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Gangs of New York as a Educational Tool

The question is a pedagogical one, whether or not to use a film as an instructive device in class. Specifically Scorsese’s civil-war period-piece Gangs of New York. Here the practical issues such as finding the time in class to show this lengthy film will be bracketed out in favor of the more philosophic questions. What sort of fidelity does the film have to its historical setting? Namely, does it represent well persons, places, and periods? Does it assist the student with internalizing historical information either by giving new information or supplementing their current knowledge with particular images?

The question circles around what one wants to accomplish showing the movie in terms of what this allows for the students. Does it teach history or make it more teachable. As far as images go, Gangs of New York is a triumph. The geography is remarkable and accurate Tammany’s Hall, Greeley’s Tribune multiple historical places are brought to life in vivid detail (DiGirolamo, 2004, p. 125). But if it was this alone that sold the world, the film would indeed be impoverished. The clothing, props, sets and characters form a cohesion of elements that create a plausible historical picture.

Three thousand costumes were made from scratch to satisfy the hunger for simply authentic dress (DiGirolamo, 2004, p. 132). On the front of aesthetic historical design there is little if any affront made by the film. Indeed the design is impeccable. Persons have their own set of rules and, as may be expected, some characters are based on persons or on a conflagration of various personalities while others are imply drawn from thin air. As Scorsese says in his commentary, DiCaprio’s character represents a whole generation of immigrants (Scorsese, 2003, 27:00-06).

Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Bill the Butcher Pool is a composite of the Bill Poole an uptown xenophobic politician and Isaiah Rynders a gang thug who was prone to quoting scripture and Shakespeare (DiGirolamo, 2004, p. 127). Other characters are fairly direct in their interpretation of historical persons, particularly William “Boss” Tweed the corrupt officer. In general the characters throughout the film express the sentiments of that time. Though Scorsese is criticized for underplay certain groups (including Italians, Germans and Jews) and exaggerating others.

Historian Vincent DiGirolamo criticizes for instance the exaggeration of the amount Chinese people living in five points at the time (2004, p. 128). However, Scorsese was being historical in the selection of the Sparrow’s Chinese Pagoda as a set. As such, if Scorsese were to have no clear Chinese representation in such a place it may have been distracting for audiences. One could however be argued that a line of dialogue or two could clear up such a confusion or even selecting a different location as a setting. It seems certain that more than one house of debauchery was present in period New York, or other populated areas for that matter.

The situations covered by the Gangs of New York are perhaps a stronger suit. The everyday life in the five-points slums is shown rough and dilapidated. Yet, if anything the film is not a harsh enough reflection to match the viciousness toward women of the day who were brutally taken as a matter of course. Conversely there may be an inaccuracy in characterizing five-points as monolithic in terms of social class (DiGirolamo, 2004, p. 132). The struggle to attain proper governance is another historical American task hot on the heels of 1848’s leftovers.

This is a theme that runs throughout the film again the pathos seems quite fitting while historically skirting particularities. The general thrust of Gangs of New York seems to widen in scope from the directly personal world of DiCaprio’s character to his placement in gangland five-points and further to his political posturing finally culminating in the end of the age when the HMS Pinafore opens fire on the city (which historically never took place). But the scope is historically valid in presenting the growing irrelevance of the characters’ paradigm of lifestyle. The personal struggles deteriorate in the face of the larger historical forces.

The character story stays the same but the backdrop looms more around them in an effect that emphasizes there placement and blindness to history. It is, like so many Scorsese films a cautionary tale of the ruin of vengeance. Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker noted that the editing was difficult by the task of balancing the historical with the personal narratives. Scorsese himself suggests that the film is “most historically accurate to nature of the anarchy and the chaos” (Scorsese, 2003, 27:42). Now DiGirolamo believes that this is where the movies loses its way, and it is where I part ways with him (2004, p. 134).

He insists that the historical conflict is of greater interest than the personal struggles of the characters. I think this betrays a certain naivete on his part as an historian. While the larger forces may have more impact it not necessarily more compelling. For our pedagogical purposes the personal stories may be sweeter bait than the socio-political structures that be. And for this reason, I would use the movie in my classroom. Namely the forces of history must show their compulsion in the working out of actual people’s lives. It is the human interest which is the fuel for historical interest in the popular eye.

The inaccuracies and embellishments, conflations and downright fabrications are excusable if they present the otherness of the historical world in a compelling manner. For the movie cannot compete with Braudel on the Mediterranean or Gibbons on the Fall of Rome in terms of historicity. But the classroom is a Pentecost with the goal not of filling minds, but igniting them. Bibliography DiGirolamo, V. (2004). Such, Such Were the B’hoys. Radical History Review(fall 2004), 123-41. Grimaldi A. & Weinstein, H. (Producer), & Scorsese, M. (Director). (2003). Gangs of New York [Motion picture]. USA: Alliance Atlantis. (Audio commentary track).

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