Gangs and Citizens: A Review of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York

Sean Mattie

January 1, 2003

The new film Gangs of New York is an American story. It is a tale of vendetta as a family legacy set against the historical background of ethnic feuds in New York City in 1863. At the center of the story is Amsterdam Vallon, who has returned to the Five Points neighborhood of Lower Manhattan after growing up in an asylum. He was orphaned after his father, Irish immigrant “Priest” Vallon, was murdered by his archrival, Nativist Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, in a brutal rumble that determined the social order in Five Points. With the loss of their leader, the immigrants submit to the Nativists. As a result, Cutting dominates Five Points, lording over and exploiting persons and businesses like a twentieth-century mafia boss, all the while harassing and inveighing against the thousands of Irish arriving weekly in New York ports. Amsterdam becomes an apprentice to Cutting, a relationship that complicates Amsterdam’s decision to revenge his father. This personal struggle is set against the bitter strife between Nativists and immigrants in Five Points, which is itself placed in the larger context of the Civil War and the Draft Riots.

Directed by Martin Scorsese from a script by Jay Cocks, Stephen Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, Gangs of New York is brilliant and intense, with a strong narrative, sharp characterization (Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill The Butcher is the standout), and a vivid design overall. Admirers of Scorsese will appreciate the director’s typically virtuoso use of camera movement, editing, and music to tell a story and to set the moods of scenes. Similarly, themes that Scorsese has explored in prior films converge in Gangs of New York: the mean streets and social stratification of New York; the hierarchy and complex customs in organized crime; violence that lies underneath the surface of civil society and frequently explodes onto it; the American dream and assimilation of immigrants. Without compromising the study of character for which his films—from Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to the King of Comedy and Goodfellas—are famous, Scorsese has broadened his social panorama with this film, enabling him to paint grand themes on a large canvas.

Gangs of New York vividly shows how difficult it can be for different peoples to live together peacefully, without resentment or the desire for revenge. Peace and harmony are the necessary conditions of civil life in any regime, but they are especially important in America, a popular government whose people have been increased by a generous immigration policy held for most of American history. However, if social concord contributes to civil life, one may say that citizenship—a view of justice and the common good that is shared and held to be authoritative by society—contributes mightily, even decisively, to peace and social concord. The gangs in Gangs of New York not only are enemies on the basis of national origin. They also fail to be true citizens, i.e., fellow citizens. On this latter point—the principles of citizenship in America—we may seek counsel from Abraham Lincoln, whose image appears several times in the film and whose prosecution of war for the Union provides the background for the film’s story.

In Gangs of New York, control of turf is rule over persons. The Nativists control Five Points and Bill the Butcher rules despotically and arbitrarily, his personality consisting of brutality with a veneer of charm. He has subordinated, cowed, or otherwise co-opted the Irish immigrants that constitute a growing majority of the population. All local enterprises (including prostitution, minor thievery, and illegal boxing) are carried on with his direction and for his profit. Bill is a butcher by trade as well as by reputation, and he wields his knives as much to terrify his lackeys as to slice meat. Cutting is law and order in Five Points, as the Irish immigrants recognize and as Happy Jack, a municipal police officer (and former Irish gang member) walking the beat there learns to accept. However, Cutting himself recognizes that fear is the only means to maintain his rule, ultimately.

The immigrant Irish have one alternative to Cutting’s oppressive rule. For most of the film, Cutting’s rival for influence in Five Points is not Amsterdam but “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall. Tweed also seeks influence over the Irish, and though motivated by self-interest, nonetheless his paternalistic rule is milder than Cutting’s tyranny. As the incoming, desperate Irish are jeered at and pelted with stones by the natives, Tweed treats them like sheep, herding them into the polls to vote Democrat in return for the party’s supplying their material and social needs. Such politics are a far cry from the self-reliant, responsible citizenship that George Washington, whose portrait hangs above Tweed’s desk in his office, recommended for the American republic. Gangs of New York depicts urban machine politicking in all its shameful, ballot box-stuffing grandeur. Still, Tweed represents a glimmer of republican politics. Tammany as an association is a civil version of an ethnic gang, steering persons in the direction of persuasion. Tweed stands for the (slightly) orderly political process of polls and majority vote, rather than the coercion and submission represented by Cutting’s regime. After an Irish Tammany candidate wins election for a local office, a furious Cutting challenges him to a fight. He declines, invoking the voters’ decision as the decisive settlement. As the candidate walks away, Cutting hurls a cleaver into his back, declaring, “That’s the minority vote.”

