Gangs of New York

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.

5 Responses to Gangs of New York

  1. Ducky's here says:

    Well, Scorcese certainly isn’t alone in his attraction to violence. Maybe the father of this, at least in a contemporary sense, was Peckinpah.

    Our redemption through violence as a theme probably reached its low point with Mel Gibson and his magnum opus of sadomasochistic homoeroticism.

    Better to go back and spend some time with, Peckinpah. Capitalism killed the west. He was dead on right about that.

    • lichanos says:

      I like Sam Peckinpah, though I don’t know many of his films. The Getaway is a favorite. He’s pretty dark and noir-ish in a way. Pretty light on the redemption side. I wouldn’t class him as a romantic.

      Which Gibson masterpiece were you citing here?

      BTW, regarding “capitalism killing the West:” I was doing some reading on a related topic a while ago, and the analysis I encountered was that the wild west was mostly an economic myth. That is, the frontier was nothing more than the leading edge of capital’s advance across North America. Think of all those mining towns, boom-towns, land schemes financed by speculation, canals and railways bringing meat and grain to markets, etc. etc. From this point of view, the west was developed by the capitalist east, otherwise, it would have been left to the Indians.

  2. Richard says:

    Thank you for this, Lichanos. You have whetted my appetite and I hope to have the opportunity to see the movie sometime.

    It seems, from what you say, that the conclusions in the movie detract from the presented facts (real or unreal), as is so often the case.

  3. Ducky's here says:

    Gibson masterpiece — Passion of the Christ

    That theory of the west is pretty formidable.

    Still the small homesteader seems a natural target for organized capital.

  4. troutsky says:

    It seems like a vicious circle ( pun intended) , the depiction of our brutal past feeding a brutalizing hunger for more depictions. Not that anything should be sanitized but maybe he could make a movie about an emancipated future!

    As for the West, I went through a museum on the Colombia River a couple of days ago that showed how fast they were able to exploit and decimate the salmon stocks. Amazing story of mechanization and Chinese workers and capitalist gusto! Destroyed native cultures and built vast fortunes, just a classic example.

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