Retro Review: Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York

Spoiler Alert – some spoilers for Gangs of New York including a discussion on the ending in the final paragraph

Another film released twenty years ago and very deserving of a retro review is Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s historical gangster epic.

What’s Going On?

Gangs of New York
A gang preparing for battle // credit: Gangs of New York, Miramax Films

The film is set mainly in The Five Points, a very poor area of New York, where the real authorities are the brutal gangs who struggle for supremacy. The film starts with a confrontation between the two broad groups – those who consider themselves real Americans, and those made up of more recent immigrants. This battle ends with victory for the “real” Americans, their leader Bill the Butcher killing the opposition leader, Priest Vallon. Vallon’s son escapes and is brought up by the state until he becomes an adult and returns, using the name Amsterdam, to find that Bill’s gang reigns supreme and many of his father’s old friends have switched sides. He seeks vengeance but pretends that he just wants a place to live and hides his identity. Amsterdam gets close to Bill in order to make his revenge possible but is at times overawed by the man. Inevitably their gang war starts again.

In Front of the Camera

The film has a sensational cast. This was the first film I saw Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Bill, and gives a strong performance as the almost psychotically violent but charismatic gang-leader. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amsterdam who is still seen as the guy from Titanic and Romeo + Juliet and this is perhaps where he starts his ascent to Oscar-winning critical acclaim. Incidentally, this is also the first Scorsese film to feature DiCaprio, who would go on to star in four more Scorsese films and will be starring in two yet to be released films.

Cameron Diaz is Jenny Everdeane, a criminal saving up to go to California and the target of many other characters affections. The cast is packed with amazing talent – Jim Broadbent is a powerful and corrupt New York politician, John C. Reilly is Happy Jack – gang member turned police officer, Brendan Gleeson is Monk – a seemingly unaligned legendary streetfighter.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by Martin Scorsese who is a titan of 20th and 21st Century filmmaking who has been making masterpieces for around fifty years. Nothing more needs to be said.

The Civil War

The film is set during the American Civil War and for much of the film, this is of absolutely no consequence and stated openly that none of them thought the war would impact them. In the first half of the film, we see the Emancipation Proclamation and newly arrived immigrants signing up to fight but it’s not much of a factor. This changes as the government propose a draft, the first in American history, names will be drawn at random and join the army, with the caveat that you can buy your way out if you’re rich and your name is picked. The unrest of the city caused by the draft builds throughout the film. It also means that there are a lot of soldiers in and around New York City. There is a very real parallel between the savage violence on the streets of New York and the savage violence taking place across the country, where casualties are measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Does It Work?

Bill The Butcher - Gangs of New York
The theatrical & charismatic Bill the Butcher // Credit: Gangs of New York, Miramax Films

I have always been a big fan of this film and while it’s not up there with Goodfellas or Raging Bull it’s a great film. Day-Lewis dominates every scene he is in and prowls the set looking for the next person to stab. Bill is no mere thug – he is a leading figure in the community, feted by politicians and the wealthy. DiCaprio’s Amsterdam never quite measures up against him but I don’t think he is meant to. Bill explodes with charisma and showmanship while always maintaining a strong sense of violent menace. When he meets with political leaders he barely alters his behaviour, keeping his ferocity on the surface.

A big theme in this film is how people change. Of those who fought alongside Vallon, Happy Jack is now a police officer who takes orders from Bill, McGloin is part of Bill’s inner circle, Monk, who was always seemingly just a hired fighter, takes a semi-principled stand alongside Amsterdam. The person who doesn’t change is Bill. When he is told repeatedly that times are changing and he needs to change with them he refuses. He keeps the principles that he has, refusing to kill those who are unworthy of a death by his hands, and while he may sometimes wear fancier clothes he has not at all lost his edge. As for Amsterdam revenge has sustained his entire life and is given various opportunities to leave the fight behind and live a genuinely peaceful life and always refuses

The Ending

Spoiler Alert – the film ends with a battle set up between Bill’s gangs and Amsterdam’s. But the battle never happens. Riots have broken out across the city, even extending into the rich parts of town, and the army are called in. As the gang fight is about to begin the area is hit by cannon fire and then soldiers deal with whoever is left. The fight the whole film has built to – between Bill and Amsterdam – doesn’t happen. Sitting in the rubble and covered in the dust both notice that Bill has been impaled by shrapnel and is dying, Amsterdam however decides to speed things up and stabs him, getting whatever measure of revenge he can. A lot of people were unhappy with this ending but I like it. There’s only so much disruption the authorities can allow and sooner or later they will act. I also think this is the only way Amsterdam could have won, like I said, he never seemed to measure up to Bill and a fight where Amsterdam won would have been unsatisfactory.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Also Read: The Many Films of Martin Scorsese

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.