Historical films can be really interesting when they show you an obscure bit of history that typically isn’t covered in the usual history class. These films are especially interesting when the historical events are still affecting modern society. Gangs of New York (2002) showed us how gang warfare was prevalent even in mid-1800 and how even in those days Americans were leery and unwelcoming of immigrants.
In 1846, as waves of Irish immigrants poured into the New York neighborhood of Five Points, a number of citizens of British and Dutch heritage who were born in the United States began making an open display of their resentment toward the new arrivals. William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), better known as “Bill the Butcher” for his deadly skill with a knife, bands his fellow “Native Americans” into a gang to take on the Irish immigrants. The immigrants in turn form a gang of their own, “The Dead Rabbits,” organized by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). After an especially bloody clash between the Natives and the Rabbits which leaves Vallon dead, his son goes missing; the boy ends up in a brutal reform school before returning to the Five Points in 1862 by the name Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio). Now a strapping adult who has learned how to fight, Amsterdam has come to seek vengeance against Bill the Butcher, whose underworld control of the Five Points through violence and intimidation has merged with the open corruption of New York politician William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Amsterdam gradually penetrates Bill the Butcher’s inner circle, and soon becomes his trusted assistant. Amsterdam also finds himself falling for Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a beautiful street-smart thief who was once involved with Bill. Amsterdam learns a great deal from Bill, but before he can turn the tables on the man who killed his father, his true identity is exposed even though he has concealed it from nearly everyone, including Jenny. With more Irish immigrants pouring in by the day, Amsterdam soon has an army to overthrow the rival gang. Before long, an all out turf war breaks out in all areas of New York City.
Honestly, I didn’t realize that gangs and street warfare were around in the mid-1800’s. I guess I (and presumably others) have this idea of relatively quaint and peaceful times until the Civil War broke out. That’s probably because history classes talk about politics and wars and less about social issues, culture, and other interesting things. No wonder these true events tend to fall through the cracks in our history books.
Gangs of New York is an interesting crime drama. Usually crime dramas are reserved for gangsters of the prohibition era of the 1920’s or modern underworld dealings. The fact that Gangs of New York challenges our notion of a crime drama makes it all the more interesting. It still has all the basic components that a crime story would have; gangs fighting, backstabbing one another, gaining power through intimidation and murder, and loose women as part of their spoils after victory. It will still remind you of modern underworld dealings that you see in contemporary movies or even in the news.
As a film, I wasn’t all that impressed with it. The movie makes some great political statements and commentary on the culture of its day that is still applicable to our day, such as how we treat immigrants. We might welcome them to our country but only give them the worst that our country has to offer; Irish immigrants were promised citizenship on the condition that they sign up to fight in the Civil War on the front lines.
One of the better parts of Gangs of New York was the colorful characters, which included a hired club named Monk (Brendan Gleeson) and a shopkeeper named Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). But easily the best character was Bill the Butcher, one of the best villains in modern film. He has strangely elaborate diction, a choked accent, and a tendency to combine ruthlessness with philosophy. He is disturbing with this uncanny use of blades and meat cleavers. While the cast was impressive, Daniel Day-Lewis really stole the show and made the movie worth seeing.
Gangs of New York is not one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest films, but even so it’s a good movie. There are a couple of scenes that are truly impressive and the tension is palpable. There’s amazing camera work with long moving camera shots. The sets and costumes are amazingly convincing. The movie seems longer than what I thought was necessary; there were a few times I was starting to get bored, but you will not be disappointed if you stick with the film. I recommend seeing it, but I personally wasn’t so taken with the movie as to go out and get my own copy to watch again and again. It’s an above average renter that I think should be watched at least once.
Is there an obscure bit of history that you would love to see made into a movie? I think a movie about the story of Alan Turing would be fascinating, but tragic. Comment below and tell me what kind of obscure historical event or figure you'd like to see a movie made about.