Gangs of New York Essay

The film “Gangs of New York” was loosely based on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book “The Gangs of New York” and starred both Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, this 2002 gangster film was shot in Rome and covers the year 1840 through 1863 when the gory Draft Riots happened.  It was a period of New York City’s history when graft and corruption pervaded every echelon of government, the police department included.

A fictional drama that was comparatively based on actual historical events and figures with a plot that revolves mainly around retaliation and the disagreement between the gangs that controlled the Bowery and the Five Points region around lower Manhattan, Gangs of New York depicted the conflict and the conspiracies of two chief political parties, Tammany Hall (Democratic based) and the Native Americans (the Know-Nothing Party) who used gangs as marshals for plundering public funds as well as to achieve control of the city. The movie’s tagline is “America was born in the streets”.

The movie’s scriptwriters did a bit of tweaking with history in order to present as many remarkable characters and events as possible but they still managed to do a fairly good job in depicting the prejudice against the Irish immigrants, the Draft riots as well as the setting of New York circa 1860’s that were quite similar to the way the actual events happened themselves.  The movie’s excellent manipulation of cinematography and the construction of a movie set that was based on the authentic photographs of the real Five Points truly captured the feel and flavor of New York City during the mid-1800.

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            The roles in the movie were either imaginary (these included the likes of Jenny Everdeane played by America’s darling, Cameron Diaz, Amsterdon Vallon, portrayed by Titanic star Leo Dicaprio and Priest Vallon, depicted by Liam Neeson), or plain adaptation of real people like William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson).  These four characters (part of the movies’ main characters) were based on actual people albeit they come about in different eras.  For example William Cutting who was based on William Poole “Bill the Butcher”, a real butcher with a shop in Washington Market who lived in New York City from 1832 till Lew Baker murdered him in 1855. The real William neither had a glass eye decorated with an eagle on it nor did he kill anyone point-blank, he may have hurt a few men though. Guess the movie called for a certain drama to make William entertaining.

            The other two major characters were Happy Jack and Monk McGinn. Happy Jack’s character was based on the real Happy Jack Mulraney who, due to his partial paralysis, had a perpetual smirk on his face. Happy Jack Mulraney was a volatile and murderous member of the Gophers that prevailed around the late 1890’s and early 1900’s and who were colleagues of Monk Eastman and Paul Kelly.

            On the other hand, Monk McGinn, who was played by Brendan Gleeson, was a character based on Monk Eastman (Edward Osterman), a Jewish gangster. Born in Brooklyn around 1873, Monk McGinn had his own gang called the Eastmans comprising of more than twelve hundred warriors. Monk McGinn died in New York City in 1920. A crooked Prohibition enforcement agent killed him, contrary to what was depicted in the movie where Bill Butcher was the one responsible for his death.

            Probably the only character that did come close to portraying his actual historical figure within the movie’s time frame is Boss Tweed played by Jim Broadbent. Born in 1823 in New York’s lower east side, William “Boss” Tweed was a bully and a school dropout. He and his loyal crooked compadres formed the infamous “Tweed Ring” Well known throughout the city for their corruption. Tweed landed in jail when the cartoonist, Thomas Nast, brought Tweed’s graft to public attention. He died in the same place in 1878.

            “Gangs of New York” was set in the Five Points district of New York City. Notoriously known as the most miserable of New York City’s slums in the 1800’s, Five Points was called by many as the “King of Slums.” Aptly named for the points formed by the intersection of Anthony (now Worth), Orange (Baxter) and Cross (Park) Streets, Five Points began with a waste yard that cloaked a foul pit of chemical and animal manure, sometime around 1802.  Life at Five Points was so difficult, the mere means of surviving day to day required family members to resort to whatever means just to bring money in. Crime, alcoholism, and prostitution were rampant; children grew up destined to be felons or prostitutes.  Saloons, groggeries, brothels, gambling halls, raucous theater and wild dance halls, these were all first hand testaments to Five Point’s depravity. The miserable conditions of Five Points had made it a training camp for some of America’s most notorious mobsters.  There could not be a location more fitting for this gangster film than Five Points.

