The Civil War was one of the bloodiest times in American history, but one of its most devastating battles was fought not in the plantation field’s of the south but in the streets of New York City as the Great American Melting Pot began to boil over. Angered that the sons of the wealthy were able to buy their way out of conscription while poor men were being sent off to die in the front lines of the Civil War, the Draft Riots broke out in New York City in 1863 and today serves as a stark reminder of the of class division in America at the time. It is against this chaotic backdrop that director Martin Scorsese has set the climatic action of his epic Gangs of New York.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, who as a child watched his father killed in a street riot in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City between Irish immigrants and native New Yorker’s lead by the charismatic and dangerous Bill “The Butcher” Cutter (Daniel Day Lewis). Returning to the neighbor following an upbringing in an orphanage, Amsterdam manages to join Bill the Butcher’s gang, slowly insinuating himself until he becomes a part of Bill’s inner circle. Barely escaping with his life after a failed attempt to kill Bill, Amsterdam proceeds to build his own rival gang, challenging Bill to a showdown just as all of New York erupts in the violence of the Draft Riots.
There’s no doubt that Gangs of New York is a film that’s Shakespearean in scope. Amsterdam’s quest for vengeance against his father’s killer is a page out of Hamlet, though his serving as Bill’s right-hand man echoes the 1972 picture The Mechanic.
All of this makes for some great drama, irregardless of the cries of historical inaccuracy that have been leveled at the movie. While there really was a Bill the Butcher in the Five Points, but his last name was Poole. Poole was more a political figure than a gang leader and died in 1955, before the events of the film. As a neighborhood, Five Points took its name from the unusual intersection of Orange, Cross and Anthony Streets, but actually encompassed the entire area between Pearl Street to Canal and Centre Street to the Bowery. Although known as a lawless area of the city in the early 19th century, by the 1860s it was relatively tame. Today, the Five Points exists only under the foundations of Chinatown and some of the courthouses on Foley Square. The tenements and slums were torn down at the beginning of the 20th century. Orange, Cross and Anthony Streets have now been renamed Baxter, Worth and Mosco.
Historical inaccuracies aside, Gangs of New York is a monumental film that that could almost be a thematic prequel to Scorsese’s earlier films like Mean Streets, informing these earlier movies with a sense of some of the history behind those characters’ social conditioning.
Sadly, for all the depth of detail in the production of the film, the main characters of Gangs of New York are little more than sketches. Amsterdam wants to revenge his father’s death, Bill wants to keep foreigners out of the city and Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) owes allegiance to Bill as he had saved her life. Beyond that we learn very little about them. Still DiCaprio, Day Lewis and Diaz take their meager parts and breathe life into them. Special mention should be called to Jim Broadbent who shines in his all-too few moments on screen as New York politico Boss Tweed.
Much has been made of Day Lewis’s flamboyant turn as Bill, but his true moment of greatness in the film is a rather quiet scene where he talks to Amsterdam about the time he killed Amsterdam’s father and how he was the only person he killed whom he respected.