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Gangs of New York is a 2002 American historical film set in the mid-19th century in the Five Pointsmarker district of New York Citymarker. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. The film is inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York. It was distributed by Miramax Films and was nominated for numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.

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.


In 1846, in Lower Manhattan's "Five Points"marker district, a territorial war raging for years between the "Natives" (comprising those born in the United States) and recently arrived Irish Catholic immigrants, is about to come to a head in Paradise Square. The Natives are led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), 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 Cian McCormack). 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 be buried with honor. Amsterdam seizes the knife that kills his father, races off and buries it. He is found and taken to the orphanage at Hellgate.

Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to New Yorkmarker a grown man (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the second year of the Civil War. It is September, 1862 days after the Battle of Antietammarker and the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. 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 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 a grifter. Amsterdam is attracted to Jenny (as is Johnny), but his interest is dampened when Amsterdam discovers 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 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 lovemaking. 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 Priest Vallon was the last enemy he ever fought who was worthy of real respect, and 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 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 on 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 repeatedly beats and head butts him as the crowd cheers him on. The Butcher proclaims that having Amsterdam live in shame is a fate worse than death as, "A freak. Worthy of Barnum's museum of wonders." And then the Butcher takes a blazing hot knife and places it on Amsterdam's cheek.

Afterwards, Jenny and Amsterdam go into hiding. Jenny takes care of Amsterdam and nurses him back to health. She implores him to join her in an escape to San Franciscomarker. 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 a 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 end his suffering.

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. On election day both Bill and Amsterdam force people to vote, some of them several times, and the result is Monk winning by more votes than there are voters. Humiliated, Bill confronts Monk who fails to respond to the violent challenge, suggesting they discuss the matter democratically. Whereupon Bill throws a meat cleaver into Monk's back before finishing him off with his own shillelagh. During Monk's subsequent funeral, Amsterdam issues a traditional challenge to fight, which Bill accepts.

The New York Draft Riots break out just as the gangs are preparing to fight. Many people of the city are attacked by those protesting the Enrollment Act of 1863, particularly upper-class citizens and African-Americans. Union Army soldiers march through the city streets trying to control the rioters.

For Bill and Amsterdam, however, what matters is settling their own scores. As the rival gangs meet in Paradise Square, they are interrupted by cannon fire from Union naval ships in the harbor firing 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.

The dead are collected for burial. Bill's body is buried in Brooklynmarker, 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 New York would be rebuilt, but they are no longer remembered, as if "we were never here."

The scene then shifts over the next hundred years, giving us a view as the modern New York begins building up from the Brooklyn Bridgemarker all the way to the World Trade Centermarker, and the graves of Bill Cutting and Priest Vallon gradually become covered in bushes and weeds.


Historical accuracy

Scorsese has received both praise and criticism for historical depictions in the film. In a PBS interview for the History News Network, George Washington Universitymarker professor Tyler Anbinder discussed the historical aspects of the film.
Anbinder said that Scorsese's recreation of the visual environment of mid-19th century New York Citymarker and the Five Pointsmarker "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. By 1860, New York City had 200,000 Irish, in a population of 800,000. 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 1850, New York City recorded more than 200 gang wars fought largely by youth gangs. As early as 1839, former Mayor Philip Hone declared: This city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches who patrol the streets making night hideous and insulting all who are not strong enough to defend themselves.

The large gang fight in 1846 depicted in the film did not occur, though there was one 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 is unmentioned in the film.

William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting was inspired by Bill Poole, a member of the Bowery Boys gang of New York Citymarker, 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 (having taken out the real one himself 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 references the infamous Tweed Courthousemarker humorously, as "Boss" Tweed refers to plans for the structure as being "modest" and "economical."

In the movie, Chinese American people were common enough in New York to have their own community and public venues. In real life, 25 Chinese people are known to have lived there at the time.

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.

The depicted naval bombardment of Paradise Square did not occur. State and Federal troops, on the other hand, indeed killed many protesters, but historical liberties are 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, after the September 11, 2001 attacks 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 Centermarker Towers, despite their having been leveled by the September 11, 2001 attacks 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 the delay was due to ongoing disputes between producer Harvey Weinstein and Scorsese, and Weinstein's demand Scorsese make cuts to the film. 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 the work print lacked narration, was about 20 minutes longer, and 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 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."

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese clarified the real issues in the cutting of the film. Ebert notes,
:"His discussions with Weinstein, he said, were always about finding the length where the picture worked. When that got to the press, it was translated into fights. The movie is currently 168 minutes long, he said, and that is the right length, and that's why there won't be any director's cut — because this is the director's cut."

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."


Box office performance

The film made $77,812,000 in Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker. It also took $23,763,699 in Japanmarker and $16,358,580 in the United Kingdommarker. Worldwide the film grossed a total of $193,772,504.

Critical reception

Reviews of the eventual release in 2002 were generally positive — the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes reporting 76% of the 184 reviews that they tallied were favorable. The RT Critical Consensus reads, "Though flawed, the sprawling, messy Gangs of New York is redeemed by impressive production design and Day-Lewis's electrifying performance."

Roger Ebert praised the film but believed it fell short of Scorsese's best work, while his At the Movies co-star Richard Roeper called it a "masterpiece" and declared it a leading contender for Best Picture. Paul Clinton of CNN called the film "a grand American epic." Todd McCarthy singled out the meticulous attention to historical detail and production design for particular praise.

Some critics, however, were disappointed with the film, complaining that it fell well short of the hype surrounding it, that it tried to tackle too many themes without saying anything unique about them, and that the overall story was weak.




See also


  1. History News Network
  2. Mixing Art and a Brutal History
  3. The New York Irish, Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy Meagher, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)
  4. 19th century AD. Adolescence , Summer, 1995 by Ruskin Teeter.
  5. Gangs, Crime, Smut, Violence. The New York Times. September 20, 1990.
  6. Virtual New York City, CUNY VNY: Riots
  7. Herbert Asbury website Gangs of New York
  8. Herbert Asbury website Bill the Butcher
  9. Hamill, Pete. " Trampling city's history." New York Daily News. Retrieved on October 4, 2009.
  10. Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere: "Gangs vs. Gangs"
  11. Internet Movie Database Gangs of New York trivia
  14. Gangs of New York Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes
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