Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is impressive—even very impressive—in certain respects, it has some intense moments, and it deals with important and interesting issues, but in the end I’m inclined to rate it as just good rather than very good or above. (And I say that even though Daniel Day-Lewis’s awesome moustache alone is enough to earn the film a thumbs up.)
Visually the film is amazing. It’s the kind of mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster historical drama where it looks like they were utterly meticulous and spent a fortune in getting every detail of the costumes, the buildings, the streets, etc., every bit of dirt and blood, to look exactly the way they wanted them to look. It really has that feeling of taking you into another world.
I’ll have more to say about the story shortly, but let me give just a very general overview here. (Warning: Depending on how strictly you want to define “spoiler,” there may be some spoilers here, and surely will be some later.)
The movie opens with a fight scene between rival gangs in New York in the 1840s. One is a “native” gang of American-born anti-immigrants led by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis), and the other is a gang of recent immigrants from Ireland led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Cutting kills Vallon in the battle, which is witnessed by Vallon’s son Amsterdam.
The remainder of the movie takes place in the early 1860s, the time of the Civil War. The now adult Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), who evidently had a very rough childhood in orphanages and reformatories and such after his father’s death, is on a mission to avenge that death by killing Bill the Butcher. Keeping his identity secret, he joins the Butcher’s gang and quickly (unrealistically quickly) works his way up to being one of the Butcher’s most trusted henchmen. Indeed, the Butcher even takes a fond, paternalistic interest in Amsterdam, but ultimately they face off in a gang battle that is virtually a recreation of the opening scene of the movie, just with Amsterdam replacing his father as the leader of one side.
I’ll now dig a little deeper, noting various things about Gangs of New York that happened to stand out to me. I’ll start with a couple of weaknesses, a couple of factors that explain why I opened by saying there was a limit to how highly I could rate this film.
Though the atmospherics feel very real, at times the ways the main characters act and speak do not.
In my mind as I watched Gangs of New York I found myself comparing it to Scorsese’s Goodfellas. DeNiro and Pesci and some of those characters in Goodfellas are strikingly realistic. You feel like you could easily run into them in real life (though in the case of most of them you absolutely wouldn’t want to). Whereas with Gangs of New York you never forget you’re watching movie characters.
I don’t just mean that in the sense that we’re talking about a story a hundred years more distant from us in the one case than the other; I don’t mean that kind of unfamiliarity or foreignness. I’ve seen movies even more remote in time and/or place that didn’t have this artificial, cinematic feel. Nor am I saying that Gangs of New York is poorly acted per se; DiCaprio is decent, and Day-Lewis is a particularly arresting screen presence, even if arguably he’s a bit over the top at times in his flamboyance. But it feels like Scorsese and his cast studied gangsters in order to make Goodfellas, and studied old movies in order to make Gangs of New York.
Some of the events are just way too convenient or coincidental. Let’s start with that opening battle scene, and for that matter the concluding one.
Actually, one quick thing about that opening scene aside from whether it’s realistic. I was struck by how the details of it make the participants’ deaths almost sure things, and therefore what mind-boggling courage—or insanity—they manifested. I mean, it’s two groups of dozens or hundreds of men facing off, armed with a variety of knives, hatchets, clubs, etc., and they charge into each other en masse, with everyone wildly flailing with their weapons at everyone around them, and continuing to do so for as long as anyone else in the giant scrum is still alive.
Come to think of it, though, that nature of the battle as I’ve described it is related to the point I wanted to make about realism. Picture that absolutely chaotic battle scene, where every step you take into the melee of berserk men frantically slashing and chopping at anyone in sight further decreases the chances you’ll survive, where the visibility is near zero, and where weapons are constantly striking at you from three, four, or ten directions at once. Somehow, in both of the key battle scenes, the two leaders manage to wade through all the hullabaloo to find a calm spot in the middle of it all where they can square off just the two of them and try to kill each other—after exchanging a few dramatic declamations.
Nowhere but in the movies.
Another thing that didn’t work for me at all was the whole romantic angle. There just seemed no reason for it, beyond that in a conventional Hollywood movie it’s expected there will be some kind of romantic relationship.
Amsterdam just happens to run into a phenomenally skilled and successful female pickpocket and thief who he falls for, and then finds out that she just happens to evidently be some kind of part time mistress of the Butcher, which makes them rivals for the same woman on top of the other things going on in their complex relationship.
