What responsibility do we have to history? Should it be something held up as sacrosanct, or is it as malleable an object as the truth appears to be? History is written by the winners, it is said, but what’s to keep that from being later rewritten, and underscored, and struck through, and deleted, and retyped and retyped and retyped? So we arrive at Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Long in gestation, even longer in preproduction, and then finally released in the culmination of the passion project of one of Hollywood’s best directors (if not history’s). But, what does it say about America, and what does it say about his beloved New York? And most importantly, what does it say about US?
The thesis of the film would at first seem to be that America as we know it, and specifically New York City, was born in the ashes of the Draft Riots of 1863. The country was in the midst of the Civil War, and the tensions between all peoples, between races and classes, were at a high. The film starts off earlier though, when the dissension came down almost solely along nationality lines. The so called “natives”, and the Irish immigrants who they saw as encroaching on their god-given land. Liam Neeson kills it in this scene, by the way. But even he is outshone by Daniel Day Lewis, who, in the role of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, absolutely rules the screen with an iron fist. In a frenetically shot battle scene, scored to a very anachronistic Peter Gabriel track, Bill kills Neeson’s “Priest Vallon”, which is witnessed by Vallon’s young son, Amsterdam. And this is where the film actually is coming from.
Lip service is paid by Scorcese about the “fires of American history” and how the country and city was born out of the flames of the riots, but the movie is really about fathers and sons. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam, looking to revenge himself on the man who killed his father, who eventually becomes a father figure to him in his own right, and who he eventually turns on and kills himself. I understand the reasoning behind this: Scorcese needed a dramatic hook to hang his plot sketches of New York life at the time on. But I’ll be honest: if it weren’t for Daniel Day Lewis, this plot would be thin as anything. DiCaprio is game, but his accent isn’t, and he just seems too… I don’t know, pretty for the role. And let’s not bring up Cameron Diaz and whatever accent she’s trying to do.
But this is the problem with history: to tell it right, you have to be willing to ignore plot structure and three acts and what’s “Dramatically Appropriate” and go with what is the truth. Which gets even trickier when it comes to Gangs of New York, as the book it is based on is a collection of what can nicely be called “urban myths”, of 7 foot tall men with fiery red hair swimming across the East River and drinking barrels upon barrels of rotgut and whiskey while doing so, of legendary gangs of ruffians and vagabonds, of larger than life people doing larger than life things. But what makes it interesting is there is also honest to god truth in there as well, historical figures such as Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, Hell Cat Maggie, and the man Bill the Butcher was based on, William Poole. But how do you separate the fact from the fiction?
Turns out, in the end, it doesn’t much matter what is fact and fiction. It all becomes “history”, that long ago time when things happened and occasionally they’re remembered in books and television specials and movies. Just like this one. So the fact of the past becomes replaced by the fact of the film. The opening battle between the “Dead Rabbits” and their confederates with the Natives? It never happened. There was one much later, in 1857, between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, but that’s not in the film. There was much violence and destruction during the Draft Riots, yes, but much of it was perpetrated by the Irish gangs against African Americans.
But again, it doesn’t matter. What people remember is the story, the bigger arc. It turns out Scorcese made the right decision by hanging his movie onto a dramatic skeleton of a plot, as it allows the larger details to bleed through and become the real story. Fact replaced by fiction replaced by fact. ‘Til ultimately, like Amsterdam says in voiceover at the end of the film, “And no matter they did to build this city back up again, for the rest of time, it would be like nobody even knew we was ever here.”