Keep Away Your Poor, Your Tired… Those who think that gangs and urban violence are a modern phenomenon should take a look at Martin Scorsese’s ambitious Gangs of New York, a riveting tale of revenge, corruption, and power lust set in mid-1860s New York City.
Scorsese had already covered the dangerous streets of his hometown in films as diverse as Mean Streets and After Hours, but in Gangs of New York he goes back in time to a period when that city was a chaotic Third World melting pot – one in which the melting took place whenever members of rival ethnic gangs shed blood on top of one another.
Scorsese’s genteel The Age of Innocence, also set in 19th-century New York, stayed within the confines of the city’s wealthy districts, galaxies away from the wretched neighborhoods of immigrants and working-class Americans. Gangs of New York, however, is set right in the ‘hood, the Five Corners section of town (recreated on the lot of the Cinecittà studios in Rome) where a young Irishman, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), seeks to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson).
The murderer, Bill, the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), is the one-eyed leader of a xenophobic gang that wants to wipe out the newly arrived Irish immigrants. (The Butcher was inspired by real-life nativist bigot Bill Poole.) Unaware of Amsterdam’s real identity, Bill takes him in as a surrogate son. The truth, however, eventually emerges in bloody fashion.
Although the film’s central storyline sounds conventional, Scorsese and (credited) screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan contextualize it by weaving the personal stories into the sociopolitical framework of the mid-19th-century United States. The gang rivalries and personal vendettas are thus micro-civil wars found within the larger context of the Civil War that is tearing the country apart.
Amsterdam and Bill, for their part, are archetypes of their convoluted time, when the country – with the end of slavery and the arrival of cheap immigrant labor – was rapidly transforming itself from a socially stratified agricultural society into a more malleable industrial nation.
The Old Guard, represented by Bill and his followers, is unable to recognize or accept the inevitable changes. In sharp contrast to the American mythology, immigrants in Gangs of New York are – literally – welcomed with sticks and stones. The New Guard, represented by the Irishman Amsterdam and his fellow immigrants, is ready to take over from the Old Guard and thus proceed with the forging of the new nation – that is, until they themselves become the Old Guard, ready to be taken over by another wave of new blood.
In order to bring to life that difficult period in American history, Scorsese (who can be spotted in a cameo as a wealthy man inside his mansion) relied on a team of first-rate artists and technicians, among them production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, both of whom create some of the most impressive work of their careers.
Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York
Keeping things moving are the director’s own fluid camera work and Thelma Schoonmaker’s concise editing skills (at times concise to the point of abruptness, considering that Miramax ordered Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour-plus final cut pared down to 168 minutes). The opening sequence, in particular, is a magnificent example of bravura filmmaking, as the camera follows Irish gang members through the otherworldly innards of a New York slum. (Like most American filmmakers, Scorsese does considerably less well in the film’s more intimate – and laughably artificial – sex scenes.)
With the exception of Cameron Diaz’s much-too-modern and much-too-coy petty thief (who also happens to be Amsterdam’s inevitable love interest), the film’s other leading performers hold their ground among the elaborate sets. Henry Thomas (the little boy in E.T.) is excellent as the traitor Johnny Sirocco; Leonardo DiCaprio brings the required inner strength to his determined, steely-eyed Amsterdam; while Daniel Day-Lewis exudes charisma through his larger-than-life Bill, the Butcher.
Day-Lewis, a performer who tends to drown his characterizations in mannerisms and twitches, delivers the performance of a lifetime in Gangs of New York. Despite plenty of chances, not once does the actor allow his villain to fall into the bottomless pit of caricature or self-parody. In fact, Bill is so frightening – and so fascinating – because he is so monstrously human. With glistening eyes (one real, one fake) and clenched teeth, Day-Lewis’ ruthless, power-hungry, viciously xenophobic Bill, the Butcher, believably encompasses all that is ugly about Americans – and human beings in general – then and now.
In Gangs of New York, Scorsese demonstrates that the United States went from chaotic Third World Nation to (a tad less chaotic) Global Superpower not only through honest and hard labor, but also – perhaps chiefly – through the ruthless use of force and coercion. At the end of the film, the bloody Draft Riots – New York’s own mini “French Revolution” – are squelched by the U.S. Army’s systematic slaughter of the anti-military draft and anti-elite protesters. Their blood colors the streets red; those same streets from which would spring up the skyscrapers shown triumphantly in the film’s grand finale.
It is the birth of a new America, one in which, as the vote-rigging politician William ‘Boss’ Tweed explains, “the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it’s being broken.” There was to be no more mob rule in filthy streets. From then on, “the appearance of the law” would disguise the corruption and abuses generated from inside immaculate government and corporate office rooms.
The Age of Innocence, Scorsese and his screenwriters tell us in this remarkable cinematic achievement, has never truly existed in the United States. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, Alec McCowen, David Hemmings. Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, from a story by Cocks. (Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York treads on some of the same territory shown in the film.)