Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York begins in 1846 in the catacombs of an old brewery (cleverly named “The Old Brewery”). Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Casino, Bringing Out the Dead) opens the film with ‘Priest’ Vallon (Liam Neeson) shaving with his son standing next to him. They are Irish immigrants who have settled in middle Manhattan Island. Vallon leads his child out of the room deep in the catacombs and begins gathering the rest of his Irish gang who are sharpening blades and roasting food, etc. The scene feels like that mine ride at Knott’s Berry Farm (for all you poor souls who have been to such a dreadful place). Vallon carries a Celtic Cross with him as he is a priest (we never learn his first name), and he leads his gang the “Dead Rabbits” out of the deep catacombs and to the front door which is guarded by Monk (Brendan Gleeson) who opens the door to reveal the harsh, cold weather outside. Outside snow has layered the ground, the sky is gray, and there is no one in sight. Outside, in the courtyard area, is the Five Points. The Five Points is the courtyard-like area that acts as a decisive area of Manhattan for anyone to control. The Five Points is where the five streets meet. At the time in question, in 1846, the Five Points is vied for by Vallon and William “Butcher Bill” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is the leader of another gang, rival to the “Dead Rabbits”, called simply, “The Nativists”. Bill is a native; he was born in the United States. He believes that America is for the Natives, and the Natives alone, and that the hordes of immigrants (namely Ireland) are contributing nothing but disease and pestilence. In the film’s opening scene the two leaders have words, displaying their very strict and hardened points-of-view and the battle ensues. Bill will win the battle, breaking through the monstrous crowd a-la Mel Gibson in Braveheart and meets Vallon to stab him. Vallon falls and Bill calls the attention of the bustling melee to notice what has happened. The crowd stops as Vallon lies on the ground, dying. This is an odd moment as what one would incorrectly assume is a war ensuing is indeed not. It is understood in the subtleties of Bill (as this is the only segment of the film we see ‘Priest’) that although the two seem to hare the same hatred for each other they very much hold each other in great respect. Young Vallon escapes deep into the hidden catacombs with the help of one of his friends. Here we are to presume that young Vallon found his way out of the Five Points and far away to live at an orphange.
Flash forward sixteen years to 1862. The Civil War is in it’s early stages and young Vallon is in his early twenties. His name is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and we watch as he is handed a Bible and released from the Catholic orphange . He throws the Bible into the river and boards a ship to travel up the coast to New York. Through ensuing events we meet two would-be robbers, one being one of Amsterdam’s young friends, played by Henry Thomas. Cameron Diaz plays Jenny, a very skilled pick-pocket who was brought in by Bill as a young orphan.
That is the somewhat-of a blueprint of the story without ruining it. But what makes this film exactly what it is is everything behind it.
The film is drenched with history and meaning. There is ‘Priest’ and Bill, the two represent both ends of the spectrum of early America. One wants to live freely in the New World and one wants to keep it for themselves. In modern times such an argument as Bill’s could be met with the argument that this land was stolen from the Native Americans, the true Nativists. Obviously this argument would be much more relevant in the era of 1846-1862, however Scorcese does not address it directly. That underlying point is brought out virtually unnoticed as it is only through the use of a statue in the office of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). The statue watches over the ever-corrupt Tweed and his dealings.
What we have is essentially a community. It is a community torn apart by the gangs, and these are not typical gangs, they are more like tribes. The rivaling gangs make up the conscience of America. Bill and the Nativists are anti-Union and support slavery. While it is not touched upon, it is evident basically through one of Amsterdam’s friends who is black and their treatment of a racist ex-Dead Rabbit-turned-Native. The two sides play roles.
In Gangs of New York, Scorcese had been waiting for over thirty years to tell the story of what America is in its roots. Scorcese did not pull any punches whatsoever. America, the ground of which the Dead Rabbits and the Nativists fight on is a young country and is in a third-world state where poverty is rampant, crime is almost accepted and the police are easily bought. Scorcese headed the film with the tagline, “America Was Born in the Streets” because the film is about exactly that. The film displays in grand form the reality behind America’s origins and the ideals behind them. America is developing and is attracting immigrants at a fast rate (up to 15,000 Irish a day alone). The United States is slowly becoming what we know it to be today. Scorcese examines it’s early stages, America in its’ rawest form. In the 140 years since, America has “grown” into a society of multiple-layered half-truths, a world in which ideals and morals, principles and logic are masked by 140+ years of cover-ups. And I’m not talking about cover-ups like the Kennedy assassination or Enron, but the systematic and, more importantly, extremely subtle cover up of simple truth and reality. Such a long and subtle cover up of things past does mirrors Orwell’s explanation in 1984 (written in ’49) where history has been erased. here it is subtle, history is not erased but rather manipulated. The events of the film, the opening battle, the riots of 1863, Tweed, etc. are sometimes mentioned in history text books but never ever delved into. In the film, Bill controls Tweed, and historically, Tweed controlled everything. When an Irishman is elected Sheriff at the proposal of Amsterdam, Bill kills him; and he kills him in broad daylight, in front of the townspeople of the Five Points. In this ancient America the stranglehold on democracy that exists now is beginning it’s slow, subtle grasp.
