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The Gangs of New York

Set in New York’s Five Point District in 1862-63, The Gangs of New York was an ambitious, visually stunning film. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it was based on the book of the same name by Herbert Asbury. Released in 2002, critics praised the visually stunning and historically accurate sets, yet questioned the authenticity of the history it blatantly implied. Scorsese did, in fact, take creative liberties, but there is no denying that woven into the fictional story line are certain events that are historically accurate. The Gangs of New York tells the story of two rival gangs in Five Points.

One, the Dead Rabbits, is made up of Irish Catholic Immigrants, the other of native-born Protestants. In the opening scene, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis), the leader of the Protestants, kills Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the Dead Rabbits head. Amsterdam, Vallon’s young son, witnesses the killing, and vows to exact vengeance . After spending 16 years in a reformatory, Amsterdam returns to Five Points in 1862. He is not recognized, and is able to insinuate himself into Cutting’s good graces, positioning himself to carry out his revenge at the right time.

The movie’s main plot thus unfolds against a backdrop of early 1860’s New York. In the forefront is the rabid hatred between the Irish Immigrants and the native-born Protestants that existed at the time. Irish immigrants had been flooding New York and were greatly resented by the native-born. Many of the immigrants arrived with nothing, and in a desperate state of poverty were forced into the Five Points district. The area had become decrepit, and the sense of despair was fertile atmosphere for the proliferation of hopeless, violent gang clashes.

Working from old photographs, the set-designers were able to create perfectly accurate re-creations of Five Points during this time period. Inter-woven with the main story line were the tales of political corruption and the Civil War Draft Riots. Although the main characters were based on fictionalized interpretations of real people, all living outside of the film’s time frame and brought together by creative license, the character of Boss Tweed was one who was notoriously active during the early 1860’s.

Known for his rampant abuse of power, William Tweed controlled Tammany Hall and all of New York’s Democratic elections during the 1860’s. In the film, Boss Tweed ‘s alliance with the native-born gang is obvious. By rigging the vote with the aid of “repeaters” (those who voted twice) and by recruiting Irish immigrants to vote for Tammany Hall—usually through violent means—the native-borns were rewarded by Tweed with either money or with freedom to conduct gang business with no police interference. Again. historically accurate.

The Gangs of New York also gives a fairly accurate depiction of the Civil War Riots, an event that has been largely overlooked in film and other media. Furiously fueled by the threat of draft and racial prejudices, the citizens of Five Points joined in the violence and carnage the riots inspired. While Scorsese remained objective throughout the film, we feel, spite of ourselves, a sense of sympathy for the gang members. Unlike the wealthy, who could buy their way out war, the inhabitants of Five Points are poor and oppressed, and have no options. Scorsese set out to create an historical epic, and he succeeded.

He realistically portrayed the curruption and racial tensions of the time. In his review of the movie, A. O. Scott(2002) says that Scorsese “…wants not only to reconstruct the details of life in a distant era, but to construct, from the ground up, a narrative of historic change, to explain how we…got from here to there, how the ancient laws gave way to modern ones. ”(para. 14). References Scott, A. O. (2002, December 20). Gangs of New York Film Review; To Feel A City Seethe. The New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2002 from http://www. hebertasbury. com/gangsofnewyork/

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