“Gangs of New York” was a dream project for Martin Scorsese. It is his first and only war movie. I do classify it as belonging in the genre, but it is better labeled as a revenge flick or a gangster film. The movie was twenty years in the making. Scorsese was inspired by Herbert Asbury’s “The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld”. It took many years to get the financing and then when the cost ballooned from $83 to $100 million, Scorsese had conflicts with producer Harvey Weinstein. Most of the dispute was over length and the final cut went from 180 minutes to 168. Most of the filming was done at Rome’s famous Cinecitta studios. A painting by George Catlin was used to create the Five Points neighborhood. Casting was difficult. Tom Hanks was offered the role of Cutting, but he was committed to “Road to Perdition”. Due to delays, Robert De Niro and Willem Defoe had to drop out. Leonard DiCaprio made the first of his numerous films with Scorsese. Sarah Michelle Geller (who was busy with “Buffy”) had to turn down the part that went to Cameron Diaz. The release was delayed because of 9/11. It was critically acclaimed (making many top ten lists), but did not do well at the box office. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Picture (losing to “Chicago”), Director (winner - Roman Polanski for “The Pianist”), Actor (Day-Lewis losing to Adrien Brody of “The Pianist”), Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Song (“The Hands That Built America”), and Sound. It did not win a single award. It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Film and Daniel Day-Lewis won for Actor. Scorsese won a Golden Globe for directing and the song won.
The movie opens in 1946 New York City. Two gangs are in conflict over the Five Points neighborhood. It may be the armpit of America, but they are willing to kill over it. The Protestant Confederation of American Natives (a fancy name for Nativists) are led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. He actually is a butcher, which means he is adept at his last name. Their opponents are called the Dead Rabbits. They are Irish Catholic immigrants. They are led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). The ensuing melee is frenetic and bloody. The Dead Rabbits live up to their name and forfeit claim to the turf. Vallon’s son vows revenge. When “Amsterdam” (DiCaprio) gets out of reform prison in 1862, he has a plan to worm his way into Cutting’s confidence since Cutting does not know who he is. By this time, Cutting is wealthy, anti-immigrant, anti-Lincoln, and pro-slavery. His followers are upset that the Civil War is resulting in freed slaves taking their jobs. Just like those damned immigrants had been doing.
Amsterdam’s undercover efforts are successful at first, but his romance with a petty thief named Jenny (Diaz) complicates matters. His best buddy Johnny (Henry Thomas) wants her too. Eventually, Amsterdam revives the Dead Rabbits and we look forward to a rematch of the gangs and the inevitable duel between Cutting and Amsterdam. In the meantime, political boss William Tweed gets involved as Amsterdam makes a deal to get him the immigrant vote for his candidate Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson). Cutting doesn’t take this lightly, as you can imagine. One of the reasons the movie can be classified as a war movie is the Civil War intrudes on what is basically a gang warfare movie. The epic gang battle takes place at the time of the infamous Draft Riots. Believe it or not, we get a naval bombardment.
“Gangs of New York” is a sprawling movie, even though it takes place mostly in one neighborhood. The set is amazing and worth the watch alone. The other big draw is the acting. It’s no surprise Daniel Day-Lewis is outstanding. Cutting is one of the great cinematic villains. He is mesmerizing when he is on screen and he gets to interact with all the main characters. His loss to Adrien Brody for the Oscar is perplexing. He did his usual staying in character (and accent) which means he must have been a dick off set. Speaking of accents, a lot of effort was put into getting them right. So you accent-Nazis will be pleased. DiCaprio was perfectly cast as Amsterdam. The rest of the cast is strong. You know you have a surfeit of talent when you can exit Liam Neeson after the first act.
The movie is a tutorial on life outside the textbooks. You’ll be shocked at how crude that life could be. If you lived in the Five Points neighborhood, you probably would be affiliated with one gang or another. Crime was rampant and the movie is basically about crime and corruption. Or so you will left to believe. (See my historical accuracy section) The movie does a good job of incorporating “Boss” Tweed to dabble into big city politics. If you think politics is rough today, at least it’s only verbal. And if you think America is divided today, this movie is full of versuses. Natives versus immigrants. Protestants versus Catholics. Democrats versus Republicans. Rich versus poor. Whites versus blacks. On second thought, the movie is a mirror.
History buffs will love the fact that the movie throws in details like a scene where fire departments rush to a fire and then fight to see who will put it out. Meanwhile, people loot the building. An “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” play is interrupted by vegetables thrown by pro-slavery supporters. Two of the characters are based on real people – Cutting and Tweed. In the end, the draft results in the riots that are awkwardly intertwined with the final gang fight. Those nifty historical nuggets are overwhelmed by a largely fictional tale.
And this is the main problem with the movie. The ending is a letdown. Setting the climactic confrontation between Cutting and Amsterdam in the midst of the mayhem of the riots was a mistake. Anyone familiar with the history of the event will be face palming. Once again, we have a potentially great war movie let down by the last act. “Gangs of New York” joins “We Were Soldiers” and “Cross of Iron” in that respect. Still, like those movies, it is certainly worth the watch.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is far from a documentary. Asbury’s book is partially to blame. The book sensationalized the Five Points situation and was full of inaccuracies. Sounds like good source material for a movie. There were numerous gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits, but they were more like political clubs that “influenced” the way people voted. There might be a little violence on election day, but the movie greatly exaggerated the fighting. By the 1860’s murders were uncommon. And by then the neighborhood was less like a slum than in 1846. Most people were not crooks or prostitutes. They were regular people with regular jobs. There were no gang wars. The battle that opens the movie was fictional. There was a fight in 1857 between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in 1857, but it was not the violent brawl of the movie. As far as the dynamics of the movie, actually in Five Points the conflict was between various Irish gangs. The film makes the neighborhood more diverse than it was. For instance, there were few Chinese immigrants at the time.
The one thing the movie gets especially right is the setting. Historians praised the fidelity of the set. Fortunately, the movie was not in smell-o-vision because the neighborhood was famously rank. But then you could probably guess that from the visuals. Naturally, the set designer had to enhance. In this case, there were no catacombs.
All of the characters are fictional except Cutting and Tweed. Cutting was based on William Poole. He was a bare-knuckled boxer who did own a butcher shop. He was a figure in the Know Nothing movement which was noted for its anti-immigrant platform. However, he was not from the Five Points area and he was assassinated in 1855. He was not proven to have murdered anyone. Boss Tweed is accurately portrayed as a power in New York politics. He became the symbol of corruption through graft and ballot box stuffing. The movie makes reference to the court house that he built with massive kickbacks.
The Draft Riots are close enough. When Lincoln started the draft, it caused an explosion of resentment, especially by the Irish in NYC. They were already upset with the poor employment opportunities and low wages, which they blamed on the influx of freed slaves. Now they were being asked to fight and die to end slavery? That did not go over well. The rioters targeted the rich and blacks. It got so bad that the army had to be brought in to restore order and soldiers were forced to open fire on rioters. But it is ridiculous to have the navy bombarding Five Points. Nothing remotely like that occurred. And the same could be said for the final gang encounter.
GRADE = B