Thanks to the rise of home video, it has become all but inevitable that we’ll see an R-rated film before the MPAA-mandated age of seventeen. However, it still somehow feels like a rite of passage to take in one’s first R-rated film at the movie theatre after crossing that age barrier. For me, that experience was particularly impactful—a few days after reaching that magic number in 2002, I went to go see a new film titled GANGS OF NEW YORK. By this time, I had already decided that I wanted to pursue film as a career and had begun my cinematic education in earnest. I knew that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, and that he was a giant of the art form, but seeing as this was the first work of his I ever saw, I quite simply had no idea what to expect. In a way, I suppose I was always predisposed to liking GANGS OF NEW YORK—I’ve long been particularly fascinated by the history and culture surrounding the Civil War and the mid-1800s (I even went through a strange Tom Sawyer phase when I was in grade school). But even my own enthusiasm for the time period couldn’t quite prepare me for the purely visceral experience of seeing GANGS OF NEW YORK for the first time. It literally blew my young self away—a reaction only matched by my first viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) a few years later during college. I became a little obsessed with GANGS OF NEW YORK, even going so far as to read the 1920’s-era source novel by Herbert Asbury. From that point on, I was firmly in Scorsese’s camp, and GANGS OF NEW YORK reigned for quite a while as my favorite film of all time.
Going by my unbridled enthusiasm for the film, you’d think it was a universally beloved landmark in contemporary cinema. However, GANGS OF NEW YORK was received by the masses as something of a wounded lion—powerful and awe-inspiring, but ultimately compromised by fatal flaws. I can only imagine that this must’ve come as a great disappointment to Scorsese, who had wanted to make the film since he first read Asbury’s novel in 1970. The troubled development history of GANGS OF NEW YORK is long, with a version starring Malcolm McDowell– fresh off his breakout in Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) –nearly going into production after the success of 1976’s TAXI DRIVER. This was during the heyday of the American auteur, when art-minded directors easily found funding for expansive passion projects. That is, until the cataclysmic failure of Michael Cimino’s indulgent HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) brought that era to an abrupt end, and Scorsese’s first iteration of GANGS OF NEW YORK was indefinitely shelved.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. Scorsese was now pushing 60; worlds removed from the young man that he was in the 70’s. The raw, uncompromising works that established his career had been tempered by a string of disappointments and small victories (most notably, 1990’s GOODFELLAS). However, as the new millennium loomed on the horizon, Scorsese found his value in the business slowly declining. He hadn’t had a bona fide hit since 1991’s CAPE FEAR, and his most recent film—BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999)—hadn’t performed as well as he had hoped. On the set of that film, Scorsese was visited by longtime friend and agent Mike Ovitz, who asked the director what project he wanted to do more than anything. Scorsese’s reply was simple—“Gangs of New York”. Ovitz had been instrumental in helping Scorsese bring previous passion projects to the screen, and he was extremely beneficial in this regard towards GANGS OF NEW YORK. He brought producers Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein on board to produce, and helped to snag the participation of rising star Leonardo DiCaprio—a crucial development in securing funding. While there was no way Scorsese could have known at the time, the production of GANGS OF NEW YORK would coincide with one of the most defining events in the city’s history—the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. What would result is a film whose epic scope is given something of a personal touch by a filmmaker who’s life and art had been so fundamentally shaped by the city of New York. It would become an imperfect, wounded love letter to a heartbroken city and the bloody passion of all those who built it.
GANGS OF NEW YORK tells the story of the infamous Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan, a notorious slum which has long since been bulldozed over to make way for civic judicial structures and Columbus Park. Because this particular neighborhood no longer existed in the way that it did during the film’s Civil War setting, it had to be recreated entirely from scratch. A gargantuan, mile-long backlot was constructed at Italy’s world-famous Cinecitta film studio, a massive undertaking that Scorsese himself admitted would probably never be replicated ever again. Scorsese’s contemporary George Lucas would validate this notion during a set visit where he remarked, “you know, they can build all of this in the computer now.” While this may be true, watching GANGS OF NEW YORK makes it all too clear that a computer could never match the impact of an old-fashioned set. Watching the film is akin to witnessing history coming alive, but this effect did not come effortlessly. The production of GANGS OF NEW YORK was long and arduous, with Scorsese and Weinstein coming to blows quite often.