At the heart of Cutting’s contempt for and hatred of immigrants is his pride in being American; to him, immigrants are not and cannot be American like him. The very existence of immigrants in the film (and in American history) speaks to the belief that persons can be made into Americans if they have not simply been Americans. But what makes a person, or a people, American? Cutting certainly has an opinion about this. At bottom, Cutting’s view of American-ness is not nativity as such, but a certain blood connection to America. Cutting’s father fought and died for America, in the War of 1812, and this combination of ancestry and patriotic sacrifice (neither of which the immigrants can claim) is Cutting’s self-declared principle of exclusive American-ness. Yet, Cutting misunderstands, or does not live up to, his principle. The fact of the War of 1812 (along with the fact of the Revolutionary War) indicates that American identity is not simply British, but is distinct and new. Furthermore, those wars were fought to preserve the American regime—America as not only a geographic entity but also as the national Union governed by the Constitution. The story of the film is set against the background of another war for that Union—the Civil War. However, Cutting detests it as merely Lincoln’s war; he does not believe that it is a fight for America. Though Cutting is a local lord, this disposition cannot be explained as mere localism, for his understanding of what it means to be an American is inevitably national. Cutting defines himself by, and stakes his claim to rule Five Points on, a view that is heroically sacrificial, as well as national. Yet, it is the Irish immigrants who are shown not only entering the Union army (albeit by necessity) upon reaching New York harbor, but also dying in the Civil War. Gangs of New York suggests an American-ness that is larger and more inclusive than nativity and family inheritance, but it remains beneath the surface of the story. On the surface are instead ethnic strife and the spirit of vengeance.

Although it depicts these problems graphically and intensely, Gangs of New York offers no mild solution to them. Primordially, Scorsese’s work of art teaches the same lessons as Greek tragedy or the best American Westerns. There can be no peace or civilization while vendettas and tribal or clannish violence dominate social life. The furies must first be buried in the earth if there is to be lawful community. Though blood soaks the snowy ground after the opening, savage rumble between the gangs, it indicates merely a temporary quiet, a prelude to the film’s action in which the furies burst free and roam. Blood is a powerful, sustained metaphor in Gangs of New York. One of the first images in the film is “Priest” Vallon drawing blood on his cheek with his shaving razor before the rumble. Bill the Butcher, wearing his blood-soaked apron and with knife in hand, instructs Amsterdam how pigs’ bodies are so like those of men that one slaughters both the same way. By the film’s end, all the lead characters (including Jenny, the pickpocket lover of Cutting and Vallon) are bloodied, and mobs murder innocents in the bloodlust of the Draft Riots. Although the film presents blood itself as a sign of the similarity (or similar vulnerability) of all persons, the film also shows that blood, as symbol of narrow ethnic consciousness, also divides persons into hostile groups.

Religion conspicuously fails to unify and make peace. Though Roman Catholicism binds together the Irish immigrants, it does not render them pacific (in a telling scene, Amsterdam kills Happy Jack in a church that is under construction). Furthermore, Cutting and the Nativists scorn the immigrants’ Catholicism as servile Roman popery. Although preachers visiting Five Points lecture on charity and moral reform, a mission intended for a vacant building is never built. Religion is depicted most of all as grounds for violence. Right before the final gang clash, the film cuts back and forth between Vallon praying to God for righteous victory against the Nativists (as his father did in the film’s prelude) and Cutting doing the same, against the immigrants.

