Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gangs of New York


The first time I saw this, when it was new, I didn’t like it. I can’t recall precisely why. It seems much better on a second viewing, but it is still flawed. And the flaw is something I almost hate to bring up, because it has to do with the ending.

This two-and-a-half-hour movie builds from the very first scene to a confrontation between Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his usual stunning performance) and Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose father, The Priest (Liam Neeson), the head of a rival gang, was murdered by Bill right before his eyes when he was a child. Vallon emerges from a long spell in an orphanage all set to kill Bill, but in the process of getting close to him so he can do it, finds that he really likes the power of being Bill’s right-hand man. Time goes by, and he is finally exposed as the Priest’s son. Bill fucks him up real bad, and now, finally, Vallon is all set to raise the other gangs against Bill in an epic fight. They square off … and the U.S. Navy starts shelling the city.

Wha …? Well, it’s 1863, and these are the New York draft riots. It is a little-known episode in the country’s history. Beginning from the most understandable of motives—for $300 any rich man could buy his way out of the draft which, for some reason, didn’t sit real well with the city’s poor—the protests in the streets degenerated into a pogrom against the city’s black people. They were strung up from any available pole, and the Colored Orphan Asylum was set on fire. (The children escaped out a back door, I’m glad to say.)

Now, I think a damn good movie could be made from the draft riots. But this isn’t that movie. It comes out of nowhere, and works as a deus ex machina for the big fight. Shells land in the middle of the gathered combatants, and when the smoke clears, Bill is mortally wounded by shrapnel.

And I’m sorry, Mr. Scorsese, this just doesn’t work. The reason I feel a little awkward about pointing this out is that we have seen literally thousands of battle royal finales between the good guy and the bad guy in the movies, haven’t we? My problem with scenes like this is that, these days, that battle is drawn out to ridiculous lengths. But, in the end dramatically speaking, we need that scene. Amsterdam must fight and, usually, kill Bill at the end. Or Bill kills him. One or the other, I don’t really care.

Okay, you may not agree with me, but I felt profoundly cheated by this ending.

There is also a damn good movie to be made about the street gangs of Nativists (American born) and Irish (immigrants) in New York about this time … and this is maybe 80% of that movie. It is a visual feast. They built gigantic sets in Italy, about a mile of “New York” streets, and even the historians who quibbled about a lot of things say these sets were completely accurate. Little Old New York in the Five Points district in this era was ramshackle buildings, open sewers, and horse turds. The names of the gangs (Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies) and the slang were meticulously researched, and I found all that stuff fascinating. Damn! If only the story had been better!