Gangs of New York is a 2002 bildungsroman film set in the mid-19th century in the Five Points district of New York City. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. The film is loosely inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York. It was distributed by Miramax Films.
The film begins in 1846 and quickly jumps to the early 1860s. The two principal issues of the era in New York were Irish immigration to the city and the Federal government's execution of the Civil War. The story follows Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in his roles as crime boss and political kingmaker under the helm of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). The film culminates in a confrontation between Cutting and his mob with the protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his immigrant allies, which coincides with the New York Draft Riots of 1863.
The Nativists are led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with an open hatred of recent immigrants. The leader of the immigrant Irish, the "Dead Rabbits," is Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who has a young son, Amsterdam (played as a child by Dylan Sherwood). Cutting and Vallon meet with their respective gangs in a horrific and bloody battle, concluding when Bill kills Priest Vallon, which Amsterdam witnesses. Cutting declares the Dead Rabbits outlawed and orders Vallon's body buried with honor. Amsterdam seizes his father's knife, races off and buries it. He is found and taken to the orphanage at Hellgate. Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to New York a grown man. Arriving in Five Points, he reunites with an old friend, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas). Johnny, now a member of a clan of pickpockets and thieves, introduces Amsterdam to Bill the Butcher, for whom the group steals. Amsterdam finds that many of his father's old loyalists are now under Bill's control, including Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly), now a corrupt city constable and in Bill's pocket, and McGloin (Gary Lewis), now one of Bill's lieutenants. Amsterdam soon works his way into the Butcher's inner circle. Amsterdam learns that each year, on the anniversary of the Five Points battle (February 16), Bill leads the city in saluting the victory over the Dead Rabbits, and he makes plans to kill the Butcher during this ceremony, in front of the entire Five Points community, in order to exact public revenge.
Amsterdam meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and grifter. Amsterdam is attracted to Jenny (as is Johnny), but it is dampened when Amsterdam discovers that Jenny was once the Butcher's ward and still enjoys Bill's affections. Amsterdam gains Bill's confidence as Bill becomes his mentor. He becomes involved in the semi-criminal empire of William M. Tweed (Jim Broadbent) also known as "Boss Tweed," a corrupt politician who heads Tammany Hall, the local political machine. Tweed's influence is spread throughout Lower Manhattan from boxing matches to sanitation services and fire control. As Tammany Hall and its opponents fight for control of the city, the political climate is boiling. Immigrants, mostly Irish, are drafted into the Union Army as they depart the boats. Three hundred dollars can buy one's way out of service, which only the wealthy can afford. Anti-Black sentiment runs rampant through the Five Points, as does a general hatred of the upper class.
During a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin Amsterdam thwarts an assassination attempt that leaves the Butcher wounded. Amsterdam is tormented by the realization that he acted more out of honest devotion to Bill than from his own plan of revenge. Both retire to a brothel, where Jenny nurses Bill. Amsterdam confronts Jenny over Bill, and the two have a furious argument which dissolves into passionate sex. Late that night, Amsterdam wakes to find Bill sitting by his bed in a rocking chair, draped in a tattered American flag. Bill speaks of the downfall of civilization and how he has maintained his power over the years through violence and the "spectacle of fearsome acts." He says that Priest Vallon was the last enemy he ever fought that was worthy of real respect, and that the Priest once beat Bill soundly and then let him live in shame rather than kill him. Bill credits the incident with giving him strength of will and character to return and fight for his own authority. Bill implicitly admits that he has come to look upon Amsterdam as the son he never had.
The evening of the ceremony arrives. Johnny, who is in love with Jenny, reveals Amsterdam's true identity to Bill in a fit of jealousy and tells Bill of his plot to kill him. Bill baits Amsterdam with a knife-throwing act involving Jenny, where he targets her and superficially throws the knife to leave a cut her throat. As Bill makes the customary toast, Amsterdam throws a knife at Bill, which Bill easily deflects, and counters with a knife throw of his own, hitting Amsterdam in the abdomen. Bill then reatedly beats and head butts him as the crowd cheers him on, marks his cheek with a hot blade, and casts him out into the streets, proclaiming that for Amsterdam to live in shame is a worse fate than death as "A freak. Worthy of Barnum's museum of wonders. God's only man, speared by the Butcher."