Gangs of New York tells a violent story, and, accordingly, it is not reason or persuasion but instead overwhelming power that finally brings peace to New York. To quell the Draft Riots, Union soldiers are called to disperse mobs with lethal force, and a Union battleship fires its cannons devastatingly upon neighborhood buildings. The siege stuns and scatters the gang combatants in Five Points, but Vallon and Cutting end their feud only when the former overcomes the latter in a bloody, deadly knife fight. In the quiet coda to the story, Vallon buries the dead of the gang wars and asks if those that come after his generation will remember their struggles. An answer is provided in part by the closing images of the film, which contemplate the construction of the grand New York skyline, viewed from the peace of a graveyard in which destructive ethnic furies lie buried.

The events of Gangs of New York take place against the background of the Civil War, which ultimately overbears the gangs’ feud. The Civil War, between not gangs but rather entire regions of the country, erupted out of a spirit of discord. At stake essentially was not which section would dominate the other, but whether the Constitution would rule both section and the Union would endure. Abraham Lincoln, whose image appears in Gangs of New York as a symbol of the war effort, is the central figure of the Civil War. Lincoln not only commanded the armed forces of the Union, but also, more importantly, educated public opinion, making clear to his fellow citizens the meaning of the war. Union forces (composed entirely of volunteers for the first two years of the war) fought to preserve the Union, but Lincoln declared the principle of the Union—the cause that the Union served and that dignified the Union’s existence. It is justice—the God-given, inalienable rights of all persons to life, liberty, and property. In a famous address given in Chicago shortly after July 4, 1858, Lincoln spoke to an audience composed of many immigrants and their children—those with no family connection to the patriots of the American Revolution and the American Founding. He addressed concerns that are at the heart of Gangs of New York: What is the foundation or substance of American citizenship? Who may be included among American citizens? His reply was that by dedicating themselves to the principles for which those patriots fought—those of the Declaration of Independence—immigrants may truly claim American citizenship. The basis of American-ness is not simply having an American father, but rather having the “father of all moral principle”—that all men are created equal in their natural rights. This, declared Lincoln, is the “electric cord” that runs through all ethnic stocks in America, binding them and energizing them for responsible citizenship.

By 1861, a sense of common citizenship, and respect for natural rights, had deteriorated in America; secession and the demand for slavery’s extension were the symbols. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln invoked the other foundation for American civic unity—the Constitution as the common rule for the Union. He tried to persuade the seceded states that their grievances would be addressed most justly in the Union, according to the Constitution, and urged them not to become enemies but to remain friends. However, the “mystic chords of memory” ultimately failed to stir a chorus of union strong enough to suppress rebellion and war. By 1865, the American unity and citizenship Lincoln identified—a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—were put to the greatest test, demanding the greatest sacrifice. In his second inaugural address, as in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln offered his fellow citizens an explanation of and purpose for the horrific war that had plagued the country. God has demanded retribution for slavery in America, and has required that the blood drawn from the overseer’s lash be repaid with the blood drawn from the soldier’s sword. But for this justice to be fulfilled, the Union forces must finish the work of the war. The nation must reunite in a spirit of “charity for all,” and vengeance and malice toward none. Only on this basis, Lincoln urged, would war issue in a “lasting peace with ourselves.”

Gangs of New York closes with an image of the contemporary New York skyline, but which includes the towers of the World Trade Center. An intelligent, meticulous filmmaker, Scorsese no doubt intended that inclusion, perhaps to leave the audience with a reminder of New Yorkers’ moving display of civic unity and common cause after the terrorist attack on the city. After viewing Scorsese’s films, one has a greater appreciation of calm and civility, because of the existence of violence and strife at the periphery, and often at the center, of his stories. From its blood-soaked opening, Gangs of New York presents such violence and strife, and then closes with a certain quiet and the prospect of unity. The principles of Abraham Lincoln, which are those of the patriots of the Declaration of Independence, illuminate the American unity suggested by Scorsese. That unity is American citizenship, for which Americans made war, but which is the only basis for a just and lasting peace among all Americans, native and immigrant.

Sean Mattie is a visiting professor of political science at Hillsdale College and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.