Gangs of New York

One of the most interesting things about Martin Scorsese making an epic costume film with a budget of a hundred million dollars within the context of today’s Hollywood is that the result could not but mark the furthest an artist’s will can prevail against the dictates of finance in the present climate. Once upon a time, in a world almost as far removed from our own as the mediaeval looking New York that opens Gangs of New York (2002), visionary directors like Griffith, Eisenstein and Gance managed every so often to make personal, highly experimental films on the scale of Intolerance (1916), October (1928) and Napoleon (1927). But soon the equation of artistic freedom with modest financing and large budgets with conformism to often detrimental studio interference became a given. And now, with mainstream filmmaking at its most depressingly sterile, that given is more of an absolute than ever.

Scorsese has earned himself a unique position among today’s filmmakers. Not only has he probably managed to get away with fewer compromises than any other contemporary mainstream Hollywood director but he has consistently dealt with material that does not sit comfortably with the studios’ crowd pleasing norms. His fearlessness is beyond question; this is the man who combined the aesthetic of an all but obsolete genre – the musical – with the intense emotional messiness of an outcast independent maverick – Cassavetes – in New York, New York (1977) to cite just one example. During the ’90s he proved himself unique in a fresh respect, mainly thanks to his two gangster film masterpieces Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). With the techno-fetishistic trend for fast pacing and flashy visuals dominating and dehumanising much American filmmaking, Scorsese emerged as the only cinematic intelligence engaging with this style who could fully master it and use it to bring the viewer close up – extreme close up – to his complex, troubling characters, as opposed to simply giving audiences a rollercoaster ride going nowhere. The intellectual and emotional density of these films assured the safety of his position not only as probably Hollywood’s finest director, but also as one of the greatest at work anywhere.

Scorsese had been planning Gangs of New York since the late ’70s when it was initially announced. Had it been made then, it would have been roughly contemporaneous with Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), probably the last personal films of historical analysis made on such an epic scale in America with comparable ambitiousness. All three were in some way damaged through studio handling. The two ’80s films suffered shocking mutilation after release, but Gangs appears to have its compromises inbuilt, to have taken out insurance against such an appalling eventuality or, most probably, simply to have been constructed in such a way as to secure necessary funding. The artistic success or otherwise of Gangs of New York is a question of the glass half full or half empty. Make no mistake – it is an extremely good film by any standards. Colourful, historically informative and exciting, its style is more traditionally entertaining than the somber contemplativeness present in even the most melodramatic scenes of Cimino or Leone. Compared to the hitherto obligatory blandness of similarly budgeted costume films of recent years – Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2001), Pearl Harbour (Michael Bay, 2002) – Gangs is undoubtedly operating at a superior level. Yet within the context of Scorsese’s formidable ouevre, it displays an uncharacteristic lack of rigour in certain areas, notably in the relationship between the hero and heroine, that would appear to be concessions to Miramax’s view of what audiences want. Scorsese’s overriding passion in this instance appears to be his desire to create on screen a certain historical era and its events at all costs, to give us a history lesson ‘written in lightning’. In this he succeeds splendidly. Whether or not this undertaking was worth the sacrifices that it entailed is a question every viewer will have to answer for himself or herself. I am inclined to think it was.

