In The Beginning
The opening sequence of this movie is one of the most
spectacular ever.The camera swoops through
and round a vast warren of rough-hewn tunnels and crude
tenements, following a boy and his father as an army of
gangsters assemble for a battle. You can almost smell the
testosterone as the gangsters buckle on homemade armour,
sharpen blades, brandish clubs and stoke themselves up for
a fight. There is a mediaeval air to the proceedings:
we could easily be in a fantasy movie until the tenement
doors swing open to reveal the snow-covered Paradise square:
eerily silent and utterly deserted.
Two rival armies, each made up of several gangs, assemble
in the square. One side is dominated by the "Natives"; American-born
gangsters bedecked in red, white and blue: the other side made
of the Irish gangs, dominated by the Dead Rabbits. After a quaint
formal challenge and response, a brutal battle ensues,
leaving the snow stained blood-red and the Irish defeated, their
leader "Priest" Vallon killed by the leader of the Natives
Bill "the Butcher" Cutting. After the battle, the camera pans back
and up, revealing the city of New York, even in 1846 still unmistakable.
New York Stories
The film proper begins in 1863, with the Civil War raging as
Vallon's son is
released from reform school. Seeking revenge for his father's death,
he heads back to the Five Points area of New York under the name
"Amsterdam" Vallon. His goal is
to kill Bill Cutting, in
public, on the anniversary of the initial battle which Cutting
celebrates every year. It's a fairly routine motivation, but
justifies the plot, as Amsterdam infiltrates Cutting's gang, slowly
gaining acceptance to become his right-hand man.
The milieu of the criminal underworld is fascinating, and exploring
this strange world is more interesting than the question of whether
Amsterdam will get his revenge. We get to see how the underworld
operates, get tantalizing glimpses of the complex and diverse scams
and the subtle ecology of the system.
We're also introduced to a number of minor characters, many of
whom were real people:
Maggie" with teeth filed to points
and metal claws,
Barnum, corrupt politician
"Boss" Tweed, and many more.
The unromantic romantic
subplot is a kind of love quadrangle involving pickpocket Jenny Everdeane,
ex-mistress of Cutting. The only original aspect to it is a mention
of the difficulties posed for casual sex by lace-up corsets.
The movie climaxes with the
of 1863, depicted as an
apocalyptic ending of the old order. What we see is impressive but
rushed: brief snapshots of action linked together by the recital
of police telegrams: it's hard to avoid the impression that you're
watching edited highlights of another movie altogether. That weakness
extends back through much of the middle section of the movie as
well. Many characters are introduced, but are often dropped before
there's time to get to know them. The sub-plots are often too rushed
to be involving. Paradoxically,
this film might have felt shorter if it had been allowed to be
Set and Setting
One of the consequences of digital effects is that period films
can be more realistic-looking than ever before. One of the stunning
successes of this film is that in presents a baroque and exotic
world in astonishing detail. While some have criticized it for being
gaudy and unrealistic, to me it seemed to be an authentic picture
of New York as an almost third-world city, reminiscent of Delhi or
Madras in its mixture of poverty and grandeur.
However, the film aspires to be much more than a special-effects
movie. It's a movie with things to say, but it's most successful
when it says them without words. There's a sardonic portrayal of
the age in a single sequence as the camera follows Irish
immigrants disembarking from a ship, signing their citizenship
papers at one desk, their army recruitment forms at the next, then
ascending the gangway in uniform, awkwardly bearing their muskets
onto another ship to be sent down to fight in the civil war. The
shot finishes with coffins being transferred from the same ship
onto the quay.
Race and immigration are the principal themes, with the Irish
immigrants being abused and insulted even as they are exploited.
Boss Tweed hands out soup for votes, and even Cutting relies on
the Irish for his income even as he insults them.
"The Irish do for a nickel what the niggers did for a dime and
the white American used to do for a quarter" is one characters
comment, linking the film to later waves of immigrants. It
suggests a cyclical view, with successive waves of immigrants
first being exploited and some turning to crime, then achieving
political power by whatever means and turning the tables on a
new generation of immigrants.
The film also depicts the corruption and near-anarchy of the period
well. Rival fire brigades are shown fighting for the right, not
so much as to extinguish a blaze, but to loot the house first.
