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"Gangs of New York" Reminds Us of America's Darker History

Updated on July 3, 2011

While America is celebrating Independence Day this weekend, it’s important to also look back at some of the more darker times Americans (and immigrants) have endured. I happened to watch Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” this weekend, which chronicled the tumultuous time in American history and its impact in lower Manhattan. As a long-time fan of Scorsese’s work, this film was both a history lesson and marked a turning point in the director’s career.
Set in 1842 New York, the country is at war with itself. The Civil War pitted brother against brother as the Union and Confederate forces battled for four years. However, in New York City, a different war was emerging. In the mid-1800s, the Irish were fleeing their homeland due to famine and were seeking asylum in New York City, one of the closest port destinations. Native inhabitants (people born in the United States) did not take too kindly to immigrants and believed they were a threat to both their country and well-being. The film centers on the infamous “Five Points” neighborhood, where gangs formed who greatly protected their turf. Irish immigrants banded together to form the ‘Dead Rabbits’ gang. The film opens up in 1846, where a young Amsterdam Vallon witnesses his father Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) being killed by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) during a bloody gang fight in Paradise Square. The Dead Rabbits are defeated with the loss of their leader and are declared outlawed in New York. Sixteen years later, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is now an adult, released from an orphanage and seeks out to avenge his father’s murder.

Cutting is now a powerful crime boss who has now taken several of the Dead Rabbit members under his control. Cutting associates with the corrupt but powerful William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a New York politician who influences the Democratic Party in the city. Amsterdam integrates himself into Cutting’s inner circle without revealing who is father his by becoming a loyal servant. Cameron Diaz plays Jenny, a pickpocket and grifter who takes a liking to Amsterdam but also has a history with Cutting.
During a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Amsterdam thwarts an assassination attempt against Cutting but later breaks down, tormented and confused over his loyalty to Cutting and his own plan for revenge. When Cutting learns of Amsterdam’s true identity, he baits him by performing a knife throwing act against Jenny against a board, narrowly missing her to an audience’s excitement but an intimidation for Amsterdam. During the following toast, Amsterdam attempts his revenge by throwing a knife at Cutting but is deflected. Cutting attacks Amsterdam and nearly kills him. After proclaiming that Amsterdam should live in shame rather than dying, Cutting allows him to escape and Amsterdam goes into hiding with Jenny. What follows is the underground formation of a gang set out to defeat the Natives.

During this time, the streets of New York City is filled with rioters, protesting the Enrollment Act of 1863, which drafted adult males and immigrants pursuing citizenship into the Union Army to fight against the Confederacy. During the ultimate showdown between Cutting and Amsterdam and their respective gangs, Union soldiers fire into the protesters in an attempt to control them. In the face of intense chaos, a bloody battle is waged that defined New York City’s legacy.

“Gangs of New York” is a fictional account set within real events. Scorsese based the film on the book “The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld” by Herbert Asbury, which he first came across in 1970. For years, he toiled with a story about this time period but had difficulty financing such an epic picture. Cut to 30 years later where Scorsese is a film icon. Budgeted at close to $100 million, you can see most of the money was spent in building the film’s elaborate set that accurately depicted the “Five Points” neighborhood circa 1862. Filmed at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, the set is a real attention to detail of the time period and ends up being the real star of he film. Set designer Dante Ferretti, who has worked on several Scorsese productions, used a lot of research to re-create this time period.
Looking back, “Gangs of New York” represents a time in Scorsese’s career where he was really going for the extra effort for critical recognition. After directing such classics like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” Scorsese had yet to earn an Academy Award for directing. Following “Gangs of New York” was the epic biographical tale of Howard Hugh’s passion for flying in “The Aviator,” which re-united him and DiCaprio. It wouldn’t be until 2006’s “The Departed” when The Academy awarded him the Best Picture and Best Director prize (an honor that was also a tribute to his career as a whole). “Gangs of New York” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2003 but didn’t win a single one. Though reclusive actor Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly earned a nomination for the Best Actor caegor for such a dynamic performance. The film is a worthy entry into Scorsese’s resume, but it does not stack up to more enjoyable films like “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull.” Nonetheless, it has prompted audiences to explore an interesting bookmark in New York City’s history and learn to accept the fact that American democracy has not always been pretty.


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    • Bud Gallant profile image

      Bud Gallant 

      7 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

      Very comprehensive. I haven't seen Gangs of New York yet, but it'll definitely be on my list for the future. Thanks for the very nice hub.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Hello BradTilles and welcome to HubPages. First off Brad remember I'm an up-front type and anything I point out is only meant to make a good thing as good as it can be. You've written a very good synopsis on the 'Gangs of New York.'The first time a lady friend and myself went to see that movie I'm ashamed to say after 15 minutes we walked out. Of course later the mistake was fully realized. It's a great historical and dramatized flick. It may be interesting for some readers to know that the biggest riot in American history- ironically days after the union victory at Gettysburg- occurred when largely Irish workers revolted against the North's military draft of generally poor workers, while allowing the better off to buy their way out. Scorsese's one of the best directors this country's ever produced and what is next from him? Brad don't be mad but the war lasted approx 4 years. I like the history of movies too and really look forward to your future hubs on this topic or any others you produce.

    • profile image

      Skin Deep 

      7 years ago

      Not the only reason, but I believe casting Cameron Diaz had a lot to do with the movie missing out on some awards. I don't neccessarily dislike her, but she is not on par with Daniel Day Lewis or Brendan Gleason. The sets are incredible though!


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