the fact that they sat on fire plugs, or their giant plug hats filled with rags. They would wear leather and wool over their ears as protection during fights. All Plug Uglies were Irish, and all were over 6 feet tall.
Forty Thieves/Little Forty Thieves - The elder componant of this group was hired for murders, muggings, etc. The younger was comprised of hooligans as young as 10. It was the young ones (along with other youth gangs) that forced the city to admit a "gang problem."

Draft Riot of 1863

One of the bloodiest non-military (well, not originally military) events in our country's history. When the Irish arrived in this country, Blacks were working the blue-collar jobs for barely enough to scrape by. But the Irish were desperate, fleeing a famine, they would work for even less. And therefore, were often viewed as lower than the African Americans (this would change as the Irish melted into the "white" society). But nonetheless, with the bad economy, there were quite bit of racial tension in New York.

In 1863, the Union needed soldiers for the Civil War. And who better to fight but the overflowing immigrant population. So they made the draft aversion price $300, because what poor person can pay $300?!?!?!. Those immigrants would have to fight, and die for their new country. Hey, why not kill two birds with one stone? The Irish did not like this idea, and from July 13-16th, the gangs rebelled, destroying draft offices, mansions, government officials' houses, the printing presses, the Colored Orphan Asylum, and the Colored Seamen's Home, as well as lynching several blacks.

Movie Review/Analysis

****1/2 of ***** (4.5/5)

I really enjoyed this film; I thought the acting (particularly by Day-Lewis) was excellent, and (as usual) Scorsese did a wonderful directing job (someone tell me why he hasn't won an oscar yet???). I thought some of the drama could have been intensified; we didn't care as much as we should have about the characters, but otherwise, quite well done.

What Scorsese is trying to do here (besides make an entertaining film) is prove to the world that all races are violent (ie, not only the Mafia; not onlyBlacks, not onlyIrish), all races are corrupt, whether you're rich or poor, in the government or out of it.

In this film, we see, first and foremost, the plight of the Irish-Catholics; the vast discrimination against them. Like many nouveaux-white (or... not so old-white) groups, the discrimination of the Irish has been overlooked. Few know that at this particular point in history, the Irish were lower than Blacks. We see that they are unwelcome from the first scene; and this continues throughout the entire film.

But the Irish are not glorified for their plight; they are among the most brutal groups in town. It is no wonder they acquired the title "Fighting Irish". We see the hypocrisy within the religion, as Priest Vallon beats the Natives with a cross. Nothing is truly viewed as "good" about these guys.

The Natives are also viewed as hypocrites, condemning the Irish for being stupid; Bill the Butcher sits in front of a flag; this flag displays a message, proclaiming their superiority, but (oopsie daisy!) quite a few words are misspelled, and more than a few letters are backwards. I guess hooked on phonics wasn't available at the time ;-)

We see Day-Lewis wrapped in this flag quite a few times in the film; often when making quite unamerican statements.

Still hypocritical is their name (and it was the name of a real gang/political party); the "Native Americans". But these Anglo-Saxons had recently come over in boatloads as well.

The Natives (and later Amsterdam and his Rabbits) bargain with the politicians, providing votes for them. It is here that we see another (yet commonplace and quite acceptable for the time) form of corruption: voting. Men would grow their beards out before election day, vote a few times, cut it, vote, and shave, and vote some more. With some determination, the voter turnout could be more than twice the population. This extends the corruption to all classes.

During the riot, we see the United States government use force against civilians as a protective measure (This was made illegal until recently, with George W. Bush's regime). Scores of people died in this bloodbath; innocent people of all races, sexes and creeds. It was truly an awful occurence.

It is not until the end of the film, however, that Scorsese really unleashes his moral-lesson. We see DiCaprio and Diaz wandering around the dead bodies of their friends; they reach a graveyard and they contemplate if they will be remembered. This is really the most striking self-reflexive moment in the film, and we see time pass over New York City, the skyline evolving, the final picture centered on the Twin Towers.

Which brings me to my final point: yes, the film was made prior to the attacks, and yes, release was delayed because of this, but why would a director put this into the film? I believe, in retrospect, Gangs of New York really effectively takes a stance on the issue. Racism has torn our country before; torn New York before. Buildings have burned, and people have died from acts of rebellion. Scorsese compares the gangs to Al Qaeda and the corrupt government to us. He is telling us to LOOK at what causes these rebellions and try to fix them before they (literally) blow up. But while condemning New York and America, he also gives us hope; we have rebuilt before, and we will do it again.

Gangs of New York found new fame as a movie by Martin Scorsese, but it has its origins in a 1928 potboiler of a history book, Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. The book covers gangster and criminal history in nineteenth century New York. The author researched police records and other documents, but he relied heavily on oral and popular accounts, and he writes with an eye for sensationalist entertainment. The gangster "Mighty Mose" may have really existed; I doubt he was capable of uprooting an entire tree or a lamppost to use as a club, or swimming vast distances without breathing. This is the Mose we see in the book, and he suggests the spirit in which the book must be read.

The movie takes a distorted account, and adapts freely. Scorsese collapses elements from several periods of history into one storyline. Bill "the Butcher" Poole existed, but he was murdered in 1855, which is probably why Scorsese calls him Bill Cutting. A Nativist such as Bill also wouldn't have lasted five seconds in Five Points, which was populated by recent immigrants. As it was built on Collect Pond, filled in in after being heavily polluted by industry, it lacked the elaborate catacombs presented in the film.

I thought it was odd that an Anglo-Saxon Nativist would hang out in an Asian brothel. Pete Hammill of The New York Daily News has done the research on that one. In 1863, there were about 25 Chinese residents in New York and, at any given time, a crew or so of sailors from Asian vessels. The Gangs couldn't have frequented this establishment. Chinatown did not exist until the late 1800s, and neither did Scorsese's opium dream of a brothel.

Scorsese also takes creative licence with the level of violence he depicts. In 1846, the year of the gang warfare with which the film opens, New York recorded 10 homicides (Eric Monkonnen, Phd, quoted in "Gangs of New York: the Errors"); the movie's establishing sequence suggests a bloodbath. The movie ends with the Civil War-related New York Draft Riots of 1863. Too many people died in this event, but the violence, hideous though it was, did not amount to the battle depicted in the film-- and relatively little of it took place in Five Points.

Both Asbury and Scorsese create gripping entertainment, but their work must be viewed as literary and cinematic legend-building, rather than accurate depictions of history.


Bernard Bailyn et al. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Second Edition. Lexington, Massachusetts: DC Heath, 1981.

"Gangs of New York: The Errors." http://www.vny.cuny.edu/gangs.html

Pete Hammill. "Trampling City's History." New York Daily News. December 14, 2002.

Robert Seigel, Tyler Anbinder. "Gangs of New York." All Things Considered. National Public Radio, December 24, 2002. http://hnn.us/comments/6212.html

Robert W. Snyder. "Gangs of New York Gets New York City Wrong." openDemocracy. http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article.jsp?id=1&debateId=67&articleId=890

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