The neighborhood of Five Points, an intersection in lower Manhattan now occupied by the Federal Courthouse and Foley Square, is the setting of Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York. Basically a simple revenge tale, it attempts to impart epic stature to the history of rioting, mayhem, and ethnic gangs in NYC of the Civil War era. The art direction is fantastic, almost too good. Everything seems just right, too right. Like a stage set, a movie set. I wonder, did it really look like this? I couldn’t shake myself of the feeling that it didn’t, that it was just too good to look at, too interesting to be believable, although I did love the costumes.
Daniel Day Lewis, an actor of amazing intensity, plays Bill Cutting, a Nativist, Know-Nothing, anti-immigrant gang leader who loves to wreak violent havoc on poor Irish newcomers to America. (He speaks with a Noo Yawk accent, and you expect him to come out with De Niro’s line from Taxi Driver: You talkin’ to me?) He regards himself as a “real American.” Leonardo Di Caprio plays a young man who witnessed Cutting’s killing of his father during a legendary gang battle that established Cutting’s dominance in the Five Points when he was a young boy. Sixteen years later the boy, now a man, returns, incognito, for revenge. He insinuates himself into the good graces of Cutting, tries and fails to kill him, and finally forms a rival Irish gang. In a final confrontation, he takes his revenge and slices up the killer of his father. For some critics, this justifies the encomium, Shakespearean.
The movie is another love song to violence and gangs by an incorrigibly romantic director who seems bewitched by the notion that in violence, the essence of our humanity is laid bare. Why not in gathering nuts to eat, I wonder? Not so much fun for movie makers. In the finale, the two gang leaders recognize themselves as having membership in a common tribe, the bounds of which transcend religious bigotry. Yes, they are both violent thugs, and their world is crushed by the arrival of blue-coated Union troops that put down the draft riots that wracked NYC for five days. (Largely Irish, the rioters were fueled by resentment that moneyed folks could buy an exemption to the draft for $300. The history of racial integration in the area was ended when the mobs turned their anger on free blacks and lynched many of them.) Oh for the days when men were men, killed with axes, knives, and clubs, and were not automatons in well-drilled ranks, with rifles and fixed bayonets. (The gang battles are depicted like confrontations between chivalrous, if brutal knights leading their loyal retainers.) A few rioters go mad with rage and charge the troops – they are shot to pieces, and their deaths are portrayed as a martyrdom.
In the end, we are shown the graves of Cutting and the boy’s father, “Priest” Vallon, side by side, sharing a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Vague noises are made about how such people gave birth to our fair city. Well, they were a part of its history, perhaps a forgotten part, as the narration says, but they no more built the city by thieving, brawling, whoring, and murdering than did Boss Tweed by perfecting his political machine and his “honest” grand larceny. Or they all did, with a lot of others. But preoccupied with the world-view of turf-obsessed thugs, Scorsese seems to believe that gangs like the Dead Rabbits and The Bowery Boys were, as the Marxists like to say of the proletariat, the true object of history.