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Like Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York has a twisty history. If Mohicans began as a novel rooted in historical events, Gangs began as a history with more than its fair share of invention. The core source material was The Gangs of New York, a 1927 book by journalist and crime writer Herbert Asbury. As Russell Shorto points out in his foreword to the 2008 edition of the book, Asbury “wasn’t writing history – there are no footnotes in the book – but popular entertainment. And he was working with material that would be hard to verify even if you were getting it as events unfolded. His sources are themselves tellers of tall tales, old men with scarred faces reminiscing, maybe misremembering, setting the record straight or crooked.”
Nevertheless, in its broadest outlines the parameters of the world Asbury described have long been accepted as true. Since New York lacked a recognized and effective police force well into the nineteenth century, an active gang culture flourished in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like the Bowery and the Five Points, typified by the presence of informal clans with colorful names like “The Plug Uglies,” “The Shirt Tails,” and the “Dead Rabbits” (according to Asbury, dead rabbit was slang for a rowdy, athletic fellow). The character Day-Lewis plays in the movie, Bill Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, is modeled in the real-life figure Bill Poole, a butcher who was shot to death amid a series of gang vendettas and whose dying words, after lingering four fourteen days, were reputedly, “Goodbye boys, I die a true American.” (Those last four make it into the movie.)
Martin Scorsese first encountered The Gangs of New York in 1970, and almost immediately hoped to make a movie of it. His friend, critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks, discovered the book independently around the same time, and began working on a screenplay (he would ultimately share credit with Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian). Scorsese and Cocks knew at the outset that the project would be difficult to realize, because it couldn’t be shot in New York – the world of the movie had utterly disappeared – would thus require the recreation of lower Manhattan on a massive scale. After a flurry of initial activity in the late seventies – a trade ad announcing the project appeared in Variety in 1977 – the movie lapsed into turnaround as both Scorsese and Cocks moved on (they would collaborate in 1993 in realizing The Age of Innocence.)
The rise of independent cinema in the 1990s, and in particular the success of Miramax under brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, fostered the creation of a series of movies that broke out of the box office formula that had documented major-studio moviemaking since the 1980s. By the turn of the century, the independents were increasingly swallowed by larger companies (Disney bought Miramax), but it was still possible to launch projects with a deeply personal vision. The Weinstein brothers backed Scorsese, and British producer Graham King picked up the foreign rights. Scorsese procured the famed Italian Cinecitta Studios for his sets, and the services of production designer Dante Ferretti to create the New York’s Paradise Square as it was reported to look between the 1840s and 1860s. By no means was it smooth sailing from here – power struggles and delays dogged the picture, whose shoot ran long and whose release was delayed.
One of the bigger challenges Scorsese and Co. faced was casting. On a picture of this scale, shot in a foreign country, recruiting was a major logistical enterprise. Many actors turned out to come from the British Isles, among them some pretty impressive names. From Ireland came Liam Neeson, who plays Bill the Butcher’s archenemy, Priest Vallon, and Brendan Gleeson, who plays the rising Irish politician Monk McGinn (both characters are fictive). England’s Jim Broadbent is Boss Tweed, who of course was real. Tweed was the master of Tammany Hall, ground zero for the city’s rising Democratic Party base, and in an ironic coincidence, our friend Tammanend of Last of the Mohicans resurfaces as a statue in the movie (as indeed it was featured at the real Tammany Hall). The Hollywood firepower for the movie was provided by Cameron Diaz, then at the height of her commercial appeal, was cast as the Jenny Everdeane, the main love interest in the story. And the lead role – or what in theory was the lead role, anyway – went to Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the part of Amsterdam Vallon, the deeply conflicted son of Priest Vallon who experiences Hamlet-like ambivalence in trying to avenge his death at the hands of Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio, whose critical cache in the nineties was vastly augmented by his success as a leading man in the hugely successful Titanic (1997), not only brought tremendous box office potential to the project, but also a bankroll: he, like Scorsese, agreed to be partially liable for cost overruns.