The story, written by Scorsese’s longtime friend and collaborator Jay Cocks, as well as Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonegan, distills the sprawling character and experience of life in The Five Points circa 1862 down to a battle between two strong-willed personalities. In one corner, there’s Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a native-born Protestant with a very strong “America for Americans” worldview and a sizable gang of followers who help him maintain power over the neighborhood. His authority is challenged by Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio)– the son of an Irish immigrant named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) who twenty years before had led a rival gang called The Dead Rabbits only to be cut down by Bill The Butcher’s blade. Having spent the majority of his life in a reformatory outside the city, Amsterdam has returned to the Five Points as a young man—nearly unrecognizable to his father’s former cohorts, who have since exiled their convictions and ceded to The Butcher’s authority. Amsterdam uses this anonymity to his advantage, managing to gain access to Bill’s inner circle as well as his trust.
Amsterdam plans to avenge his father by slaying Bill in a public manner, but while he waits for the perfect opportunity, he finds that Bill’s dark charisma is working itself on him—to the point that Amsterdam even throws himself into the line of fire to protect Bill from another would-be assassin. When Amsterdam’s true identity is revealed by an act of betrayal, he’s cast out from The Five Points and brutally branded with the great indignity of being “the only man spared by The Butcher”. He retreats underground to lick his wounds, only to rise back up again with renewed conviction. He rebuilds The Dead Rabbits from the masses of disenfranchised Irish immigrants who made the journey to the new world looking for opportunity, only to find poverty and Bill’s indiscriminate scorn. The immigrants are further angered by the civil unrest spreading throughout the city in response to the Civil War draft, which has polarized the population along economic lines. Those who can pay $300 can send a substitute off to war in their place, which only feeds the mentality that the Civil War is a rich man’s war fought by the poor. With temperatures and passions rising, the powder keg finally explodes into what would become known as the Great Draft Riots of New York, plunging the city into anarchy and violence as the armies of Amsterdam and Bill meet in Paradise Square to settle their beef once and for all.
Scorsese’s sweeping examination of organized crime’s roots during a forgotten chapter of New York’s history manages to attract top-tier talent like the aforementioned DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, among many others. GANGS OF NEW YORK marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, who has since gone on to become a filmmaking partner in a similar fashion to Scorsese’s earlier work with Robert De Niro. Coincidentally, it was De Niro who clued Scorsese into DiCaprio as an actor he needed to work with, having been impressed by the young man’s superlative talents during their collaboration on Michael Caton-Jones’ THIS BOY’S LIFE in 1993. Desperate to slough off of the teenage heartthrob reputation he had acquired from his performance in James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997), DiCaprio cultivates a feral grunge here as Amsterdam Vallon. He depicts the character as crudely Machiavellian—hotheaded and undisciplined, yet single-mindedly focused on calculated vengeance. The role of Bill The Butcher was initially offered to De Niro, but Daniel Day-Lewis proves arguably an even better choice as the jingoistic “Native” American. His Bill is a far cry from the gentleman lawyer he played in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), his previous collaboration with Scorsese. Sporting a waxed-up mustache, long plaid pants, and a glass eye adorned with an American eagle iris, Day-Lewis turns in a rather flamboyant, menacing performance. He doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of the character (like his indiscriminate racism and bilious hatred for Abraham Lincoln), but he also embraces a darkly attractive charisma, imbuing it with a respectful reverence for the virtues of his enemies. Day-Lewis completely immerses himself in the role, stalking around the Five Points as if he were intent on sucking up every last extra drop of oxygen before the foreign hordes can get to it.