For three months, Jenny nurses Amsterdam while in hiding. She implores him to join her in an escape to San Francisco. The two are visited by Walter "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a barber who worked as a mercenary for Priest Vallon in the Battle of the Five Points. McGinn gives Amsterdam the straight razor that belonged to his father. Amsterdam announces his return by placing a dead rabbit on a fence in Paradise Square. The rabbit finds its way to Bill, who sends Happy Jack to find out who sent the message. Jack tracks down Amsterdam and chases him through the catacombs into the local church where Amsterdam ambushes and strangles him. He hangs his body in Paradise Square. In retaliation, Bill has Johnny beaten nearly to death, leaving it to Amsterdam to finish the job as a mercy killing.
The Natives march to the Catholic church as the Irish, along with the Archbishop, stand on the steps in defense. Bill promises to return when they are ready and the incident garners newspaper coverage. Boss Tweed approaches Amsterdam with a plan to defeat Bill and his influence, hoping to cash in on the publicity: Tweed will back the candidacy of Monk McGinn for sheriff in return for the support of the Irish vote. Bill visits Monk at his shop after Monk wins the election. Bill kills McGinn and Amsterdam responds by issuing a traditional challenge to fight.
The Draft Riots break out just as the gangs are preparing to fight. Many people of the city are attacked by those protesting the drafts, particularly upper class citizens and African Americans. Union Army soldiers march through the city streets trying to control the rioters.
As the rival gangs meet in Paradise Square, they are interrupted by cannon fire from Union Naval ships in the harbor directly into Paradise Square. Many are killed by the cannons as an enormous cloud of dust and debris covers the area. The destruction is followed by a wave of Union soldiers, who wipe out many of the gang members. Abandoning their gangs, Amsterdam and Bill exchange blows in the haze, then are thrown to the ground by another cannon blast. When the smoke clears, Bill discovers he has been impaled by a large piece of shrapnel. He declares, "Thank God I die a true American". Amsterdam draws a knife from his boot and stabs Bill, who dies with his hand locked in Amsterdam's.
In the final scenes, the dead are collected for burial. Bill's body is buried in Brooklyn, in view of the Manhattan skyline, adjacent to the grave of Priest Vallon. Jenny and Amsterdam visit as Amsterdam buries his father's razor. Amsterdam narrates that New York would be rebuilt, but that they are no longer remembered, as if "we were never here".
Anbinder said that Scorsese's recreation of the visual environment of mid-19th century New York City and the Five Points "couldn't have been much better." All sets were built completely on the exterior stages of Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Anbinder also praised the depiction of the persecution and discrimination against immigrants at the time, particularly the Irish. The riot which opens the film, though fictional, was "reasonably true to history" for fights of this type, except for the amount of carnage depicted in the gang fights and city riots.
In his book How The Irish Invented Slang, Daniel Cassidy claims that the film misrepresents the true meaning of the gang's name, the "Dead Rabbits".
There is a large gang fight in 1846 depicted in the film. While there actually was a riot between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits in the Five Points on July 4, 1857 in actual history, it occurs between the fictional film battle of 1846 and the point of time that Amsterdam returns in 1862. The 1857 riot goes unmentioned.
William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting was inspired by Bill Poole, a member of the Bowery Boys gang of New York City, a bare-knuckle boxer, and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. Poole himself did not come from the Five Points and was assassinated nearly a decade before the Draft Riots. While Cutting had a glass eye in the film, lost following a beating from Priest Vallon, the real Poole did not. Both the fictional Bill and the real one had butcher shops, but Poole was not known to directly kill anyone.