Gangs of New York

Violence – Scorsese is no stranger to this theme and to creating with the gestural and emotional patterns it forms. What drives Gangs of New York and holds it together is the constant threat of horrific violence – a crackling current of lethal energy with which Scorsese can charge his every scene like no other director alive. In using this method to win over its audience, the film closely resembles its ‘monster’, Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), who articulates his strategy for maintaining power over the Five Points slum where Gangs is set as creating an intimidating spectacle of “fearsome acts”. In Gangs of New York violence is useless if it is not turned into spectacle, if it is not impressing others as the vehicle of political power and also frequently as entertainment – pitched battles, killings and mutilations performed in a theatrical environment before a cheering crowd, politically motivated murders in broad daylight carried out with witnesses deliberately present, public hangings of randomly selected petty criminals used as scapegoats to create a semblance of law and order and protect political interests, the impalement of a rival gang member in a public square, ritual humiliation of the vanquished in a brawl and savage boxing and dog baiting matches are all capped by the massacre of murderous rioters by soldiers. This immanent bloodthirstiness is what gives the film its unsettling power, its viscerally convincing atmosphere that brings home the true implications of that tired phrase ‘lawless times’ better than any American film since Heaven’s Gate. Everyone is a predator, from the appallingly impoverished slum inhabitants who use a house fire as an excuse for looting to the government that whisks hungry immigrant men into military service as they disembark from ships – one of the film’s most eloquent images is a crane shot that first follows new recruits as they march up the gangplank into an army boat and then a coffin being hoisted down from the same boat on to a stack of coffins on shore. Yet Scorsese’s handling of violent scenes has undergone a fundamental change: whereas previously the emphasis was on the painful specificity of the Wound – the blood gushing from the neck in Mean Streets (1973), the knife going into the old man’s hand in Taxi Driver (1976), the nails in Jesus’ hands in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the man in the car boot being stabbed and shot in Goodfellas, the man being stabbed in the neck with a pen in Casino, etc – here the moment of impact is often elided or played offscreen. This new discretion mainly relies on the impression of violence rather than its specifics, effectively sublimating it into an omnipresent ambient factor. If it serves one scene exceptionally well, it is the moment when Daniel Day-Lewis pulverises Leonardo DiCaprio’s face, introducing to Scorsese’s cinema the notion of a visual equivalent of the unspeakable – the onscreen disfiguring (admittedly rather ineffectual) of a Hollywood heart-throb is a taboo which even Scorsese cannot break!

It is a violent spectacle that sets the story in motion, the pitched battle for control of the Five Points area between Bill the Butcher’s Nativist gang and Priest Vallon’s (Liam Neeson) Irish immigrant gang, the Dead Rabbits which Bill’s side wins, killing Vallon. Vallon’s young son witnesses this and the film is introduced through his eyes. The opening scene has a primal ambience. Set in the womblike centre of a maze of caves, Vallon’s father prepares for battle, cutting his face with a razor which he gives to his young son, advising him to always leave the blood on the blade. Meanwhile a voiceover lays Scorsese’s cards on the table – “some of it is half remembered, the rest took from dreams”. In spite of his ongoing fascination with the workings of the brutal machinery of power, this is not really the semi-documentary Scorsese of the gangster films or The Age of Innocence (1993), meticulously recreating well-documented ways of life; this is the manifestation of a new interest in broadly archetypal mythologising, already hinted at in Casino‘s epic structure (biblical epic and semi-documentary: in spite of his claims for Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs [1955], only Scorsese could really win on that combination). The film proceeds from a space of complete disorientation, temporal and geographic, as father and son make their way through the winding passages of the cave past a fearsome collection of warriors preparing for battle, finally emerging from the darkness into the dazzling glare of snow – the earth giving birth to the fathers of a nation. It is the 1840s, but visually it might as well be the 1240s – or the post apocalyptic science fiction future of Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) or The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). Scorsese orchestrates this scene with a series of fast, mainly lateral tracking shots from the boy’s perspective, very similar to those Fellini employed from the early ’60s onwards. These exploratory shots catch details, both threatening and wondrous, as if from the corner of the protagonist’s eye, suggesting much but revealing only tantalising glimpses, maintaining the curiosity and menace of a dream.

The casting of Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon is as perfect as it is inevitable. His immediately heroic screen presence is powerful enough to leave the indelible mark required on the highly eventful two-and-a-half hours of screentime that unfold after the death of his character. It is also sufficiently charismatic to equal Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher, while providing a contrast in styles, the demonic intensity of Bill versus the dignified severity of the Priest. Day-Lewis’ performance has become something of a cinematic event and it would be hard to argue with those who acclaim his character and interpretation as the film’s most exciting element. Funny, tragic and, above all, terrifying, Scorsese and Day-Lewis fearlessly run the risk of self-parody in making their creation far larger than life. The scope and pitch of this performance might have been defined by the necessities of his first scene, which poses the question: what sort of man has the presence and ferocity to single-handedly call to order a battlefield full of warring combatants in order to announce his victory? His face red and twisted in a perpetual grimace that hovers between derision and fury, he is the physical incarnation of the characteristic Scorsesean balance between humour and horror. The body of this comedian-killer emanates a wiry, tight-wound strength and his glass eye, with the image of an eagle on it, highlights his blindness to change and his exclusionist vision of America. The audience’s first view of him is a defining close up of his feet immediately before the battle, getting a firm grip on the ground through the slippery snow, a territorially possessive gesture if ever there was one and a superb example of Scorsese’s unique imagistic precision.