While the story hinges entirely on the dynamic between these two opposing personalities, Scorsese takes great care to flesh out the universe of characters spinning around their orbit (even placing himself into one scene as an unnamed aristocrat). Cameron Diaz is effective as the lone female presence and DiCaprio’s love interest, a street-smart pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. John C. Reilly plays Happy Jack Mulraney, a former Dead Rabbit turned corrupt cop, while unabashedly-Irish actor Brendan Gleeson plays a fellow former Dead Rabbit who pursues a righteous future as a community leader with political aspirations. Finally, there’s Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father and the fallen leader of the Dead Rabbits. He’s seen only in the beginning battle, but is instantly memorable as a devout Roman Catholic leader with the heart of a warrior.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is a peculiar sort of historical epic, in that its grandiose sweep is confined to a relatively small, extremely grimy section of Manhattan. This deliberate mixture of nineteenth-century grunge and operatic theatricality is captured on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio by Scorsese’s longtime cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who comes back into the filmmaker’s fold after an extended absence. The color palette deals primarily in earthy browns, searing reds, and amber sepias (along with shocking pops of blue). Overall, the picture is very warm, owing in large part to the decision to illuminate this pre-electrical world with lots of candlelight. Scorsese and Ballhaus take every opportunity to show off production designer Dante Ferretti’s expansive sets with sumptuous crane, dolly and Steadicam shots.
One such shot in particular is incredibly striking, in that it is acts as a condensed, poetic metaphor for the trajectory of a soldier. In one fluid move, Scorsese shows gaggles of Irish immigrants queuing up for military enlistment, then moves on to another group getting fitted for uniforms and boarding ships bound for battle while coffins containing dead soldiers returning from the battlefield are unloaded to make room for new blood. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is very elegant in execution, fitting right in line with Scorsese’s long line of iconic tracking shots throughout his career. Combined with other signature visual techniques like whip-pans, split-focus diopter compositions, and a dynamic edit by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, GANGS OF NEW YORK is classic Scorsese, and then some—its outsized aspirations are reminiscent of the storyboards the prepubescent Scorsese drew for imagined Roman epics long before he ever touched a foot of celluloid.
To realize his vision of Civil War-era New York from a musical standpoint, Scorses reteams with his AFTER HOURS (1985) composer Howard Shore, whose profile was experiencing a huge surge in popularity at the time due to his work on Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003). Because of the massive undertaking such a job entails, it is perhaps somewhat inevitable that the lilting, fairytale feel of Shore’s LOTR cues seeps into his approach for GANGS OF NEW YORK. The score is very orchestral, highlighted by low, heavy strings as well as fiddles to evoke the Irish heritage of the film’s protagonists. Former The Band frontman and longtime Scorsese musical consultant Robbie Robertson utilizes his extensive knowledge of American folk music to cherry pick an eclectic mix of sounds that give a modern edge to antiquated rhythms and tones. The approach is somewhat anachronistic, but it works on an emotional level. The use of Mississippi mountain blues goes a long way towards communicating a sense of what the streets sounded like at the time, while newer works like Peter Gabriel’s “Signal To Noise” or even U2’s “The Hands That Built America” (one of the few U2 songs I can actually stand) work overtime to connect these long-ago people and events to our time.
This appeal to modern culture permeates the film, with Scorsese going to great lengths to avoid the airs of a stuffy costume pageant. Instead, he blurs New York City’s history in a somewhat expressionistic manner that seems to encapsulate the entirety of the city’s social story within the Five Points neighborhood. GANGS OF NEW YORK begins in an incredibly compelling fashion—down in the subterranean labyrinths of a manmade cave, populated by what looks to be a medieval tribe of people preparing for war. We could be anywhere, anytime. We follow these people up to the surface, realizing that the caves are underneath what appears to be a large brick brewery. The warriors emerge onto the snowy streets of a small village and engage in battle with an opposing tribe. Scorsese’s camera soars above the bloody aftermath, pulling further and further out to reveal that this tiny, primitive village is in fact what we know today as the bustling metropolis of Manhattan, circa 1846. Had we not known the title to the film in the first place, this revelation would surely rank among cinema’s most shocking surprises.
