Not long ago a distant cousin, a genealogy buff, sent me an antique clipping from a local paper about a possible ancestor on trial for murder. In the labor wars of the 19th century, scabs did not have much longevity in the Irish factory towns of the Middle West. This long-forgotten enforcer simply pulled the trigger on Darwinian inevitability. The event was surely not unusual for the time, but my present-day reaction (and that of the people who sent me the story) is fascinating. Here I sit in a tweedy respectability that would bore Henry James to tears, taking prideful delight in a hit man of a century past, who may or may not share my blood line. Could it be nostalgia for a more colorful era, when the fight for survival involved more than rancorous rank-and-tenure committees? Or is it gratitude that because he raised the sword of righteousness I don’t have to kill to put food on the table? Or is it simply smug superiority that we’ve evolved to a superior stage in human development? Why am I more proud than ashamed?
Gangs of New York suffers from Martin Scorsese’s similarly conflicted emotions about the past’s contribution to the present. At the end of “Casino” (1995), for example, he seems to lament the passing of the mob from Las Vegas. In his telling of the story, the Mafia, with its operatic violence, were the visionary Pilgrim fathers, and sadly they had been displaced by multinational corporations. This new breed of gangsters, garbed in respectability and confining its assassinations to boardrooms, developed its market among the polyester-clad retirees, clumping off charter buses with their lunch in plastic shopping bags. Under its new management, Scorsese laments, Vegas has become simply dull.
Similarly, in the final scene of “Gangs of New York” the camera looks across the East River as a modern impersonal metropolis emerges from the smoke and fog, framed between the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and crowned with the silhouette of the World Trade Center. In the foreground, two implacable gang leaders, both colorful agents of death on a magnificent scale, lie side-by-side in their graves. This is the Phoenix theory of history: the future must rise from the ashes of the past, and thus the heroes of progress are arsonists.
This is a common reading of American history. Our mythic ancestors pushed back the frontier with extraordinary courage, imagination and endurance. In the process, they scarred the national biography with slavery, genocide and environmental ruin. They destroyed one continent in order to build another one. Little wonder that in Westerns, they do their work with unspeakable violence and then ride off into the sunset, farther West, no longer at home in the town they have made safe for civilization. They need other towns for burning, other outlaws for killing.
Scorsese and the scriptwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan embrace all these ambiguities of our history as they attempt to retell the story of the founding of America through the rise of New York as its premier urban center. In homage to D. W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece of 1915, it could be called “The Birth of a City.” This may be too much to put into a film. Amid such density of ideas, complexity readily slides into confusion.
The narrative proceeds on three planes at the same time. In the background is the Civil War; in the middleground is the ongoing gang war between the native-born Americans and the Irish immigrants in the slums of New York; and finally, in the foreground is the bitter rivalry between Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). The ironic name “Cutting” for a butcher and knife-wielding thug is unfortunate. In a romantic subplot, these two struggle not only for control of the Five Points section of lower Manhattan, with its lucrative trade in stolen goods, extortion and prostitution, but also for the favor of Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a highly successful pickpocket and burglar. (Is Scorsese deliberately underscoring his vision of New York as melting pot by selecting actors with names like DiCaprio and Diaz to play the Irish leads?)
The story begins in 1846, in a massive tenement house with an open atrium and several levels of sub-basement resembling catacombs. The Irish, led by Priest Vallone (Liam Neeson), perform the rituals in preparation for mortal combat like bull-fighters. They vest in makeshift armor, sharpen brutal weapons, pray to St. Michael to “defend us in battle” and receive a profane Eucharist from the hand of their Priest. When a brute of a warrior with a cudgel the size of a fire hydrant kicks open the door, the mob spills from this smoke-choked infernal cathedral into the blazing light of a snow-covered city street. There they engage the Butcher and his American mob in a bloodletting to rival the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan.” As a young boy, Amsterdam witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his father, and in the Irish manner dedicates his life to payback. After 16 years in Hellgate Reformatory, he is ready to fulfill his filial duty.
This simple revenge play merely provides the framework for the ideas. As a result the characters remain somewhat remote and wooden. As played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Butcher becomes a comic-strip villain, sneering and snarling in an English actor’s version of an early New York accent as imagined in Peoria. Butcher plies his trade in the back of a saloon, hands, shirt and apron continually covered in blood. Death and dismemberment are his life. He has a glass eye etched with the emblem of the United States to indicate his patriotic blindness, especially as he looks upon the newcomers. As Butcher reminds his fellow bigots, his father died for his country in 1814, and so he has a duty to protect it from foreign trash. The political point of this self-consciously Sicilian filmmaker (third generation in fact) is clear: this country belongs to everyone.
Or is it clear? As political leader of Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) presides over a tumultuous land of competing warlords, which include not only the Irish and Native gangs, but also rival police and fire departments who fight among themselves for the spoils of graft and looting. As the Irish grow in numbers, Tweed cynically turns from the Natives to the immigrants for support, even opening the way for them to take their slice of the political pie. As the Irish rose in power in city politics with the likes of Honest John Kelly and Dick Croker, Scorsese asks, were they any more tolerant of people with names like DiCaprio, Diaz and Scorsese? Perhaps he believes that rivalry and bloodshed are the inevitable means to seize power from the establishment. And if it is inevitable, is it a noble path to prove one’s right to rule, or is it a senseless recurring tragedy? Scorsese appears to have enough lingering tribalism to make him unsure of the answer.
The three strands of the narrative meet in the Draft Riots of July 1863. The script carefully explains how impoverished immigrants were recruited at dockside to fight for a country they scarcely knew and for a cause they scarcely understood. The volunteers march off to battle in unknown lands past coffins of the fallen. When President Lincoln imposes the draft, with its odious escape clause for those wealthy enough to buy deferment, the immigrant community explodes in rage. But this poses a problem for the script. In fact the rioters turned their fury against African-Americans in the belief that as impoverished immigrants they were being conscripted to fight to free slaves, who would then come North to take their jobs. Up to this point in the film, blacks and Irish had formed a natural if somewhat implausible alliance against the Natives, but the riots call for an abrupt and unexplained switch in the relationship between groups, which probably never existed in the idealized form presented in the film. Fortunately, this inconsistency is lost in the chaos of the riot.
Similarly, when Butcher and his Americans take to the streets, it is not clear whether they are fighting with the Irish against the draft boards or against their perennial rivals. In any event, the riot brings the two leaders face to face for their final agon. The resolution of their blood feud fades to insignificance as a gunboat in the harbor begins to lob shells indiscriminately into the streets and Federal troops aim point blank into the crowds of civilians. The government, engaged in a bloody civil war, appears no less ruthless in protecting its interests than the warring gangs of New York or than Amsterdam and Butcher.
“Gangs of New York” tap dances around its cluster of ideas. How could it do otherwise? Many of us have recently awakened to the fact that ours is an age of unspeakable, indiscriminate violence, forced upon us by desperate people who see no alternative. At times our response seems little more than reaction in kind. Who can sort out the various, mutually destructive tribal hatreds that eat away our souls? In this sprawling, messy, beautiful, intriguing, brilliant, disappointing and infuriating film, Martin Scorsese has run a probe into our collective conscience. What more could anyone ask of art?