Cult Classics: Gangs of New York (2002)
By Jordan Goodier
“Some of it I half remember, the rest I took from dreams”.
After watching and reviewing Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, I decided I should delve further into the film maker’s extensive filmography, not only to continue my own education into film making, but to try and discover what makes Martin Scorsese so renowned as a director and film maker. So I continue by looking at another of his films, the second of my two favorites – Gangs of New York. Now, this film deals with some heavy subjects, mainly immigration and racism and I found that one of the final scenes in the film was hard to watch. So, you’ve had your warning; I’m going to be talking about heavy subjects.
“The blood stays on the blade”.
Gangs of New York begins in the year 1942 and ends with the New York Draft Riots in 1963. It’s the story of Amsterdam Vallon, played wonderfully by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his vengeance against William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, set against the backdrop of New York city; and one that I never knew existed at that. That’s not saying much, as I’m no historian, but I had no idea what life was like in the 1800s, so I was pretty shocked to see how unruly and at times, barbaric it was.
“Amsterdam? I’m New York.”
Daniel Day-Lewis obviously gets a lot of recognition for his acting work, and whilst some may think that he’s overrated, I implore you to see reason. You can really see why he’s such a respected actor with his performance in this film. Bill the Butcher is a fascinating character and I can’t help but respect him. Not only is he a fearsome gang boss, he’s also a man of honor, who respects and remembers Amsterdam’s father, whom he kills in the opening scene of the film. Despite Bill being the antagonist of the film, I found myself really liking him and not simply because of the respect that he shows towards his enemy, but also because of his… charisma? I’m not entirely sure if that’s what you’d call it, but I find him quite charismatic, even though he spends a fair portion of the film yelling, threatening and brutally beating people down. Perhaps he’s simply a fantastic villain, but I couldn’t help but root for him at times. Not too often mind, because this character is a disgusting human being. He’s of the mind that America should be for Americans. He hates anyone that isn’t an American, for the most part. So he’s entirely against immigration and he’s very racist. This film is set against the backdrop of the American civil war, so Bill also despises Lincoln for what he’s trying to do (oh the irony).
Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for his devotion to method acting, in which he completely loses himself in a role and he effectively becomes the person he is playing. That being the case, I wonder how difficult it must be to portray a character that you despise? A favorite scene of mine, though it’s very hard to choose just one, is the one in which Amsterdam finally tries to exact his revenge on Bill for his Father’s death. In earlier scenes, Bill tried to teach him about Priest Vallon and his bravery and honor. Bill holds honor above all else, I think, which is why he is so heartbroken when Amsterdam both betrays him and tries to kill him in a way that is dishonorable. When Bill thwarts Amsterdam’s attempt to kill him and throws a knife into Amsterdam’s stomach, he says “That’s a wound”, mimicking the scene earlier in the film where he taught Amsterdam to kill. I also feel that Bill said this because that’s how he felt; wounded by Amsterdam’s betrayal.
“It wasn’t a city really. More of a furnace, where a city might one day be forged”.
The other main role in the film, Amsterdam Vallon, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio and he gives one of his finest performances. Amsterdam watches his father die at a young age, in a battle. His father lead the Irish tribe and gang, the Dead Rabbits, against Bill the Butcher’s American Natives gang. The opening fight of the film is incredible and incredibly brutal. After the Butcher kills Amsterdam’s father, Amsterdam is taken into an orphanage. Throughout the film, Amsterdam’s determination to kill Bill initially wanes as he becomes closer to him. Bill becomes like a father figure to Amsterdam and this is where DiCaprio’s performance reaches its peak. He ends up saving Bill and then feels regret and guilt and disgust because he has allowed himself to save the man who killed his father. The Irish accents portrayed by half the actors in the film are spot on from what I can hear, though the accents are purposefully changed (by DiCaprio in particular) so that there are slight nuances of a New York accent in their voices. DiCaprio deals well with having to display Amsterdam’s conflict that he feels throughout the film.
“She is one prim-lookin’ stargazer!”