But the keystone of the project was Day-Lewis. As is often the case, getting him on board took some persuading. There were anecdotal reports at the time of the film’s lease that Scorsese had coaxed him out of retirement in Italy, where Day-Lewis had reputedly become a shoemaker. While the degree of Day-Lewis’s alienation from his acting career was probably exaggerated, it is true that he has experienced periods of depression and burnout, like the period following The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the his well-publicized breakdown while playing Hamlet onstage, which led him to lay low. Actually, five years lapsed between the release of The Boxer in 1997 and Gangs in 2002. But Day-Lewis had tremendous regard for Scorsese – he well might not have taken the role of Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence in 1993 (which we’ll get to shortly) had not Scorsese been at the helm of it – but Gangs was a juicy opportunity to stretch his range. So he took the role of Bill the Butcher, even though he had some reservations, among them working with the notoriously abrasive Harvey Weinstein. “What he doesn’t understand,” Day-Lewis told film writer Peter Biskind at the time of the film’s release, “is that I did Gangs in spite of Harvey, not because of Harvey.
As with Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis prepared for Gangs with a period of intense physical and psychic preparation. He exercised with the music of the venom-filled Eminem every morning, and inhabited the rage of Bill the Butcher whether or not the cameras were rolling. In 2007, Day-Lewis said that “in America, the articulate use of language is often regarded with suspicion.” But the remarkable thing about his Bill the Butcher, is the spellbinding way in which his savage intelligence is expressed with unique patois that fuses profanity and poetry. My favorite such moment comes late in the movie when Boss Tweed comes to see the Butcher to remonstrate with him over the killing of Monk McGinn. The Butcher has just finished sizzling a piece of meat (looks like veal), and is slicing it up as he addresses Tweed:
I know your works. You are neither hot nor cold. So because you are lukewarm, and are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. You can build your filthy world without me. I took the father [Priest Vallon]. Now I’ll take the son [Amsterdam]. You tell young Vallon I’m goin’ to paint Paradise Square with his blood. Two coats. I’ll festoon my bedchamber with his guts. As for you, Mr. Tammany fucking Hall, come down to the Points again and you’ll be dispatched by mine own hand.
This is great dialogue, but it’s animated by even greater delivery. Day-Lewis accompanies “two coats” with a sign of the cross, made with a knife in his hand. And “festoon” is delivered with lusty aggression: “I’ll festoooon my bedchamber.” Ironically, there’s something downright Catholic about the way this militant Protestant uses a biblical idiom in secular context (much in the way that Catholic crucifixes are much more graphic than Protestant crosses). But there’s also something appropriate about this, in that the Butcher considers the papist Priest Vallon the last worthy adversary he’s ever had. In any case, the effect is utterly riveting, and an illustration of why Day-Lewis utterly dominates the movie.
Indeed, he almost overwhelms it. Nominally, the plot of Gangs of New York concerns Amsterdam’s Vallon’s loss of his father in a gang fight in 1846 and his return, after sixteen years of reform school, to kill the Butcher, only to fall under his sway and become a virtual son. This patricidal struggle takes place against the backdrop of a fratricidal one: the Civil War, which engulfs New York in the form of the draft riots of 1863, a five-day episode of urban anarchy that would only be quelled by the arrival of troops returning from Gettysburg.
But it quickly becomes clear – or, at any rate, after a first viewing it becomes clear – that the movie belongs to Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher. Indeed, while the film garnered ten Academy Award nominations, the reviews were not uniformly rhapsodic, and much of the complaints focused on a belief that DiCaprio simply lacked the heft of his counterpart (not the last time such a problem would surface in a Daniel Day-Lewis movie. ) We first see him about five minutes in the film; Scorsese’s camera starts on the ground, where the Butcher stamps the snow from his shoes. As the camera pans up his flowing coat and red/white/blue sash of combat, we see a figure who, like that his character in Last of the Mohicans, does not have the kind of gangling physical presence we’ve come to expect from our movie stars. But his internal power is so tightly coiled, his murderous rage as evident as it is (temporarily) held in check, that it’s impossible not to be awed.