Vallon’s death and the defeat of the Dead Rabbits is witnessed by his son, Amsterdam, setting in motion what Charles Tesson in his wonderful Gangs review in Cahiers du Cinéma (1) calls “l’histoire d’un remake” (‘the story of a remake’). Sixteen years later, while the Civil War rages in the south, Amsterdam in the form of a chronically bland Leonardo DiCaprio returns from a reformatory to the Five Points, now more a squalid Wild West town than a mediaeval village, intent on avenging his father against Bill who now controls the area. Rather than immediately killing him, he waits for the annual Nativist celebration of the defeat of the Dead Rabbits in order to carry out his assassination attempt during a ritual in which Bill drinks fire – again, violence is useless unless it is transformed into spectacle and public statement. In the meantime, he becomes Bill’s favourite and adopted son and embarks on a tempestuous affair with his ex-mistress, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) who lost Bill’s real son during a failed cesarean operation.

Gangs of New York

“I was about my father’s business” states DiCaprio in voiceover towards the end of the film; that’s about all there is to Amsterdam’s character and why in the context of this film DiCaprio’s blankness works so well. Rather than a person, he is the neutral repository of the historical and paternal forces that pass through him, assuming one preordained position after another. And for a film where the movements of history are of paramount importance, this is not innapropriate. Dramatically, his relationship with Day-Lewis works thanks to a sort of Horror movie dynamic, in which the colourlessness of a supposed hero like David Manners only serves to heighten the fascination of a ‘monster’ like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. Unfortunately there is no such saving grace in the romantic subplot which is at best only adequate. For all of her considerable charm and very creditable acting, Diaz is the only actor who seems out of place in this savage world, radiating a carefully cultivated, clean cut fit-and-healthy glamour completely out of keeping with a girl who was found sleeping in a doorway. The uncommon savagery of her love scenes with DiCaprio could have been a fitting compliment to the violence of the rest of the film if played by different actors, but as they are the scenes merely seem cute. However, given that Scorsese was obliged to use major stars, the casting of these two roles could have been a lot worse – indeed it is hard to think of anyone better suited from the characterless parade of interchangeable pretty young things that Hollywood uses for stars these days.

If Amsterdam begins his quest for vengeance under the influence of his own father, he soon falls into a bizarrely oedipal relationship with Jenny and Bill, culminating in an extraordinary scene that takes place early on the morning following the first night he and Jenny spend together. Still in bed with her, he wakes up to find Bill sitting by his bed, an American flag draped over his shoulder. At first unsure of Bill’s reaction to finding them together, he is surprised when Bill suddenly opens up to him, telling him about how his father died in combat when he was a child, how he has found no one worthy of respect since killing Amsterdam’s father and how he cut out his own eye and sent it to Priest Vallon after being beaten by him in a previous fight. He then laments the fact that he has no son, that civilisation as he sees it is crumbling under the onslaught of immigrants and kisses Amsterdam on the head in paternal benediction. The scene is shot and cut with an uncommon simplicity, underlining its uncomfortable intimacy and the unusual nature of Bill’s behaviour. It is an exceptionally clever literalisation of Amsterdam’s strange position in relation to the other characters. Amsterdam is lying next to the woman who almost became mother to Bill’s son, the scar from her operation visible on her naked body next to him, as Bill pronounces him the son he never had. Jenny’s scar is an extreme example of Scorsese’s obsessive determination to give every idea in the film a painfully physical literalisation. Bill speaks with admiration of the man Amsterdam is sworn to avenge and calls him his only equal, separated only by faith. Now Amsterdam must kill his new father as Hamlet and Oedipus combined, but only after having saved Bill’s life during an attempted assassination by helping to kill a stranger who almost avenged his father for him, further complicating his feelings. Unfortunately the potential emotional richness that surfaces in this scene isn’t developed fully, with psychological drama soon taking a back seat once more to historical gesture. However it is sufficiently impressive to anchor the rest of the spectacle, to provide Gangs with a necessary emotional core.