The movie also references the infamous Tweed Courthouse humorously, as "Boss" Tweed refers to plans for the structure as being "modest" and "economical."
The movie implies that Chinese people were common enough in New York to have their own community and public venues, despite the fact that only 25 Chinese people are known to have lived there at the time.. Additionally, the film has been criticized for playing down the explicitly racist nature of the New York Draft Riots, and of the gangs in general. Though Amsterdam's gang includes a young black man, Jimmy Spoils, a scripted scene where Amsterdam asks Jimmy not to join him for the final battle, out of worry that Jimmy's being black will cost him the loyalty of the reassembled Dead Rabbits, was cut. At the end of the film Jimmy is shown as being one of the victims of the riots, however he never made it to paradise square with the rest of the gang mambers, as he was attacked by another gang.
The museum run by Phineas T. Barnum is shown being burned down by the Draft Riots. While this museum actually survived the riots, two years later, on July 13, 1865, Barnum's American Museum was demolished by fire; Barnum put up the Museum again elsewhere in the city, but fire consumed that version of the museum in March 1868.
The Old Brewery, the overcrowded tenement shown in the movie in both 1846 and 1862–3, was actually demolished in 1852.
In addition, historical liberties have been taken with the final scene in which Union soldiers fire upon the rioters. The drill positions, line commands and tactics used in this scene (such as "present arms!") have been completely fabricated. The position wherein the soldiers move their legs forward and aim their rifles also was never an actual command. For more information, see Casey's Infantry Tactics, the manual at the time.
After post-production was nearly completed in 2001, the film was shelved for over a year. The official justification was that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 certain elements of the picture may have made audiences uncomfortable. (Indeed, the film's closing shot is a view of modern-day New York City, complete with the World Trade Center Towers, despite their having been leveled by the September 11, 2001 attacks only a year before the film's release. Scorsese chose to end the shot there because he "wanted to make a film about the ones who built New York, not the ones who tried to destroy it.)
Nevertheless, rumors abounded that the delay was due to ongoing disputes between producer Harvey Weinstein and Scorsese, and Weinstein's demand that Scorsese make cuts to the picture. Some of these cuts were eventually made. In December 2001, Jeffrey Wells (then of Kevin Smith's website) reviewed a purported work print of the film as it existed in the fall of 2001. Wells reported that the work print lacked narration, was about 20 minutes longer, and that although it was "different than the [theatrical] version ... scene after scene after scene play[s] exactly the same in both." Despite the similarities, Wells found the work print to be richer and more satisfying than the theatrical version. While Scorsese has stated that the theatrical version is his final cut, he reportedly "passed along [the] three-hour-plus [work print] version of Gangs on tape [to friends] and confided, 'Putting aside my contractual obligation to deliver a shorter, two-hour-and-forty-minute version to Miramax, this is the version I'm happiest with,' or words to that effect."
Reviews of the eventual release in 2001 were generally positive—the review aggregating website rottentomatoes.com reporting that 76% of the 184 reviews that they tallied were positive. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, saying it was "a triumph, [but not] in the first rank of his masterpieces. William Goldman, in a Variety guest editorial, criticized Gangs for its wide-ranging thematic content, finding the film's attempt to touch on so many different themes failed to adequately explore any one of them.
While the film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray disc, there are no plans to revisit the theatrical cut or prepare a "director's cut" for home video release. "Marty doesn't believe in that," editor Thelma Schoonmaker stated. "He believes in showing only the finished film."
Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeanne
Henry Thomas as Johnny Sirocco
Brendan Gleeson as Walter 'Monk' McGinn
Gary Lewis as McGloin
John C. Reilly as Happy Jack Mulraney
Liam Neeson as 'Priest' Vallon
Stephen Graham as Shang
Larry Gilliard, Jr. as Jimmy Spoils
Eddie Marsan as Kiloran
Alex McCowen as Reverand Raleigh
David Hemmings as Mr. Schermerhorn