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Welcome to my page on

"Gangs of New York"

Below, you will find notes on Martin Scorsese's stunning film. These are merely my own thoughts on the film, and I would be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to further discuss the film or my thoughts about it.

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Reflections on

"Gangs of New York".

 

"Gangs of New York" is the story of conflict between rival gangs in the Five Points district of the New York of the 1860s, set against the backdrop of the Civil War and mounting public unrest at the implementation of the Draft Bill. It is also the tale of the inner conflict of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he befriends the man responsible for his father's death, his love affair with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), and an examination of the nature of the "reign" of William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis), leader of the so-called "Native Americans".

Essentially it is the story of savage brutality and survival amid the almost tribal groups formed to fight for the best interests of their members.

Law, religion and morality are niceties which cannot be afforded in the Five Points area - not in the face of the reality of survival, corruption and greed.

This is a world of chaos, poverty and desperation in which no authority is recognised except that imposed by the strongest and the most ruthless. William Cutting's single-minded ambition and drive may be devoid of compassion and charity, but he has imposed an order of sorts upon the chaos of communities struggling to survive in the face of overwhelming circumstances which conspire against them.

Priest Vallon (Amsterdam's father, played by Liam Neeson) tries to break free from the grip of Cutting's imposed order and corruption, but pays the ultimate price and his group (the Dead Rabbits) are to be forever disbanded. His son Amsterdam is placed in a school, but returns some sixteen years later, clearly filled with thoughts of revenge.

Having ingratiated himself into Bill's confidence and affections, Amsterdam challenges the status quo by attacking and attempting to kill Bill. When this attempt at personal revenge fails, his thoughts turn to the Irish community he comes from and he sets about liberating "his" people from Bill's tyranny, but this time using the law and democracy. With not a little irony (but perhaps a fair reflection of reality), he works with corrupt city officials towards the end of "democratically" ridding his people of Bill's corrupt and twisted order.

It is interesting to note the use of corruption (in the guise of democracy) to be rid of another layer of corruption. The birth of democracy is perhaps not as idealistic as some would have us believe!

For me, this battle for survival against a background of poverty and desperation with all its implications for morality was one of the main themes of the film. There are, of course, many other elements, such as Amsterdam's affair with Jenny and his ambivalence about killing Bill in light of the development of their relationship during which Amsterdam comes to understand and perhaps even respect Bill. In spite of this, in the end his personal feelings and loss take precedence over reason as he attempts to assassinate Bill. Failure, however, leads to personal growth and a greater sense of purpose as Amsterdam takes up the mantle of his father.

Mere personal survival and revenge have given way to thoughts of fairness and consideration for others, perhaps as a result of Amsterdam's enforced recognition of the importance of others in his life, principally through his relationship with Jenny.

This personal growth may also be reflected more broadly in the City's desire to introduce/impose objective law and order on its citizens.

The time of "Bill the Butcher" was perhaps necessary. His determination and brutality have served a purpose of sorts, and have lent a cohesive quality to society, but it is now time to move on to a fairer and more compassionate era.

The character of William Cutting is undoubtedly also the cohesive force behind the film. This is a fascinatingly monstrous yet intelligent character who dominates the story and the screen (as brilliantly played by Daniel Day Lewis). His brutality is tempered with thoughts of honour and a willingness to fight for a cause. That he can justify his actions by reason makes him doubly terrifying. This is a man who understands himself, others, and situations with remarkable clarity, but one who is driven by ambition and personal vision. We, like Amsterdam, come to know him and perhaps even like him (a little!), yet are appalled by his cold-hearted acts of brutality. Bill the Butcher may be seen as an essential phase in the development of society - his strength and determination drew people together (after a fashion), but the very brutality and bigotry by which he achieved this "unity" has now led to calls for objective law and order.

I felt the juxtaposition of the Draft Riots did not sit terribly well with the final "show down" between Bill and Amsterdam. It struck me that perhaps this meant it was time to set personal disputes aside as new challenges threatened all factions and they should unite to ensure fairness. Or perhaps more simply it meant that the days of divisive factions were numbered as the City and indeed the nation were starting to take shape.

While Mr. Scorsese's film is clearly about New York (debunking the melting pot myth), and New Yorkers' attempts at maintaining or finding their own identities, I think the content of the film can be seen on a broader canvas to include the way city life has developed generally. Though it is particularly relevant to the nineteenth century with mass emigration and the general "malaise" of that revolutionary period.

It is interesting to note that the nineteenth century's turning away from religion and the church is here represented by Amsterdam throwing a Bible into a river as he returns to New York. Yet, later in the film, the "new" Dead Rabbits take refuge in a church. Perhaps people still feel a need to believe, or want to believe in something, though they remain disillusioned with the church itself. It is also worth remembering that Amsterdam's father was called Priest Vallon and he was regarded as a spiritual and political leader, and a man of honour - even by the very man who took his life (and who might aspire to reach such heights, but never achieve them).

So, a wonderful and thought-provoking film. Yet I left the cinema feeling the film lacked a sense of purpose, as I have frequently felt with other Scorsese-directed films. Here the emphasis is on the struggle and the need for self-reliance in the face of amorality. Man is alone, and while he may have values, these are relatively subjective and may be politically self-serving. The film offers no real solutions and indeed the ending would only seem to emphasise the fleeting nature of our time on Earth and the limited impact of our actions. Then it struck me that that was just what this film (and his others) were saying! It may be fairly bleak, but it is perhaps much closer to the truth than the sugary and artificially optimistic Hollywood fare so often produced.

I found the film totally absorbing and very thought provoking. Martin Scorsese's genius is in dissecting and analysing his characters, and through memorable characters and images in this film he has succeeded admirably in analysing the main character of the film - New York itself.

I thought Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz were both very good, though their roles were outshone by the character of Bill the Butcher and Daniel Day Lewis's towering performance in the role.

 

My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some interest.

Stuart Fernie

 

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