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Gangs of New York

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Movie propaganda

America was born in the streets.

Gangs of New York is set in 19th century New York and chronicles the city's original gangsters, the Irish and Italian immigrants who began organising street gangs to fight for control of the city's streets. The movie centres around two gangs, the Dead Rabbits and the Native Americans. At the start of the movie, the leader of the Rabbits is killed, and the gang destroyed. The head of the Natives makes a deal with corrupt Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) to provide muscle throughout New York, enforcing the tweed law. Years later, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of the dead leader of the Rabbits matures and attempts to lead a new version of the gang to strength while trying to kill the leader of the Natives.

Theatrical propaganda posters

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Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film historical period drama crime gang New York migrant

Persons of interest

  • Jim Broadbent .... Boss Tweed
  • Leonardo DiCaprio .... Amsterdam Vallon
  • Cameron Diaz .... Jenny Everdeane
  • Daniel Day-Lewis .... Bill "The Butcher" Cutting
  • Liam Neeson .... Priest Vallon
  • John C Reilly .... Happy Jack
  • Brendan Gleeson .... Monk
  • Henry Thomas .... Johnny Sirocco
  • Roger Ashton-Griffiths .... PT Barnum
  • Liam Carney .... Fuzzy
  • Gary McCormack .... Stick
  • Jay Cocks .... Screenwriter
  • Kenneth Lonergan .... Screenwriter
  • Steve Zaillian .... Screenwriter
  • Herbert Asbury .... Author
  • Martin Scorsese .... Screenwriter
  • Martin Scorsese .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

The major films of Martin Scorsese ostensibly fall into three related categories; his recent opus, the huge, flawed, brilliant diamond Gangs of New York is no exception.

Taxi driver, Raging bull and The King of comedy are essentially character studies; Goodfellas, The age of innocence and Casino anthropological excavations in cultural history. Perhaps his most ambitions films, Mean streets, The last temptation of Christ and Kundun, are amalgamations of the two; Gangs falls into this jurisdiction. Although it skirts far closer to the mainstream than the other films, replete as it is with obvious archetypal clichés, it is no less fascinating.

The historical setting is mid-19th century New York, inspired by the fantastic chronicles of the same name by shock journo Herbert Asbury, published in 1928. Scorsese has had this film in him for over 30 years, since the title jumped off a friend's bookshelf. One can easily see why, especially knowing Scorsese's hand - festering tenement spectacle, codes of honour, tribal hatreds, religious imagery, good and evil character study, historical reconstruction and emotional deconstruction. The master got the palette he wanted - a lost New York was essentially recreated in Rome's capacious Cinecittá studio; perhaps, as George Lucas remarked, the last time a film will ever be made in such a manner. The shooting took forever, the post-production longer. If Gangs is not the career-crowning masterpiece many expected it to be, if it fails on some accounts, it can safely be argued that no other director could have made it.

One of Gangs' problems is that it drowns in its own ambition; much of Scorsese's greatness is in the fact that no director alive (and very few dead) has such ambitions.

Gangs' prelude (the film opens without credits) starts in the bowels of some seemingly medieval catacomb. The bizarrely ecclesiastical Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) is preparing for battle, and his immigrant Irish "Dead Rabbits" gang spills out into the snowy dawn quiet of ironically named Paradise Square, the centre point of the then infamous Five Points in Lower Manhattan. The ancient codes of chivalry and honour are all present; this could be Imperial Rome or the Middle Ages. The purpose is one giant battle, to end all battles, with the anti-immigrant "Nativists" led by William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). The weapons are strop razors, clubs, sabres, meat cleavers and teeth hideously filed to a vampire's point (on a woman). One hideously gory battle ensues. At length Bill dispatches Vallon to a different Paradise. Scorsese cuts to an aerial view of the world's greatest island, circa 1846. The scenography (blood on the white snow, the timeless peasants) suggests a Breughel; the filmmaking is even more complex. Aside from the immortals (Griffith, Eisenstein and Ford) who can shoot a scene like this?

Vallon's young son has observed this carnage; at Bill's behest he is sent to grow up in the Hell Gate Orphanage. Jump 16 years to the period of the Civil War. The boy returns; he has grown up into Leonardo DiCaprio and is absurdly known as Amsterdam. En route to the old neighbourhood, Amsterdam symbolically chucks his graduation Bible into the East River. He's off to explore another one of Scorsese's recurrent themes - vengeance - on Butcher Bill.

Scorsese's Lincoln era New York occasionally looks as if it could be realised by Ken Russell or Peter Greenaway. The sets, by Dante Ferretti, are a masterpiece in themselves. The attention to detail is simply astonishing, so much so that the production design itself becomes a detraction. The Five Points is something out of Breughel, Chaucer or Dante - a bastion of boom and crash, arson, bribery and looting, fisticuffs and switchblades, strolling minstrels, pickpockets and whores. Brothels feature live Chinese opera; Uncle Tom's Cabin is performed at a local settlement house. Newspaperman Horace Greeley ("Go west, young man") makes an appearance, as do the noblesse-obligé Astors and Schermerhorns. When not parading for or against the Civil War, attending torch-lit political rallies or public executions, the locals watch emigrant boats arrive by day, and military coffin boats by night.

We catch glimpses of other worlds, the mansions of Upper Fifth Avenue (in those days, probably about Fourteenth Street), and the chancelleries of power, in this instance the offices of Tammany Hall populist fixer Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent, in a large-scale and totally idiomatic performance). Scorsese is trying to cinematically encapsulate what is already a meta-cosmic city; it simply won't fit. Add to this quandary a screenplay that has a DeMille-sized cast, and you have got some major problems.