There is a third father figure, Monk (Brendan Gleeson), a mercenary turned barber with a club covered in notches, one for every man he has killed. He fought on Priest Vallon’s side but only for pay, feeling that Vallon the elder was too much like Bill to side with completely, different from him only in his love for his people. Along with what Bill reveals about Priest, Monk’s comments on Priest’s ultimate ambitions and potentially excessive ambitiousness also help to illuminate the most radical element of Scorsese’s film – his objectivity, his refusal to side morally, if not emotionally, with anyone or, for that matter, to judge them. Priest was probably not the idealised figure Amsterdam remembers. In fact Bill, Priest and the man Amsterdam becomes are all just ruthless scrappers desperately engaged in acquiring and defining a territory to call their own amid the savagely Darwinistic furnace of social upheaval, separated from each other only by Bill’s racism. If Gangs of New York has a moral, it can be summed up by Leonard Cohen’s lines “There is no decent place to stand / In a massacre” and, for Scorsese, a massacre is what constitutes history.

This objectivity also extends over the broader historical picture. One might sympathise with the poor and hungry and feel outrage at the conscription foisted on them at the film’s conclusion, especially considering that the rich are exempt from it, but when they go on the rampage and start murdering blacks and are in turn indiscriminately massacred by soldiers trying to restore order, the rare lucidity and profundity of Scorsese’s vision becomes apparent. Compare this uncompromisingly truthful complexity to the cartoon poor saints and rich villains of Titanic. Or the way in which the less gleefully moronic Gladiator provides viewers with careful ideological orientation at the outset – the wise, noble old King and his idealistic Dream of Rome that must be saved from corruption by his faithful warrior. Good and bad are clearly delineated, the viewer has a secure moral vantage point. If, on the other hand, Scorsese had made Gladiator (and he has confessed his eagerness to make a film about the Ancient World) chances are that he would have opened it not with a glorious battle against the Barbarian, but with the hero’s men looting, burning and raping their way through a civilian environment and still compelling the viewer to follow his story with empathy. Indeed, Gangs has far more in common with the film of which Gladiator is the video-game digest, Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), another powerful and intelligent epic compromised by a leading man – Stephen Boyd – unable to hold his own against an exceptionally strong supporting cast. Their great link is in subordinating hero-identification to historical exposition just enough to allow the spectator to develop an ethical opinion of their own regarding the overwhelming events with which the characters grapple and their conduct under these circumstances. This strategy functions by placing us alongside the characters, rather than within them (Gladiator) or in the position of distanced observers (Rossellini, Barry Lyndon [Stanley Kubrick, 1975]).

In a way, the character of Monk represents Amsterdam’s conscience, warning him when he falls too much under Bill’s sway. After Amsterdam’s failed attempt on Bill’s life and the severe beating Bill gives him, Monk shows up at the cave where the young man is hiding and being nursed by Jenny. He gives Amsterdam a crucifix that he took from Priest Vallon when he died and reinspires the young man. Monk’s presence in the film is awkward and badly integrated. Often hovering portentously around the edge of the drama, he pops up at irritatingly convenient moments to keep the plot going. Yet in pushing Amsterdam into taking another stand against Bill, he gives the young man’s character consistency in that he is surrendering his will to another father rather than making up his own mind.

The scenes of Amsterdam’s recuperation are the only really bad ones in the film, bad in terms of their execution rather than conception. His groggy state of mind is indicated through a clichéd use of slow motion, slurred sound and ponderously ethereal music. But what the scene represents is a rebirth, a return to the cave/womb from which he sprang at the film’s opening and the moment at which Tesson’s ‘remake’ can finally begin to unfold. He re-forms the outlawed Dead Rabbits gang and prepares to take on Bill and his gang as an equal; in short, he attempts to become his father and even tries to restage the battle that opened the film with some of the original participants on its original location, although Bill refuses to go through with this because of the unequal number of fighters in each camp.

