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From: Erik Meyer
"Everyday there are more of us coming, streaming off the ships… I hear fifteen thousand Irish a week into New York alone, and we're afraid of the Natives? Put all of us together, and we're not a gang, we're an army. All our people need is one spark to wake them up."
— Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York is a masterpiece of subversion - a story within a story that achieves through subtlety, perspective and multiple layers of meaning what a frontal assault could never have accomplished: a brutal depiction of America being invaded and ultimately overwhelmed by the "foreign hordes" streaming out of Ireland and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.
Gangs of New York does not "celebrate" the "diversity" mass immigration brought to America. It depicts an America pushed to catastrophic collapse, inundated by alien masses, starving, grasping, tearing the old order down and setting it on fire. The immigrants live in filth, degeneracy, and vice, practicing every form of thievery and skullduggery imaginable upon each other and everyone else. The Native Chief, Bill the Butcher, takes his tribute from it all, because "that's the way you fight the rising tide."
It is a world of open warfare between gangs of foreigners pouring into this country and natives who refuse to give way, groups irreconcilably locked in a death struggle. "Your father was trying to carve a piece of this country out for his tribe…. And I'm not sure, if he had lived a little longer, if he wouldn't have wanted more." - Walter "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) to Amsterdam. These are not people fighting for peace and tolerance. And though they were fleeing the consequences of conquest and colonization in their own land ("a war that has lasted a thousand years" "against a people who thought they could take by right what could only be brought about by the annihilation of a race" - Monk) they are not disinclined to "take by right," to conquer and colonize, the land of another.
The film opens with a battle between the "Dead Rabbits," a coalition of Irish gangs championed by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and the "Native Americans," led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) to determine, in the words of Cutting, "by the ancient laws of combat, once and for all, who holds sway in the Five Points, us natives, born here proper, or the foreign hordes."
The gangs have at each other gloriously in a battle that culminates with the Priest falling in single combat to Bill the Butcher while the Priest's young son Amsterdam looks on. The resulting story chronicles Amsterdam's attempts to exact "vengeance" for this killing, ultimately leading to a resurrection of the vanquished, outlawed "Dead Rabbits" in struggle with the Natives, against a backdrop of massive political corruption, social pathology, and tyranny, with New York being blown up and burned down during the Draft Riots of 1863.
The characterizations are complex, and the performances magnificent. Daniel Day Lewis walks like a Titan from a fallen age. Leonardo DiCaprio brilliantly plays a character as repellent as he is contemptible, speaking to the movie's power and uniqueness – Scorsese and DiCaprio have created a protagonist compelling in his utter lack of redeeming qualities.
Amsterdam's drive to avenge his father - the central plot of the film - is gradually exposed as hopelessly simplistic and ultimately ignoble.
During the course of Amsterdam's attempts to ingratiate himself with Bill, we learn that, while Amsterdam has only vague memories of his father culled from dreams and distant youth, the man who venerates Priest Vallon and what he stood for is - Bill the Butcher. Bill keeps a picture of the Priest in a place of honor above his mantle and speaks of him as a great man who shared his principles, the "only man I ever killed worth remembering."
Amsterdam's desire for vengeance against Bill the Butcher is ultimately as base as it is preposterous. His father was killed in open combat, not murdered, by an adversary against whom fate, faith, land and blood had irreconcilably opposed him. Murder would have demanded vengeance, combat on the field of battle does not - though it may justify a challenge.
But Amsterdam does not choose that path until shamed at Bill's hands by his own cupidity. Amsterdam strikes while Bill is celebrating his victory at the Battle of the Five Points, honoring, not just his fallen comrades, but the leader of their enemies. Amsterdam tries to assassinate Bill with a throwing knife. Bill knocks the knife away, wounds Amsterdam, and yells to the crowd, "I'd like to introduce you to Priest Vallon's son… He has dishonored a noble name. I took him under my wing, as my own, and this is how he repays me. He tries to kill me, not like a man, but like a sneak thief."
Amsterdam's scurrilous conduct contrasts sharply with the code of honor respected by Bill the Butcher. This gives rise to the (possibly radical) interpretation that Scorsese has inverted his story - that the protagonist is NOT the hero. It is the antagonist, grim and brutal as he must be, who emerges from the screen as the only man of true integrity, in a debased, treacherous, cowardly world.
Looking at the film more broadly, it is about blood and soil, not government. Bill the Butcher and his Natives see themselves fighting for America, not the government of the United States, upon which they heap scorn and view as engaging in its own war of conquest against Americans: "We should have run a better man against Lincoln when we had the chance"—Bill, immediately before throwing his knife into Lincoln's forehead on a poster. Later in the film, Bill, and his men chant "Down with the Union," and hurl refuse at an actor playing Lincoln during a rendition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Nobody is fighting for "democracy" either, which is presented as a fraud manipulated by those in power to enrich themselves and their supporters. Boss Tweed and the Tammany machine welcome the Irish as an unending stream of votes and cheap labor. With the help of the Irish the Tammany machine steals an election against Bill's Nativist candidates, gleefully pulling people off the streets, forcing them to vote Tammany until they have "won" by thousands more votes than there are voters.
Gangs of New York climaxes with the draft riots, in which we see all of the "Irish, Germans, and Poles," who throughout the movie had been pressed or manipulated into the Union Army, forming the immigrant army DiCaprio darkly foretold earlier in the film and rising up in a rampage of fire and chaos.
They kill all the blacks they can find, then head uptown to attack the old families, looting and wasting like Sherman marching to the Hudson. The film, a chronicle of loss expressed through horrific violence, lingers on two oil paintings, an early American aristocrat, and the fair, young daughter of one of the original families, as they ignite, then burn into ash and cinder.
When the Federal government orders its troops to fire on the crowds and its ships to shell the city, Native and Irish alike interrupt their fight in horror at what is happening to the other.
It is hard not to concur with Bill the Butcher—that, indeed, "Civilization is crumbling."
January 05, 2003