            The film opens with the territorial war going on between the gangs of “Nativist” faction, comprising those who were born Americans and the predominantly Irish immigrants, the “Dead Rabbits.” William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting led The Nativists, while Priest Vallon, who had a son named Amsterdam, led the immigrant Irish. Cutting and Vallon confronted each other in a formal challenge of war in Paradise Square and the battle that followed was one filled of horror and blood.  The battle ended with Bill killing Vallon and Amsterdam bore witness to his own father’s death. With a promise to avenge his father’s death, Amsterdam buried his father’s knife, and races off where he was found and was taken to an orphanage at Hellgate.

            Sixteen years later, Amsterdam left the orphanage at Hellgate a grown man. Returning to Five Points, he reunited with his old friend Johnny, who was part of a small group who stole for Bill.  It was through Johnny that Amsterdam was introduced to Bill Butcher and immediately became Bill’s right-hand man.  He also met Jenny Everdeane, an expert pickpocket, to whom Amsterdam became attracted.  The plot began to thicken when Amsterdam found that Jenny was once a ward of Bill and still seems to enjoy having a share of Bill’s affection. This resulted to Jenny and Amsterdam arguing which proceeded to heated lovemaking.  Unfortunately for Amsterdam, his friend Johnny wanted Jenny Everdeane too. Catching Jenny and Amsterdam in the throes of passion, Johnny betrayed Amsterdam’s true identity to Bill and Amsterdam’s plot to kill him. Things went downhill for Amsterdam then ending up with him being wounded and cast out by Bill in the streets to “live in shame.”  But Amsterdam was undaunted. Nursed back to health by Jenny, Amsterdam, and Bill agreed to battle in Paradise Square, with Amsterdam resurrecting the name of the Dead Rabbits.  However, the Draft Riots happened, and thank God for Bill Butcher, he did die an American with a mortal wound caused by shrapnel in his side, and Amsterdam’s stab of death.

            In the movie’s final scenes, Bill’s body was taken to Brooklyn and was buried next to Priest Vallon in the view of the Manhattan skyline. Jenny and Amsterdam visited the grave, where Amsterdam buried the knife that killed his father. The frame then shifts several times, reflecting the superseding growth of the city between 1864 and the present day.

            Gangs of New York did a great job in depicting the environment of the mid-1800 New York City; even the cast’s costumes were accurate to the last detail.  However, the film did much exaggeration in portraying the violence in the gang fights and city riots.  It also had many historical inaccuracies.  For one, the film implied that the Chinese people in New York City were common enough to have their own community and public venues when in fact, there were only 25 Chinese people known to have lived at Five Points at that time.  The film also underrepresented other major ethnic groups among New York immigrants at that time and these include the Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Polish, English, German, and Jewish.  “Gangs of New York” also failed to portray the explicitly racist nature of the Drafts Riots, and even the gangs in general. It seems that the film attempted to touch so many different themes at one time that it failed to adequately explore any of them. Some critics attributed the film’s weakness theoretically to pre-production issues. “Gangs of New York” was shelved for over a year, probably due to disputes that abound between the producer Harvey Weinstein and the director, Martin Scorsese. But those are just rumors. It’s a pity though because the film did have a great storyline, good dialogue and great characters. Maybe if we took all that and placed them in the actual setting of Five Points and the Drafts Riot as they truly happened in history, the result would have made for an even more spectacular movie.

References:

Anbinder, T. (2002) Five points: The 19th century New York neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world’s most notorious slum. New York, NY: Plume Publishing

Ashbury, H. (1971) Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. New York, NY: Putnam.

Block, A.A. (1995) East side, West side: Organizing crime in New York. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publisher

Davidson, B. (1998) Brooklyn gang: Summer 1959: Santa Fe, NM. Twin Palms Publishing

English, T.J. (1993) Born to kill: America’s most notorious Vietnamese gang and the changing face of organized crime. New York, NY: Morrow, William, ; Co.

Jacobs, J.B., Friel, C. and Raddick, R. (2001) Gotham unbound: How New York City was liberated from the grip of organized crime. New York, NY: New York University Press

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