Gangs of New York
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson
written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kennth Longergan
directed by Martin Scorsese
When Gangs first came out on video in my local shop I did not want to rent it because it was very long (about 168-minutes), because the leaders for it that I had seen on other videos made it appear unpleasantly violent, and because it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, whom I do not like. But when I asked a British friend, whose opinion I trust, about it he recommended it enthusiastically, so I went ahead and rented it myself. And, I do not regret it. I think it is a great movie, and quite informative about he history of New York City, and 19th century America, as well.
The film opens in 1846 with violent territorial clashes between rival ethnic gangs in the New Yorkslum called “5 Points” (because of the intersection of streets there). By way of self-justification or rationalization of the violence and the hatred behind it, the clashes are dressed up by the participants as ideology - nationalist patriots battling invading (immigrating) outsiders. Of course, it is a child’s way of thinking, and weaker than a wet paper bag from a debating point of view. But in the heat of hatred who cares about sense, logic, proportion, propriety and truth?
Next, jump ahead twenty years. The American Civil War is in full swing and Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) - the child of a gang leader (“the Priest,” played by Liam Neeson) killed in the 1846 skirmish - is released from the government asylum where he was raised after the death of his father, and returns to 5 Points for revenge. Amsterdam is focused only on organizing his father’s old gang. The Dead Rabbits, for revenge against The American Natives, headed by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis).
NeitherAmsterdam nor the Butcher pays any attention to the Civil War which looms in the background. Or, rather, they are oblivious to it. They think that the war will not reach into 5 Points and touch their lives. This is a mistake. Conscription into the Union Army was a big social issue of the day - people resisting it, politicians questioning people’s patriotism for resisting it, etc. The 5 Points gangs trust that their bribes to corrupt politicians and their heavy-handed support of those politicians (illegally stuffing ballot boxes at election time) will protect them from the storm taking place outside their ghetto. But it is not so. By the end of the movie the city government requests federal troops to quell gang violence in 5 Points that spills out of that neighborhood and threatens the rest of the city with chaos. These scenes reminded me of episodes from America’s civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 60s, when federal troops were deployed to ensure admission of black students to colleges, to check negro protest demonstrations, and to smother anti-Vietnam War protests. Dramatic stuff.
I was moved by the final scene. All people end in the grave. Even mortal enemies in life can find themselves side-by-side in death, which is what happens to the Butcher and the Priest (Amsterdam’s father). Over time the complexion of American society changes, and the dead and their causes are forgotten, but their grave markers remain. In this case, their tombstones look over the East River from Brooklyn at the Manhattan skyline in the distance. While the closing credits are scrolling up the screen the Manhattanskyline changes. Year-by-year, from the 1860s to the present skyline, one scene (or, recreated scene) is segued into another. Finally, we see the twin towers of the World TradeCenter come and then go. It was a melancholy feeling, and good cinematography.