Gangs of New York is idealistic, so Amsterdam and his revived “Dead Rabbits” represent the positive ideal that America has long-since forgotten. Bill is the establishment. Tweed expresses his opinion of the people in only one way. He never refers to the people as anything but votes. Houses are lit on fire by the townspeople so that they can watch people loot the house and then watch as the Tweed-appointed firemen try to put it out. Tweed is nonchalant about the entire matter, always campaigning for votes. And as the story progresses, Amsterdam gathers support amongst his people to fight Bill in the same yard that his father fought Bill in sixteen years ago.
This is the day that the riots begin. Scorcese does not paint Bill and the Nativists as the racists and the “bad guys”. Scorcese leaves the villainy up to everyone, the politicians of New York play billiards in their mansion and joke about the intentions and the will of the people. Meanwhile the Civil War draft is in full force. The draft is for everyone, especially immigrants, and can only be avoided with $300 which no one has obviously. So the draft riots begin. In Gangs, the Union is just as bad as the Confederacy, essentially.
There is an exquisite scene in which Bill explains his reasons for his ways and the origins of his ruthlessness, draped in the American flag—an obvious attack at symbolism that is so well placed that I did not even notice it.
So all in all, what do we have in Gangs of New York? You may not find out until near the end of the film. In the end we have Amsterdam and Bill: the ideal vs. the undeniable future, respectively, of the United States. However, as I mentioned before, Bill had that comraderie with ‘Priest’ and the same exists here except Amsterdam has that natural thirst for revenge. The film can be interpreted (poorly) as a gang film of the eighteen hundreds, a period piece, or anything else people can find to try and make it bad. But the film has an underlying tale of the history of America flowing from beginning to end. Although Amsterdam and Bill are rivals, they carry that same comraderie that they are indeed fighting for the same ideal of what they envision to be America.
***I have to get to this however it is an extreme spoiler***
When the Dead Rabbits and the Natives gather in the Five Points for the final battle, the Union beings bombarding the city with cannons. What ensues is chaotic destruction of the Five Points. Both Amsterdam and Bill are injured by a blast from the buildings as cannonballs reign from the sky. In this scene, as the two awaken, Bill expresses his delight that he may “die as a true American”. Amsterdam then stabs him, killing him. In the next, and final scene, Amsterdam has buried Bill next to his father in a burial site across from Manhattan island. He narrates that the riots ended and the people were calmed, and that essentially that day when he and Bill fought while the city burned was the last day that America carried an identity. After that, known history followed with Lincoln and the war and so forth. Amsterdam leaves with Jenny to board a ship that will take them around South America to San Francisco while we stay, as U2’s “The Hands that Built America” plays, and watch as Scorcese has the burning houses of 1863 Manhattan slowly change. The building get taller and more abundant, the graves gather grass, the Brooklyn Bridge appears, skyscrapers, the graves become unnoticeable, and finally in the modern era, the site has been overshadowed by the monstrous buildings of downtown Manhattan, including the WTC.
***thank you, you may read on***
So what we have is Martin Scorcese’s greatest achievement and a story that reminds us of many things. America has since been taken over by corporations (Tweed), and as the gravesites have disappeared and the city blown up (no sinister pun intended) we see that Tweed will always outlast Amsterdam. While Amsterdam tried to carve out his own freedom, he fought against fate.
But most importantly, Scorcese did not make a film to inspire Americans in their country and it’s history and all that bullshit. He made a film to indeed remind us that America, and Americans themselves, has no identity. History has been written and re-written and in that subtle transition from then to now the Amsterdams and Butcher Bills of our past have been taken over by the Tweeds. One could take such a startling declaration as a call for change, revolution maybe? To that I would say wait and watch; watch and learn. Because before anything could ever be done in the most idealistic or realistic way, you must first understand your roots; understand history so that you may not repeat it. That is Scorcese’s message. And in these times of false pride and national buffoonery Gangs of New York comes to this filmgoer as a refreshing outlet that America was indeed born in the streets, by the people, and not in the offices by the politicians and rhetoric and waged wars.