Gangs of New York

Bill is attached to the past, to a dying way of life that is brutal and racist but not without honour. This intransigent reactionary position is contrasted with the cynical corruption of the new breed of politician, exploiting the people in its own less bloodthirsty way. An uneasy deal between Bill and these forces of change is struck, but it is ill fated. When Amsterdam assumes a position of leadership he seems also essentially traditionalist, but is more open to dealing with modern politicians and democratic systems, however corrupt. As the Irish leader, his policy is obviously one of embracing immigrants. But unlike Bill, he seems without historical consciousness, still blindly ‘going about his father’s business’, putting to use whatever comes his way with an immediate pragmatism while remaining ignorant of the full picture, a mindless clone moulding himself into an idea of the past. What Bill realises but Amsterdam doesn’t is that they are both doomed to be swept away by history.

The backward looking character of Bill Cutting and the theme of the mixed benefits of encroaching civilisation have obvious similarities with the Western and were already echoed in Casino. In spite of citing Peckinpah’s elegies The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) as influences, Scorsese’s objectivity doesn’t allow for a single frame of nostalgia. The dry-eyed, almost clinical distance that informed the similarly apocalyptic conclusion of Casino again rises from amid the smoke of emotionalism with a chilling unexpectedness. Here, when Bill and Amsterdam finally face off according to the ‘ancient rules of combat’, their personal quarrel is rendered irrelevant, overtaken by the devastation of the draft riots that resulted in widespread shelling of the city. As the suddenly obsolete heroes fight hand to hand, cannon destroy the streets around them, depriving them of the very context of their conflict. In an excellent example of Scorsese’s ability to simultaneously cite film history and build upon his references, he quotes the famous climactic scene in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (Nora Inu, 1949) when a detective and the man he has been obsessively pursuing have a fight which leaves them both lying exhausted and completely covered in mud, the one metaphorically indistinguishable from the other. Here Amsterdam and Bill are knocked down by a cannon blast and completely covered in the dust of their universe, instantly turned into statues, monuments to a world that hasn’t faded so much as suddenly vaporised. As Bill allows Amsterdam to kill him, he says “Thank God I die as an American” as if he were the last of a dying race, which to his mind he probably is.

Another influence Scorsese has acknowledged is that of ’20s and ’30s Soviet cinema. This is frequently apparent in Gangs‘ visuals and montage, especially during the final battle. He even pointedly places a lion statue in an affluent mansion that is sacked by the mob – a direct nod to Eisenstein. It is also possible to speculate that perhaps Scorsese adopted as a model the Soviet style of using simple or even simplistic personal stories as the margins within which to construct memorable graphs of history’s awesome spasms, the movie’s true raison d’etre, and adapted it to the more character based traditions of the American epic. What is certain is that he is almost as categorical in rejecting the triumphalist welcoming in of a new society that characterises the Soviet films as he is in rejecting Peckinpah-style lamentation, in spite of the wretched, inappropriately celebratory U2 song The Hands That Built America that concludes the film.

Yet the prevalent mood at the end is not pessimistic or despairing but upbeat, in spite of the devastation. As Amsterdam, still apparently the vacant vehicle of history, drifts West to continue his participation in the relentless agony of historical change, perhaps to unblinkingly participate in the Native American genocide fortified by the unquestioning dog-eat-dog territorialism handed down by his father and Bill, and as skyscrapers shoot up over the graves of his two fathers in an image that is as obvious as it is effective, Scorsese leaves us with a visceral rush that can only be interpreted as sheer joy in spectacle, in the operatic emotionalism of history’s sweep. Gangs of New York leaves the viewer drunk and euphoric on the sight of so much blood, like the Five Points crowds that flock to the dog baiting matches or cheer Bill on as he performs his “fearsome acts”. According to Tesson “Scorsese n’est pas un sentimental. Juste un sauvage et un fou” (‘Scorsese is not a sentimentalist. Just a savage and a lunatic.’). What other sort of person could so fully understand and celebrate the unending horror that is history?

Endnotes

  1. Charles Tesson, ‘Lames du fond’, Cahiers du Cinéma, January 2003

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.