Gangs of New York and the Genesis of America


This cataclysmic and inflammatory nineteenth-century epic with its spectacularly sinistrous cinematography (by Michael Ballhaus); and phenomenally meticulous minutiae from the period is trademark Scorsese. Aspiringly, Gangs of New York continues its journey through the vehemence in America’s social fabric of the time to claim that; to quote the poster, the great democracy was born (bloody) in the streets and continues to scream and cry even today.

Bill the Butcher - Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York – Bill the Butcher

Rejection of the “melting pot” fable

It is a temerarious, fearless and untaught version of history that unsparingly confutes the “melting pot” fable of the American Dream. The masses struggle to survive in a cesspool of poverty, cruelty, corruption and greed; and eventually get engulfed by the Draft Riots, the worst mass boutade of civil unrest in the history of the United States. The romanticized fiction of Gangs, which cuts across the larger factual background, is conventional. A poor boy witnesses the spine-chilling murder of his father by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant lord of the neighborhood; grows up in a sinister institution, returns to avenge his father; falls in love with a tough lady, and becomes the Moses of his dirty barbarian area of Manhattan. The story is set in Five Points. Charles Dickens, in his 1842 book American Notes for General Circulation, described it as follows –

This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.

Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation

Charles Dickens_Writing
Charles Dickens at his writing desk


However, the second half of the film feels hurried. The story hiccups and jumps as peripheral figures and larger ideological, racial, and religious conflicts engulf local, personal pandemonium. It may either seem intriguing or labyrinthine.

However, the film does not disappoint with its consummately cinematic, and often appalling set-pieces. Most memorably, a single notable shot follows ragged and starving newly arrived immigrants, showing them disembarking, gaining citizenship, taking the military oath, wearing uniforms, and ascending the gangway of a federal ship as war victims’ coffins are unloaded.

It must be said that the comical hats and voluminous plaid pants set this decade apart as a particularly grotesque era in men’s fashion. The gangs look like satirical cowards in a nightmare of atavistic street fights and sadistic entertainments created by a frenzied Charles Dickens while on a really bad trip.

Violence in Gangs of New York

A clear element of the film is the acceptance of violence as a means to end. It is an attitude carrying the essence of the time. As in a war, one immediately realizes that many will perish without being afforded any empathy or mercy. This theme is reflective from the beginning of the film with the epic battle of “Priest” Vallon (played by the Irishman Liam Neeson) against Bill’s “natives”, and which causes the plot to explode immediately. In a picture where symbolism is crucial, objects like medallions and daggers can enrich the screenplay and bring us closer to the daily routine of the time.

Scorsese manages to show a naked America; a nation built upon violence and racial hatred, but able to build something significant in its evolution. In some of its innate features, the film resembles a rough-painted canvas, with its contradictions still open. It is a film based on light and dark emotions with a director of photography (Michael Ballhaus) who wanted reds and darks. (if it wasn’t for Conrad L. Hall’s Road to Perdition, the Academy Award would have arrived).

Diaz and DiCapro in Gangs of New York
Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York (2002)

Performances in Gangs of New York

Daniel Day-Lewis resists the urge to twist his handlebar mustache; but his magnificent impersonation of Robert De Niro (once ready to play the butcher) is psychotic and show-stealing as he relentlessly wields blades, knives and power with disconcerting expertise. An ethnocentric monologue he delivers next to Vallon’s bed while enveloped by a bloody Stars and Stripes, is spine-tingling. Meanwhile, DiCaprio looks like a heartthrob, but he also provides vital emotional engagement. Díaz is incredibly contemporary and polished for her role as well as the period and yet erotically precious.

The Gangs of New York is a sardonic, emotive, grisly reassessment of the American Experiment; disfigured by narrative obstacles but adequately masterful in its ambitious scale to make it a must-watch.

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