It’s all quite silly, not to mention the way it plays out is an instance of possibly my all-time most hated movie cliché. (I assume it’s not just a movie cliché, but is routine in trashy romance novels, soap operas, and other forms of entertainment I don’t consume.) And that is where you take two conventionally attractive young people, throw them together, have them be utterly antagonistic toward each other—sneering, ignoring, insulting, insisting they aren’t attracted to each other, even physical violence, whatever—and then have that turn out to in effect be a form of foreplay that makes them all the more irresistible to each other when they finally give themselves over to their passion.
I’ve always found that whole “thin line between love and hate” mating ritual nauseating, not to mention a really creepy cultural message that encourages things like insincerely playing hard to get, and I suppose even date rape.
But then there are plenty of other things about Gangs of New York that I liked, or at least found interesting or thought-provoking, or raised questions in my mind.
I thought, by the way, that the bulk of the high points of the film, the moments that most engaged me or impressed me, were in the second half. It’s unusually long for a conventional movie, and the first half especially dragged at times for me.
The development of the relationship between the Butcher and Amsterdam is quite interesting, reaching its peak in a scene where the Butcher opens up late at night alone with Amsterdam, explaining to him his Machiavellian philosophy of ruling people by fear, and gazing at him meaningful while musing of his never having had a son.
He also tells Amsterdam during this conversation of his climactic, fatal battle with Amsterdam’s father (though of course at this point he doesn’t realize Priest Vallon was Amsterdam’s father), as well as their conflicts over the years that led up to it. He speaks of Vallon with reverence as a true warrior, a worthy adversary such that he has never faced since.
It made me think about whether revenge was so appropriate after all, and about whether Amsterdam might be thinking the same thing. Amsterdam’s attitude toward the Butcher does seem to soften over time, as he spends more time with him, sees a more human side of him, sees his paternal fondness for him growing. He even saves the Butcher’s life during an assassination attempt. The question is whether he is being won over to the Butcher’s side and relinquishing his dream of revenge, or whether he is just biding his time, getting closer and closer to the Butcher and getting him to drop his guard, so that he can kill him himself at a time and in a manner of his own choosing.
If Vallon and Cutting were two people who freely chose their lifestyles as criminal gang leaders and worked their way up to the top, who were equally responsible for the conflict between them, who were rival warriors with great mutual respect for each other, who fought each other fair and square to the death, with Cutting ever since still honoring the name and character of his foe, then what did Cutting do “wrong,” at least beyond anything Vallon did equally wrong? The only difference is that he won. Is that what is so egregious that he deserves to be killed in revenge?
Unless perhaps one wants to say that the fundamental lack of moral equivalence is that Cutting and his “nativists” were the aggressors, that they harassed and attacked with murderous intent the innocent Irish who were just minding their own business trying to make an honest living in a new country and who banded together and fought back with violence only as a matter of justified self-defense. In that case, maybe the fact that Cutting fought Vallon on an individual level with courage and honor and has praised him ever since is insufficient mitigation of the crime of mass murder that he and his minions perpetrated.
Again there are spoilers here for anyone who has not seen the film and doesn’t want to know too much about it before doing so, but in fact Amsterdam follows through on his long term plan to exact revenge. Whether he ever wavered about that and grew to like or admire the Butcher, or at times just feigned doing so, I can’t say for sure.
But while it’s possible he stuck with his intention due to a deep-seated belief that his father and the Irish gang members had been innocent victims of xenophobic violence, I didn’t get the impression that that was the key factor. I sensed he was more motivated by two—in my mind much more dubious—factors.
One is a kind of primitive “He killed my father, so it’s my obligation to kill him” principle, based on emotion and a family loyalty-based moral dogma, rather than a genuine conviction that “He unjustly killed my father.” The other is his petty resentment and jealousy over—his inability to tolerate—the Butcher’s continued involvement with “his woman.”
The Butcher’s a nasty guy in multiple ways, without question. He’s not someone one naturally roots for. But I didn’t see Amsterdam’s seeking to kill him as a righteous cause. If anything, the fact that he stuck with it made me think less of him, especially since whatever you can say about the Butcher, he was pretty darn good to Amsterdam, and did indeed accept him into his life like a son.
One of the main things I appreciated about Gangs of New York is how it takes its political/historical context seriously. Though the focus is on the Butcher, Amsterdam, the woman they share, and the criminal gang activities, there are constant references to what else is going on in the city and in the world.
First of all there’s the immigration controversy. “Fresh as today’s headlines,” you might say. It’s a reminder that this issue flares up periodically throughout American history.