Rival police forces are shown fighting too. The gangs of New York
include political parties and private companies as well as mere
The final linking of the gangs with the draft riots never really
comes together, at least in this edit of the film. Rather than exemplifying
the struggles of the age, the gangs seem to stand aside from it,
bewildered as the army opens fire on protestors. The cosy display
of a racial alliance between the gangsters seems irrelevant beside the
lynching of African-Americans in revenge at being made to fight
Casting the First Stone
dominates the movie in a manic performance as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting.
It's an extremely over-the-top, cartoonishly excessive display
that only makes sense if you imagine that Cutting is himself playing
a role: acting out the part of a gangster folk-hero to impress his
subordinates. This is born out by the powerful scene when
wounded and insomniac Cutting talks to Amsterdam who is in bed. For
a moment, Cutting's mask of bravado slips as he expresses his age and
vulnerability. At the other end of the scale is a scene where he
frenetically stabs and chops at the hanging carcass of a pig, yelling
"Wound!" and "Kill!" as he illustrated various means of attacking an
Leonardo DiCaprio does a reasonable job as Amsterdam Vallon. He is
inevitably outshone by Day-Lewis, and even Liam Neeson as his father;
but that conveys one of the themes of the movie; a violent exhibitionist
age being superseded by something better yet blander. He is also handicapped
by the trite revenge plot, which demands that he is simultaneously an
obsessed maniac and the decent opposite of Bill Cutting.
Cameron Diaz is even more handicapped by a clichéd role as
tough pickpocket with a heart of gold. The part is generically "feisty",
but with characters like Hellcat Maggie biting off ears in the background,
she inevitably seems somewhat insipid by comparison.
Jim Broadbent is the only actor who manages to stand out
against Day-Lewis, playing the pompous and corrupt Boss Tweed with
a Machiavellian depth. The supporting cast and extras generally perform with
relish and enthusiasm, presenting a carnival of excess.
This is not a historical drama, but a fictional story set against
a backdrop of real historical events. The major characters are
fictional, though Bill "The Butcher" Cutting is heavily based on
There has been a little criticism of the history.
For narrative convenience, some events have been compressed into
a shorter timescale. In particular, the draft riots montage has
been criticized for not showing clearly that the Union army only entered the
city to suppress the riots after several days of lawlessness.
There have also been complaints that Scorsese
underemphasized the role of Irish immigrant gangs in the attacks on
By the standards of Hollywood history, these are relatively minor
matters, however. It seems to me that in the short time allotted
to the riots themselves, Scorsese made a reasonable job of depicting
the events. While the film's heroes are more racially
tolerant than was likely, having them take part in lynch mobs would surely have
caused even greater offence. The most curious inaccuracy is the
depiction of ships firing cannon onto the rioters, which never happened
and is militarily implausible. However, the army did
artillery in the riots, though the navy were not involved. I
suspect the reason is the now-famous incident when the producers
pulled the plug midway through filming the final battles: Scorsese
may have been forced to use stock footage to justify the shell
As is well known by now, there was a great deal of conflict over
the movie's length (168 minutes). Director Martin Scorsese wanted
a version an hour longer: the producers wanted it as short as possible.
In truth, either version would have been better than this uneasy
compromise. The minor parts should either have been cut out entirely,
or else been developed properly. The released version is uncomfortably
reminiscent of the disastrous Dune movie, where a host of characters
are introduced only to die almost on their next appearance, leaving the
audience baffled. The voice-over narration seems to be largely a clumsy
attempt to explain things to bewildered test-screening audiences:
more reminiscent of Rick Deckard than Travis Bickle. Its clumsy attempt
at giving an uplifting message at the end pretty much contradicts
everything we've seen in the movie.
In its present state, the film is far from perfect. A longer director's
cut might be an improvement, or a worse failure. However, much of the film's
impact comes from its battles and cityscapes: on a small screen too much
will be lost to rescue it, however it is reformed and edited.
This film makes demands on its audience: patience
and a degree of historical knowledge are required to appreciate it. It
also contains realistic violence, which may be disturbing to some. If
you're willing to tolerate the flaws, it's nonetheless a powerful,
at times astonishing spectacle, which provides great rewards for those
prepared to think as they watch.
There is an excellent review of this film available from the
Ebert review is online. The Guardian newspaper has a
and interviews with
Day-Lewis, who learned the basics of butchering and knife-throwing for the
is informative; but the
site is a disastrous mess of Flash,
book on which the film was based is a somewhat apocryphal collection
of gang folklore: the