Just as the beginning of GANGS OF NEW YORK evokes the tribal nature of the origins of civilization, so too does the film allude to the present with its final shot, which features Amsterdam and Jenny walking away from the graves of Priest Vallon and Bill The Butcher, which stand on a hill in Brooklyn overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Scorsese dwells on this shot, crossfading as the decades pass and the Manhattan skyline transforms before our very eyes. The Brooklyn Bridge appears, and then church steeples are replaced with early skyscrapers, themselves dwarfed by even taller, modern skyscrapers (all the while, the graves in the foreground are reclaimed by nature and fall into ruin). Finally, the skyline appears as it did in the 2002 present-day, albeit with one major alteration: the presence of the World Trade Center towers, which in real life had been destroyed in terrorist attacks only a year earlier. This inclusion was somewhat controversial, but Scorsese’s decision to keep them in (when everyone else was rushing to scrub them out) is reinforced by a body of work that is inherently about New York City and the people who built it (the triumphant strings of U2’s “The Hands That Built America” swelling over the soundtrack drives this notion home with all of the subtlety of a bull in a china shop). Thirteen years after the film’s release, this shot remains as breathtaking as it’s ever been, and stands as one of the most moving directorial flourishes in Scorsese’s body of work.
Despite the story occurring over a hundred years ago, GANGS OF NEW YORK boasts several similarities to our current political climate. The film depicts an America greatly divided over various economic, political, and racial lines—a situation largely spurned on by a controversial, transformative President with lofty, progressive ambitions for the country’s future. Bill The Butcher’s open hatred for Abraham Lincoln could just as easily be transplanted today to certain sects of the population who despise Barack Obama. In both cases, the offended party is threatened by a President who wants to diminish their stranglehold on power and influence in favor of bringing equality to Americans from all stripes of life. In both cases, they come across like dinosaurs refusing to cede the world to mammals, completely unaware that a giant meteor has just entered the atmosphere. Watching GANGS OF NEW YORK in today’s context, it becomes clear Scorsese has hit on sentiments that stretch back to the country’s very founding, and as such they are an inescapable part of our social fabric and identity. This gives the film an added immediacy that will remain relevant into the foreseeable future.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is arguably the most overt example of Scorsese’s career-long exploration of the immigrant street-life experience in New York City, where conflict is driven by the eternal clash of opposing subcultures, ethnicities, and heritages. These conflicts usually explode in fits of messy, chaotic violence, documented by Scorsese’s camera in an almost-documentarian manner—but in GANGS OF NEW YORK, these hostile exchanges take on the air of blood-soaked opera in their sweeping expressionism. Scorsese’s Roman Catholic heritage also plays an integral role in the proceedings, with the character of Priest Vallon becoming the personification of Catholic ideals and virtues (albeit in the body of a ferocious warrior). Priest’s (and by extension, the Irish’s) identification as Catholic stands at strict odds against Bill the Butcher’s Protestant worldview, who’s unwavering belief in the supremacy of America and its founders leads him to be vehemently opposed to those whose loyalties lie an ocean away with the Pope. Quite literally, the central conflict in GANGS OF NEW YORK is between Church and State. A tattered American flag is displayed prominently on a wall in Bill’s quarters, while the newly-reformed Dead Rabbits take over a local Catholic church as their home base– providing Scorsese yet again with the opportunity to fill the frame with the various iconography of Catholicism.
The process of making GANGS OF NEW YORK was a difficult, drawn-out one that saw numerous delays. It was so long, in fact, that Scorsese was able to release another project—a short film called “THE NEIGHBORHOOD” that screened during The Concert For New York City, a benefit concert held in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks. When GANGS OF NEW YORK was finally released in 2002, the city’s wounds were still raw, and as such, they might not have quite known what to make of it (especially that final shot prominently featuring the Twin Towers). This translated to somewhat disappointing box office numbers and mixed reception from critics, who appreciated Scorsese’s ambition and intent but felt the execution didn’t quite stack up. Some critics would make an interesting observation that GANGS OF NEW YORK could be read as the end of the western film overlapping with the gangster picture, while others noted an increasing reliance on computer-generated imagery that sucked out the sense of immediacy and vitality that made his earlier work so affecting. Despite the lukewarm reception, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. While it would win nothing, the film’s strong awards show presence was enough to knock Scorsese out of his recent slump and renew his energies towards creating a string of critically and financially successful works that count among the best in his career. The beginning of the 21st century would coincide with the beginning of a third act for Scorsese—one that would see him take on the role of cinema’s elder statesman and finally bring him his long-overdue Oscar.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Miramax.
Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein
Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonegan
Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production Designer: Dante Ferretti
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by: Howard Shore