Throughout this period of history, massive numbers of immigrants arrived in America, and New York in particular, generating considerable anger in a considerable proportion of the native-born population. Then as now some of the opposition to immigration was based in economics—the insistence that the newcomers are “stealing” jobs—and then as now that was factually dubious as well as nearly always being a rationalization for a more base fear and hatred of anyone perceived as “other.”
The difference is that back then you didn’t have to be very different to be different enough to be hated. Nowadays it’s darker-skinned folks like Latinos who generate violent opposition; back then the Irish and to a lesser extent even groups like Germans and Swedes were “dark” enough to be considered of a dangerous and inferior race. Nowadays it’s Muslims who are regarded as having a scary, violent religion that doesn’t even count as a religion so much as a terrorist ideology of some kind; back then even Catholicism—just another branch of Christianity—was considered different enough to be a forbidding, foreign force worthy of hatred and exclusion.
We can look back now and marvel at how they treated as “them” so many people that today’s bigots accept as “us.”
Then there’s the extreme urban corruption, exemplified by Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine.
That’s maybe a little too simplistic in Gangs of New York, with Tweed meeting personally with figures like Cutting and Amsterdam, explaining explicitly how and why he wants to ally with criminal gangs, to provide enough assistance to newly arriving immigrants to win them to Tammany’s side, to blatantly cheat in elections (with people voting multiple times, and when even that’s not enough simply having the vote counters falsify the count), but it’s a worthwhile reminder of the stunning level of corruption exhibited by urban machines like that of Tammany.
The election fraud specifically—and its connection with newly arrived immigrants—is again reflected in today’s news, though in myth rather than reality. That is, nowadays we have bizarre claims such as that 3 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (which has basically the same level of evidential backing as a claim that 3 million aliens from outer space did); back then there were incidents of actual rather than make-believe election fraud of massive proportions.
Of course the biggest contemporary issue in Gangs of New York is the Civil War. What’s interesting is how much that stays in the background for most of the movie. It’s just not a part of most of these characters’ world, not something they even think about. At various points of the movie they might be shown walking down the street past some figure on a soapbox speechifying about the war, but they invariably ignore such phenomena. Surely the war was a huge deal in the newspapers, but for the most part these aren’t people who read newspapers.
Insofar as they do infrequently address the war, they’re superficially against it (why go off to fight and kill in a war to free black slaves when they don’t like blacks to begin with, and when freed slaves coming northward would, like immigrants, just constitute another competitor for the finite number of low level working class jobs?), but mostly they ignore it.
But ultimately it becomes harder and harder to ignore the war, because it impinges on their lives in a huge way in the form of the draft.
The draft is highly unpopular in the movie. It is resented and resisted, it increases the hostility toward blacks, toward government and law enforcement, and toward the rich (based on the provision that one can buy one’s way out of the draft by instead coughing up $300 to support the war effort, a sum wildly out of reach of working people—kind of like $300,000 today).
It’s a matter of simple self-interest; they don’t want to go to war and have a good chance of being killed. (What sane person does? Though it’s worth noting that at least some of them are willing to engage in behaviors like the earlier described opening gang warfare scene that I dare say carry a much higher risk of death than would accepting induction into the Union army.) This especially makes sense for the immigrants being forcibly recruited as they get off the boats that brought them from Europe. To them, this Civil War is somebody else’s fight.
As the enforcement of the draft intensifies, so does the opposition, leading to enormous and deadly riots in the streets, lasting for days at a time. Marauding mobs not only fight battles with cops and soldiers, but victimize any blacks they come across, including in a murderous rampage through a black orphanage.
Even during the riots, though, the gangs continue fighting each other. The second major gang battle scene—with the Butcher and his men facing off with Amsterdam and his men—takes place while a ship along the shoreline blasts cannon balls into the ranks of the gang armies.
By the way, Gangs of New York seems to be at least as accurate as most historical fiction movies, and probably more so. There really were violent street gangs in control of large areas of the city during that period in New York, and hatred and fatal clashes between the native-born and the newly arriving mostly Irish immigrants. Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were real and did the sorts of things depicted in the movie. There really was a military draft for the Civil War, it really was highly unpopular, you really could buy your way out of it, it really did give rise to massive riots, and the Colored Orphan Asylum really was burned to the ground.
Of course the main characters like Amsterdam are fictional. But even there, it’s not all make-believe. For instance, there was an actual historical figure—a gang leader and anti-immigration political figure—nicknamed Bill the Butcher whose life overlapped modestly with that of Bill Cutting of Gangs of New York.
This is far from Scorsese’s best work, and there are significant aspects of it that didn’t work for me, but it’s still a good, and I would say important, movie worth seeing.