Movies like Gangs of New York (2002) are why I wrote my dissertation, although I did not talk about it within those 239 pages. Before I go any further, know that this is going to be a history heavy review. You see, Catholics in this country have had a hard time. The attitudes towards the Faith even before the founding of the United States were inherited from the United Kingdom, a place that in the sixteenth century turned its back on Rome. Fast forward to nineteenth century America and you largely have the same attitudes. When the Irish began arriving on our shores in the 1840s as a result of the Potato Famine, so-called “native Americans” (whites who had been born in this country) viewed it as a Popish invasion. On page fifty-one of my dissertation there is an image that illustrates what many Americans felt about the arrival of so many Irish Catholics. Today’s film reflects these ideas, but at the same flattens them into a ridiculous caricature also only Hollywood is capable. And thus you have my dissertation in a nutshell. While I have saved you the trouble of reading it, please enjoy this review of Gangs of New York as a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Gangs of New York takes us to the infamous Five Points area of New York City in 1846, named because of the intersection three streets forming five corners, hence the name. In the middle of them is an open ground where various mobs of men come together to battle for supremacy of the neighborhood. There are two sides to this conflict: on the one there are a group of immigrants led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson); on the other are the so-called native Americans led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). In the course of the subsequent street brawl, Priest Vallon is killed by The Butcher, thus giving the latter victory for his people. We then move forward sixteen years and Priest Vallon’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) emerges from the reform school he had been put in after the battle intent on getting revenge for the death of his father. He travels back to the underground hovel he had occupied with with his father, retrieves the knife with which he had been killed, and sets out to find The Butcher. And then . . . nothing. In the process of looking for the right opportunity to murder The Butcher, Amsterdam instead falls under his enemy’s spell. Before he knows it, Amsterdam becomes a pawn in The Butcher’s criminal organization, despite the older man’s continued, let us say, less enlightened comments on immigrants or any other person of color. This includes the Irish, though when Amsterdam gets back to the Five Points he sees various people who had fought alongside his father all working for The Butcher in some capacity. Another paying The Butcher for the right to carry out crimes is Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), and her and Amsterdam begin a tumultuous relationship. There are two other things looming over all this: the Civil War and Tammany Hall politics, with its infamous chief Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Between the government and its war, Tammany Hall, and the numerous criminal organizations overseen by The Butcher, the common Irish immigrant getting off the boat in New York is immediately devoured by one or the other. All of these forces are going to clash. When Amsterdam’s friend Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) becomes jealous that Jenny chose Amsterdam, he informs The Butcher as to Amsterdam’s true identity and purpose. This causes a rift between the two, and Amsterdam takes on the role of his father in uniting the immigrant gangs once more to challenge The Butcher. Their conflict happens to correspond with the day the military draft is instituted in New York, which triggers a riot amongst the lower classes. The national struggle is seen as a distant concern to their daily lives, but few have the $300 necessary to be exempted from service. Thus they rise up in arms and the army (historical note: some of the units had recently fought at Gettysburg) is called in to quell the revolt. They open fire on the city just as the gangs are about to come to blows. Despite rifle and cannon destroying all around them, Amsterdam and The Butcher carry on attempting to kill each other. The Butcher is stopped by a piece of shrapnel, and Amsterdam eventually finishes him. Once the smoke clears, Amsterdam and Jenny are reunited and they leave New York for California.
Before I talk about the Catholic side, there are some general historical points that should be addressed in Gangs of New York. Indeed, it is one of those films historians always talk about in terms of whether or not it is accurate to the times it depicts. If nothing else, director Martin Scorsese deserves an A for effort. One of my criteria for a good historical drama, as arbitrary as it might seem, is a good amount of dirt. History is unclean, and neither should the characters be fresh faced. Its faithfulness to the past stops with its untidy, unkempt streets and the people walking about in them. Sure, people like Boss Tweed actually existed, as did some of the gangs named in the film. The rest are amalgamations of people and events created to mythologize bygone times, as Hollywood so often does with history. Yes, racism and the desire for power, political or otherwise, guided the actions of men and women. Film takes those traits and ratchets them up several degrees. I think this is why Leonardo DiCaprio yells throughout most of his movies, but that is sort of a separate issue. While I will talk more about this when I discuss the role of Catholicism in this film, a good non-religious example is the battle scene at the end. Rather ingeniously, Scorsese slips in images drawn by contemporaries of the 1863 New York Draft riots depicting the violence that occurred. To be clear, the destruction was widespread and many people died. What I have trouble believing are when cannon shots from ships in the harbor land in the middle of the Five Points neighborhood. That is an impossible shot owing to other buildings being in the way. In short, it is all a bit over the top.
Because Hollywood is never too fond of Christianity, unless it is some bland, watered down, rainbows and lollipops version of the Faith, you get a rather unsatisfactory version of it in Gangs of New York. The scene that pointedly underscores this attitude comes early on when Amsterdam leaves the reform school and tosses the Bible he had been given off a bridge and into the water. Yet throughout the rest of the movie you see moments when people are praying. One particularly memorable part is on the eve of the final battle when you see Amsterdam, The Butcher, and the wealthy Mr. Schermerhorn (David Hemmings) all making their desires known to God. While Schermerhorn gives thanks for the trappings of success he enjoys, Amsterdam and The Butcher ask for triumph in the coming fight. The implication seems to be that how can God favor one over the other when their prayers seem to be at cross purposes? Put differently, if God granted victory to one and not the other, does that mean God was on that person’s side? For non-believers, this may seem like a cop-out, but the answer to that question is: who knows? His ways are far above our ways. Besides, when you get caught up in trying to figure out which side God favors in a conflict, or why one person has to die and the other lives, the one thing that gets lost in these thoughts is God’s love for everyone. There is a purpose for all of us, and God’s love always motivates it. Faiths like Catholicism are our ways of understanding that love in some small way. But that is not how Hollywood wants you to think about it. Instead, a Faith is simply an identity that tends to separate rather than unite. That is the story of this movie, in a nutshell, and ultimately I find it to be an unfair message. Tolerance is a part of my Faith, no matter what films try to tell you.
Gangs of New York is not a total loss. I appreciated seeing Priest Vallon and his compatriots taking Communion as they marched off to their fight. Then again, the same priest that handed out the Host later punches somebody in the face. So much for the gentle parish priest. It is also violent, there are several nude scenes, and the language is quite coarse, making it deserving of its R rating. As a piece of history, there are whispers of authenticity, though they are hard to hear over the all the shouting in the film. Pun intended. In sum, I am not really sure if it is worth seeing. There are definitely better historical films, and if you want one that covers the same era, if not exactly the same subject (though somewhat similar), see Glory (1989). If you must see Gangs of New York, proceed with caution.