The Butcher has come to Paradise Square for a showdown between his men and those of a variety of gangs under the leadership Priest Vallon, head of the Dead Rabbits. Vallon, as we can tell on the basis of Liam Neeson’s accent alone, represents the rising tide of Irish immigrants who have been flooding into New York as a result of their oppression in their homeland. After a ritual exchange of insults, the Butcher’s men help him shed his coat and top hat as he pulls out a knife and cleaver declaims what’s stake: “By the ancient laws of combat, we are met on my challenge to settle for good and all (read: “awlllllll”) who holds sway over the Five Points – us Natives, born rightwise on this fine land, or the foreign hordes defiling it.” Vallon accepts the challenge: “By the ancient laws of combat, I accept the challenge of the so-called Natives. You plague our people at every turn.” Behind his well-oiled handlebar mustache, the Butcher smiles with satisfaction.
Again, there is something appropriately ironic that the Butcher’s gang goes by the name of the Native Americans. The term is historically accurate in denoting what was at the time a growing number of U.S. citizens who were increasingly hostile to the rising tide of immigrants, especially Irish immigrants, a tide that would crest with the power of the “American,” a.k.a. “Know-Nothing” Party in the 1850s, which would prove to be a temporary but powerful force in U.S. politics. But of course in our day the phrase “Native American” is a synonym for Indian. Though a gleeful racist who regards anyone who is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a real American, the Butcher’s situation in Gangs of New York resembles no one’s more aptly than that of a Delaware sachem confronted with growing numbers of outside interlopers and deciding to take a stand against them.
On that day in 1846, the Butcher and his Natives prevail despite their enemy’s greater numbers. But as we sense, he’s only bought himself time. He can manage, even absorb, the steady stream of new arrivals for a real interval. Indeed, it’s one of the paradoxes of the Butcher’s character that he can employ his former enemies, and even tease them affectionately about their ethnic foibles. But like a hydra-headed monster, Vallon’s legacy returns in the form of his son, whose ironically Teutonic name – “Amsterdam” – will ultimately challenge the Butcher for supremacy. In the meantime, however, the unwitting chief takes a shine to the kid and nurtures him in the ways of tribal power. As such, he’s like a triumphant Indian warrior who incorporates the kin of vanquished foes into his own clan.
Over the course of the almost three-hour movie, Amsterdam will struggle to grow sufficient strength to reassert his true patrimony. But the truly overwhelming forces that Bill Cutting faces do not come from knives, or even guns, but the mortal threat of votes and the overwhelming force they can ultimately impose on behalf of those who control them. The first person to realize this, naturally, is Boss Tweed. He starts out as an eager collaborator with the Butcher, but comes to see him as an obstacle to consolidating his power. Instead, Tweed turns his attention to the new arrivals that will be the shock troops of a renovated Democratic party. “There’s the building of our country right there, Bill. Americans aborning,” Tweed says down at the docks as Irish immigrants arrive. The Butcher’s reply: “I don’t see Americans. I see trespassers.” After a further exchange, their dialogue culminates as follows:
TWEED: “You’re a great one for fighting, Bill, I know. But you can’t fight forever.”
BUTCHER: I can do down doing it.
TWEED: And you will.
BUTCHER (who was walking away but now turns around): What did you say?
TWEED: I said you’re turning your back on the future.
BUTCHER (waving a pointed finger): Not our future.
Yet another irony: the Butcher puts his hand on young Vallon’s shoulder as they depart from the scene. A piece of tour de force silent filmmaking follows, as the camera rotates from immigrants disembarking from one ship to newly recruited Union soldiers embarking on another, as coffins are lifted from that vessel to join the immigrants on the dock. Though it’s highly unlikely anything like this actually ever happened, there’s an allegorical truth here about the way immigrants were raw material to be consumed in a not-so virtuous cycle of death and rebirth.
When, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, the Butcher learns the true identity of his protégé, he turns on him with ferocity. Yet he seems glad when Vallon, set free by the truth being revealed by his jealous friend Johnny, finally seems ready to take him on in an organized, collective fashion by resurrecting the Dead Rabbits and forging an alliance with Tweed. The Butcher embarks on a course that strongly suggests a fatalistic death wish. In a scene more shocking than any gang fight, he murders Vallon’s Irish mentor, Monk, who has been elected sheriff on a Tammany ticket, in broad daylight. “See if his ashes burn green,” he says to the horrified onlookers after throwing a knife into the conciliatory Monk’s back – a move reminiscent of a tomahawk throw – and bashing his head in with the club Monk used to use in his own gangbanging days. (It’s this act that leads Tweed to go to the Butcher in protest – “you don’t know what you’ve done to yourself” – but the Butcher sends “Mr. Tammany fucking Hall” away.) The Butcher also literally crucifies his former minion, Johnny, who has reconciled with Vallon, by impaling him on an iron fence, an act of cruelty so brutal that Vallon honors Johnny’s request to put him out of his misery by shooting him. The film closes a circle when Vallon challenges the Butcher to a gangfight; when the two sides meet to discuss conditions, the Butcher is pleased that they will eschew the use of guns. “Good boy,” he tells Vallon. There’s sarcasm here but also an implicit compliment than in honoring the “ancient laws of combat” cited at the start of the film, an erstwhile adoptive father is complimenting his enemy’s biological son for having grown into a worthy opponent.
By the time Vallon and Bill the Butcher have their climatic confrontation, however, their blood feud is beside the point. For it is taking place against the backdrop of a much larger one: the Civil War. At the very moment of their fight, the city is engulfed by the Draft Riots, a mass protest against conscription by the working class against the power of the state, to which the state responded with a massive show of federal force in the form of Union army, who, for so long seemingly irrelevant – the war is on the margins for much of the movie, finally overtaking the main story line – ultimately becomes the real enemy of the gangs of New York. The Civil War is traditionally represented as the triumph of federal government over a feudal plantation elite. Here we see that it’s not only slaveholding Southerners who are steamrolled by the power of the national state, but a local urban subculture as well. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner depicts the power of the national state as an implacable, but largely benign force that stitches the nation together. Here, it’s a terrible swift sword that slices cuts down existing growth to make room for a new society.
Scorsese underlines this point in an embellishment that did not actually happen, by bringing Union naval batteries to New York harbor, whose guns pulverize the paving stones of Paradise Square. The Butcher and Vallon can barely find each other amid the smoke, and the former is mortally wounded by a large piece of shrapnel that lodges in his gut. So it’s with something resembling grateful affection when the dying Butcher has a final moment with Vallon, both men on their knees, because he knows that Vallon will deliver the final blow. “Thank God: I die a true American,” the Butcher says – a line reputedly delivered by the real Bill Poole. Vallon then delivers the coup de grace by plunging a knife into him, an act of vengeance and compassion.
Gangs of New York represents a transposition of roles for Daniel Day-Lewis: In Last of the Mohicans, he was Hawkeye; this time he’s effectively Chingachgook. Like generations of dime novel readers and fans of westerns, we admire him in his savagery, which has a kind of nobility even as it is unacceptable as a basis for contemporary society. As with Indians of the frontier, Bill the Butcher must die so that we (a non-WASP multiracial majority) might live. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s Vallon who represents the synthesis of cultures who will survive as a hearty hybrid and make a modern America.
The problem is that one is haunted by a perception that he’s a lesser man. And that in some important respects the subsequent characters embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in his narrative arc of American history are, too.