Daniel Day-Lewis wears a tall stovepipe hat in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Gangs of New York (original release date: December 2001). Standing out amid any crowd, the hat draws attention to his character, William Cutting, especially when he adorns it — as he likes to do — with a wide blue ribbon. This extra touch (along with his glass eye, inscribed with a blue eagle) marks Cutting’s self-asserted identity as a “Nativist.” In fact, he’s the jaunty leader of his own gang, which lays claim to the Five Points area of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1846, and ritually beats back “invaders.”
As the film opens, the Natives (mostly descended from German and Dutch immigrants to the New World) are beating back recent Irish immigrants (refugees from the potato famine), now joined as a gang called the Dead Rabbits. Their name fits nicely with Bill’s, as he also goes by “Bill the Butcher,” in part because he’s an actual butcher and in part because he’s a fierce street fighter fond of using his cleaver. He has a particular hard-on to kill the Dead Rabbits’ leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Their conflict is broadly drawn, Priest with his cross and Bill with his hat: they assemble their men (and a few tough-looking women) and shout at one another.
The fight entails all sorts of camera angles as the gangs go at it, flailing, pounding, hatcheting, stabbing, and punching (this being a Scorsese movie, the violence is predictably graphic, even operatic). The conflagration ends when Bill stalks up to Vallon and stabs him in the gut (being a butcher, he knows where to hit for maximum damage). Vallon lies bloody in the snow and Bill is standing over him, growling over his victory.
The day’s trophies, Bill announces, will be ears and noses, but he insists that no one touches Priest, a man of honor, even if he is leading the “foreign hordes” who are defiling this great land. Amid the carnage crouches little Amsterdam Vallon, weeping over his dad’s body. Suddenly, Amsterdam grabs up Priest’s knife and attacks Bill. Admiring the child’s spunk, Bill gallantly (and arrogantly, imagining there’ll be no price to pay) sends the boy off to be educated.
Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns, grown up into Leonardo DiCaprio and bent on vengeance. He’s re-befriended by a childhood admirer called Johnny Sirocco (the unfortunate Henry Thomas, who looks rather out of his depth), now working — like almost everyone else in Five Points — for Bill. Mr. Tall Hat doesn’t recognize Amsterdam, but probably wouldn’t care anyway, as he’s certain of himself and his destiny. He sees his work as unifying — “Each of the Five Points is a finger; when I close my hand, it becomes a fist” — and takes little notice of who might be injured by it.
Amsterdam makes a plan. Or rather, he’s hit over the head with one when Johnny invites him to meet Bill: he’ll insinuate himself into Bill’s good graces, bide his time, and then assassinate him during the annual commemoration of the Great Battle of Five Points. It’s a grand gangster plot, but more importantly, it looks back to the prejudices and racisms that gave birth to “”America,” both as an idea and a practical, day-to-day reality.
This origin, at once metaphorical and (more or less) historical, is set against a huge, complex backdrop, with references to the rise of Tammany Hall politics and the overwhelming devastation of the Civil War (the film is based on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 non-fiction book, also called Gangs of New York). Bill’s capacity for betrayal and conniving is underlined by his affiliation with William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Bill’s a thug and Tweed’s a dandy, but both are invested in the appearance of democracy (delivering blocks of votes on demand), the maintenance of their own power, and fancy hats. Together, the film illustrates, they lay the ground for the sorts of institutional corruption, personal greed, vicious put-downs, and inveterate betrayals that continue to sustain U.S. political systems.
To this end, Gangs alludes to familiar figures and structures, for instance, the beginning of the “Irish” cops tradition in the person of Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). A former cohort of Priest, he now boasts that he can leave his pocket watch hanging off a lamppost in the middle of Five Points, knowing no one will touch it because he has a position. Also cropping up periodically are Priest’s right hand man Monk (Brendan Gleeson), now a barber; P.T. Barnum (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), the showman with notorious little faith in his audience’s judgment; and any number of hard-drinking, hard-scrabble “types,” including one called Hellcat Maggie, played by Cara Seymour (so subtle amid the frantic pitching of Adaptation). Here she’s reduced to two sputtery lines in a bar, one of several performances lost in the film’s apparently brutal editing process (after some of these performers and crew spent some 8 months at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, to the tune of than $103 million, Miramax insisted that a 3 hour 40 minute version be cut by an hour).
The one girl in the film with more than a couple of lines is The Girl, a pickpocket/prostitute named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). She’s caught between her allegiance to Bill (who — stop me if you’ve heard this story before — saved her from the streets when she was a child, then stopped bedding her after an abortion left her scarred) and to Amsterdam, who thrills her and means to tame her. Jenny also has her own ideas, though her ability to enact them is limited: she can be sneaky, thieving, and occasionally radiant amid all the muck and dirt of Five Points, but this movie is headed toward a guys’ showdown, and so she is, in the end, superfluous.
Though Bill seems mostly unconcerned about her, Amsterdam is very interested in whose “woman” Jenny might be. This three-way (which is actually a four-way, as Johnny also lusts after the only girl anyone in town appears to lust after) occasions what is easily the film’s oddest and most telling scene. Bill, feeling paternal and grateful after Amsterdam saves his life from an angry assassin with a gun, comes by Jenny and Amsterdam’s bed one early morning. Amsterdam wakes with a start, to find father figure Bill sitting in a rocking chair, wrapped in a filthy U.S. flag, holding forth on his strategy for staying alive, namely, “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” He ruins and kills people in public to maintain control.
The flag leaves little doubt as to the backdrop for Bill’s words: those who presume “native” status and privilege in the U.S. also tend to presume the right to scare, exploit, and abuse all who come after (or were here before, speaking of “natives”). This speech underlines a certain irony in Bono’s soundtrack contribution, “The Hands That Built America.” It also points obliquely to the most incredible spectacle raging at the time, the Civil War, even if it does take place offscreen.
Though the film makes mention of the War repeatedly, the causes remain relatively irrelevant to these northern urban gangs, so focused on their immediate struggles, their desire to wipe each other out forever. But the fearsomeness of the War weighs daily on the inhabitants of Five Points, with the threat of the draft. Then as now, the draft selects for class, and as the number of dead increases, so does underclass resentment. And this, in turn, leads to the 1863 Draft Riots, when the poor folks loot and burn rich neighborhoods, and, no small thing, start lynching black folks, presuming their responsibility for white people’s hardships. The government calls in the Navy to fire cannons at its own citizens. Suddenly, Bill’s hat looks out of place, as does the flag of which he’s so fond.
The most arcane (and in its way, perverse) of Gangs‘ mentions of the War is embodied in the friendship between Amsterdam and Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard, Jr.), rendered on screen in just a few minutes here and there. Though this friendship appears to be yet another casualty of the film’s chopping, its existence allows a grisly lesson for the white member of this interracial bond (as such bonds seem always to do in movies). Just as the gangs — the Natives led by Bill and the Dead Rabbits, resurrected by Amsterdam — undertake their final face-off, the riots are in full swing and the cannons begin firing. Their own war interrupted, the men stumble through the ravaged streets, and Amsterdam comes on his friend Jimmy, brutally murdered. This fearsome act looks ahead, to a future that begins after the War ends, and long after these particular gangs have died off and been mostly forgotten. It’s a spectacle of awful lessons, many long lost today.