The secondary characters in the film are all portrayed fantastically, though I thought Cameron Diaz’s performance could have been done by any actress and wasn’t anything of particular note. Brendan Gleeson as “Monk” was a favorite character of mine who guided Amsterdam throughout the film, I also found him to be quite a funny character through his brashness and how tough he was. One of my favorite quotes from him is “Well, that was bloody Shakespearian!” in reference to when Amsterdam saves Bill’s life about half way through the film. Liam Neeson’s character, Priest Vallon (Amsterdam’s father), is also of note as he does a fantastic job in the one scene he’s in. “My son… don’t never look away!” was a fairly heartbreaking line that is echoed in another scene later in the film. Jim Broadbent portrayed a historical character, William M. Tweed, a corrupt politician that lived from 1823 till 1878. It was fun seeing Broadbent portray a crooked politician and although I respected the character for supporting immigration, he only supported it because it benefited him (or so it seemed so). “The appearance of the law must be upheld! Especially whilst it’s being broken.”
The directing by Scorsese is something I can’t fault. There are four scenes that stand out to me, and the first is the opening scene of the film. The opening battle is less of a large fight between gangs and looks more like a large battle at the beginning of a war. The colors used throughout the scene, in particular grab the audience’s attention. The opening sequence shows the Dead Rabbits getting ready for the battle in a large underground cavern, before moving into a grimy building in the Five Points district of New York. Brendan Gleeson’s character, Monk, then joins up with the gang and kicks open the door to the streets. The camera glides out the front door and we’re treated to a stunning shot of the Five Points streets, covered in snow; a startling contrast to the murky brown caverns inside the building. This leads into the opening battle, which is brutal and provides more contrast with the blood stained snow. A later scene shows soldiers going off to war, the soldiers comprised of Americans and Irish. A lot of Irish men, so desperate for a better life and food in their stomachs, joined up with the army straight after getting off the boat. The camera pans over this huge harbor set, showing all these people getting onto ships, going off to fight in the civil war. At the same time, coffins are being taken off the boats whilst an Irish song is being sung in the background. A man asks “Do you think they feed us now?” I found the scenes like this quite sad. The whole war and the thought of men being forced to go and fight in a war (culminating in the draft riots at the climax of the film) that needed to happen, but shouldn’t have needed to happen, is quite upsetting for me. It’s just a terrible point in history, and it’s shown wonderfully throughout the film.
“Anglers put a hook on a stick to drop behind store windows and doors, an Autumn Diver picked your pocket in church, a Badger, gets a fella into bed with a woman and then picks their pockets whilst they’re on the go; Jenny, was a bludger, a girl pick-pocket. And a Turtle Dove. A Turtle Dove goes up town dressed as a house maid, picks out a fine house, and goes right through the back door; robs you blind. It takes a lot of sand to be a Turtle Dove.”
I found the slang terms used in the film quite interesting and I’ve grown quite fond of the slang words and their meanings. The fact that there were so many types of thief was something I found fascinating. The costumes and set were all fantastic and through research I found out that they built a square mile of New York in Italy for the shooting of this film. All the sets are seen and used in the film. I find that pretty impressive that they built such a massive set. It must have been like stepping back in time, walking onto that huge set! Also of note was that I noticed that DiCaprio’s and Bill’s teeth looked awful in their scenes. There aren’t many films that realistically portray the quality of a person’s hygiene at a period in history, so that’s something.
“Thank God, I die a true American.”
In these final scene, the vengeance story that has been driving the film almost takes a back seat as we see the army putting down the rioters. There’s almost is no final fight scene between the Dead Rabbits and the Natives due to this. Bill is mainly killed by cannon fire but Amsterdam still tries to exact his revenge. Though I’m not entirely sure he wanted to anymore. The final scene itself I found hard to watch because of the rioters that went around hanging immigrants. They didn’t want to be forced to fight in the war. As I stated earlier, it’s a terrible point in history shown bluntly by Scorsese.
“In the end they put candles on the bodies so their friends, if they had any, could know them in the dark. The city did this free of charge.”
“It was four days and nights before the worst of the mob was finally put down. We never knew how many New Yorkers died that week before the city was finally delivered. My father told me we was all born of fire and tribulation; and so then too was our great city. But for those of us what lived and died in them furious days, it was like everything we knew was mildly swept away, and no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time it’d be like no one knew we was ever here.”
I find the final monologue of the film heartbreaking, almost like he’s saying that the people, the hundreds of people that died that week in New York – no one would remember them. And I always find that incredibly upsetting. Then the fantastic song in the credits begins as New York in the 1800s slowly transforms into modern day New York. This film is not only one of my favorite Scorsese films, it’s also one of my favorite films, period. Almost everything about this epic revenge story is masterfully done. The performances, the writing, the directing and certainly the incredible sets used. Gangs of New York is, to me, up there with the other great “epic” films of cinema.