Another major problem with Gangs is that the drama focuses on the return of revenge-bent Amsterdam and DiCaprio, especially with a Scorsese at the helm, is simply not up to the challenge. His work is strong and committed, and his style is a wonderful balance to the over-the- top theatricality of Day-Lewis, but he is just not the actor to generate the energy required. As the long film progresses and the relationships become more complex, it becomes less and less believable that the towering Bill, part Sweeny Todd, part Macbeth, would allow a quasi-Oedipal relationship to develop with this pip-squeak. (DiCaprio is also annoyingly asexual, a sad reality when the love interest is the ravishing Cameron Diaz.) Moreover, through no fault of his own, he is paired against a very different artist who is acting up one hell of a storm, in a role written very differently.

And what a storm it is. In a role intended for Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of a force of nature. Twirling a handlebar moustache occasionally fitted with a towering skyscraper of a hat, sometimes lavishly clad, sometimes filthy, often oily, swarthy, sleazy, lustful, bloody - this is one of the most complex film characters in years. Day-Lewis actually makes this veritable monster a human and very understandable creation; until a certain gory moment in the second half of the film one can even comprehend and respect Bill's morals. His demonstration to Amsterdam of how to kill with a knife on a pig carcass may be an embodiment of bloodlust; Day-Lewis digs deep to find the humanity is this moment. There is a difficult and rambling monologue on Priest Vallon's death that touches on forgiveness and redemption, a hair-raising display of knife throwing and a confrontation with DiCaprio, with Scorsese shooting for broke, that could practically be lifted out of Shakespeare.

Daniel Day-Lewis is so committed that he sometimes appears to be in a different film. His accent, although clearly studied, seems dubious; it seems unlikely that a broad New Yawhk-ese (displayed by none of the other actors) would be that pronounced one life span after the Revolution. These is really a minor detraction; Bill Cutting is such a creation that he hardly seems acted - he is. Scorsese is a director who can turn good performers into great artists (Jerry Lewis in The King of comedy, Sharon Stone in Casino) and he demands and gets here what he would of a De Niro, or perhaps what a Huston would demand of a Bogart.

While killing time for his showdown with the Butcher, Amsterdam engages in a tedious tango of communal draw with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). Jenny, another one of Scorsese's Mary Magdelenes, is a stray wench whose occupations alternate between pickpocket and prostitute, before devolving into girlfriend and nursemaid. Diaz is pleasing on the eye and a committed actress, probably too good for her underwritten yet completely bloated part. Jenny's existence is visibly as a love interest and rivalry between two vengeful men; her defection to DiCaprio is a quasi-turning point in the film. At the end of the day, this is another blockbuster romance; the more time the camera lingers over these young lovers the drearier they become. Their initial love scene, in which they show each other their scars, is, alas, probably the weakest single moment in Scorsese's cinema in 20 years.

Gangs eventually climaxes in the final battle between Amsterdam and Bill, which has as a backdrop the monumental Draft Riots of 1863, the worst instances of civil disobedience in USA history. Gotham is ablaze; Amsterdam has other concerns. "The earth was shaking now - but I was about my father's vengeance," he tells us in voice-over. (Yes, the script is weak but that is a particularly unpleasant moment.) Scorsese now shoots on an Eisensteinian scale - given the 2½-hour build-up, however, it seems condensed and anti-climactic. (One wonders what wound up on editor Thelma Schoonmaker's floor.) Scorsese massacres the African-Americans, pillories the rich and throws in the burning of PT Barnum's Museum - allowing an elephant to lumber through the streets - and raises the volume with an invented scene in which Lincoln's warships shell the Five Points. Jenny tries to flee through the pitiless mob. The cobblestones are awash with blood. The final confrontation, Amsterdam and Bill fighting it out in the smoky miasma of devastated Paradise Square (the old neighbourhood, back once more), not only comes too early, but also leaves as odd sense of Finally and So What.

The individual parts of Gangs are often so remarkable that, in context, they detract from the whole. Day-Lewis devours the screen while DiCaprio seems boyish and flat. Most of the comprimario work is superb (John C Reilly - is he in every major film this year? - is terrific as a corrupt cop) but the sheer number of them, loading an already top-heavy script, lends confusion. The production and costume design are faithful to the point of museum-quality. The camera work is Scorsese's standard mastery, but the cinematography seems oddly conservative. The religious imagery is gorgeous and profound; a crucifixion-like murder of a "traitor" is Scorsese at his very best. But later, under the weight of smoke and candles, we begin to lose a sense of place. The soundtrack is a cultural repository, but Scorsese fails to utilise music in his traditionally cinematic way. No De Niro blowing up to Bach's B-Minor Mass here and the predictable closing mise-en-scène, replete with Bono warbling this year's pop anthem, is a particular fizzer.

Make no mistake - this is an extraordinary film. It is not a perfect one, though, and only posterity can judge whether it is a great one. Its ambition is its downfall. Perhaps in time we can accept its flaws, as we do with many works in the canon, as integral part of its greatness, and there is much greatness here.

Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
  • Disc: Single side, dual layer
  • Languages: English
  • Picture: Widescreen (2.35:1/16:9 enhanced)
  • Special features:
    • Disc 1:
      • Commentaries: Director Martin Scorsese
      • Picture disc
      • Subtitles: English, English captions
    • Disc 2:
      • Documentaries: Uncovering the real gangs of New York: Discovery Channel documentary on the true events that inspired the movie
      • Featurettes:
        • Behind-the-scenes
        • Making of
        • Spotlight on costume design
        • Tour of the film's incredible sets
      • Music video: The hands that built America by U2
      • Picture disc
      • Trailers: Theatrical, bonus

Security censorship classification

MA 15+ (High level violence, adult themes)

Surveillance time

166 minutes (2:46 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 13 February 2003
DVD rental: 23 July 2003
VHS rental: 23 July 2003

Cinema surveillance images

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