Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judith Grant
Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the
Ohio University.


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Scorsese sees two Americas. One, an America of law, and one an America of justice. For Scorsese justice stands outside the law. It is an America where fearless and loyal men of strong wills and backs respect their enemies even as they kill them.

Feature article

Gangs of New York

by Judith Grant

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Gangs of New York is a failed anti-war
film. It is 165 minutes of some of the most violent footage ever seen in a film intended for mainstream entertainment. As a fan of Scorsese’s, I have to say that even the brutality of Good Fellas could not have prepared me for the assault that is the experience of watching this film. Even leaving aside the violence, I admit that I am mystified by all the hoopla surrounding Gangs of New York. Leonardo Di Caprio only slightly adapts the role he had in Titanic. Now instead of a sweet Irish immigrant, he is a nasty one. Cameron Diaz appears to have thought the Irish accent was optional, as it fades in and out about every fifth word. For his part, Daniel Day-Lewis looks and sounds too much like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo to be truly convincing.

Worse, the film is so thematically confusing that it is at first not clear what Scorsese is trying to say. To be sure the choice of material is worthy. The plight of working class immigrants in 19th century New York City, and the Draft Riots of 1863 have, to my knowledge, been given no filmic attention. Even more intriguing are the possibilities inherent in Scorsese’s observations about the interplay between the nativist sentiments embodied in Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Bill the Butcher, and the corruption of the US government. Taking place as it does during the American Civil War when Boss Tweed held New York City in his grip, the film’s setting certainly provides ample opportunity for some reflections on these important topics. In fact, I think the message of this film is as disturbing as the way it is told. It would seem that Scorsese intended to make a film that was anti-war, but ended up with one that is anti-government and anti-law.

In brief, Gangs of New York is the story of two rival gangs, one
“nativist” lead by Bill the Butcher. The other, a group of Irish immigrants called “The Dead Rabbits” initially lead by a man called “The Priest Vallon” (Liam Neeson). The Priest meets an early demise at the hands of Bill, and his death is witnessed by his young son, the unlikely named, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio). The son spends the next 16 years in Roman Catholic (St. Amsterdam?) reform school plotting his revenge. It is a familiar story and an almost Shakespearean tragedy (think Hamlet). Upon his release, Amsterdam comes to know and even to like Bill quite well. They are both, in fact, enamored of the same woman, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron
Diaz). This is the only female character of note and her dramatic function appears to be primarily to mitigate Bill and Amsterdam’s almost erotic fixation with one another. (Several critics have complained that her character’s development is abandoned relatively early in the film, and this might explain why). In any event,Amsterdam becomes deeply connected to Bill and ambivalent about the revenge he knows he must exact. In one of the film’s most significant (and least bloody) scenes, Bill, draped in an American flag, sits next to Amsterdam (who happens to be in bed with Jenny at the time) and tells a tale that, though harrowing, explains his enormous respect for Priest Vallon. Vallon, Bill intones, is the only man he has ever killed who was worth killing. Much is made throughout the film of he Priest’s dying words to his son, that one must never “look away.” Indeed, the eyes of an honorable man, Scorsese suggests, are able to look death in the face.

This drama involving male honor and homoeroticism is played against the backdrop of Boss Tweed’s New York. Thus, honor and vigilantism are juxtaposed to chicanery and secrecy, with government and the law representing the latter. It is Boss Tweed who does not look into the faces of his enemies since they change depending on who can further his political career. Scorsese’s shots of immigrants coming off ships that are then loaded with the caskets of dead Union soldiers are cinematically superb as are, I admit, some of the most bloody battles on film. Immigrants no sooner arrive than they are told to sign papers that make them citizens. In the next second, they are conscripted into the army, handed rifles, and sent to fight men with whom they have no quarrel. To depict this irony, the film’s gang sequences are often inter-cut with Civil War battle scenes. America, Scorsese wants to contend, was forged in blood. With this he appears to have no quarrel. What troubles him is the way blood is spilled. On this point, the film has a very definite point of view.

Much is made of the desirability of fighting with ones hands or with
implements like knives and cleavers. Guns, it would seem, do not bring
honor or glory. Likewise, one ought to be connected to the fight, and to see and know one’s enemy in a way that is as immediate as it is close to real rage. The Union army does not fit this bill, and presumably, things have only gotten worse since then. In the end when the two gangs pow-wow and agree to have a penultimate battle, Amsterdam chooses not to use guns to which Bill the Butcher responds approvingly, “good boy.” Government forces are sent to quell the rioting, however. Canon fire kills almost everyone on both sides, and the look of bewilderment that passes between Bill and Amsterdam is, I think, meant to show their acknowledgement of the fact that the rules of battle have changed. Their way of fighting is over.

Fighting is now accomplished through technology and the warrior may not even understand the reasons that he fights let alone see his enemy. Voice-overs repeatedly underscore that “this” is America. Which? The violence? The technology? The Law?

Just as Sergio Leone did in his masterful Once Upon a Time in America, Scorsese sees two Americas. One, an America of law, and one an America of justice. For Scorsese justice stands outside the law. It is an America where fearless and loyal men of strong wills and backs respect their enemies even as they kill them. Upon reflection, this fetishism of male organized violence is Scorsese’s calling card, and it at least partly explains his life-long fascination with the Italian-American mafia.

Likewise, he recognizes the sub textual connection between America’s
poorest immigrants and African Americans. However, it is disturbing that, in this film, black men remain only an absent presence. They are clearly invoked insofar as the Civil War has everything to do with slavery and race. Yet, they have almost no role in Scorsese’s drama. He correctly shows the racism of both nativists and Irish as a product of hellish lives in which rage is allowed to fester in the unfreedom of poverty. The parallel story of the slave is left un-thematized. Though Amsterdam Vallon is shown to have at least one black acquaintance, the meat of the story is, for Scorsese, about struggles among white men.

If war has become a sad statement on manly virtues, the law is an even worse one. Boss Tweed’s hypocritical attempts to buy immigrant votes, and his cynical alliance with whichever gang can deliver said votes are surely examples of some of the most repugnant and recurrent moments in our nation’s history. Yet this film appears to see these as the rule rather than the exception. In one telling set of scenes, the Irishman Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) is drafted by Tweed and Amsterdam to run for elected office. In this instance, there is hope that the Irish immigrants might abandon their gangs and turn to the law for empowerment and help. In this they are disappointed, and Monk is murdered. Therefore, the only law for the poor and the immigrant is the law of the streets and the rule of the gangs. It is as though two parallel legal systems existed side by side, and Scorsese is completely clear about which he believes to be the most useful
and the more virtuous.

The final shot of the film is as visually stunning as it is controversial.
Shot across the Brooklyn Bridge looking to the New York skyline, Amsterdam and Jenny walk off the screen and fade to ghosts. Amsterdam’s voice-over tells us that New York City was built on the blood of such nameless heroes. The shot shows New York City expanding over time in a frame-by-frame dissolve until it rests on a New York skyline complete with the twin towers. Why this editorial decision? Why not fade to the final shot everyone in the audience expects, NYC sans Towers? Visual effects supervisor Michael Owens says that, "By September 11 we had already shot the plates and were actually well into creating the shot, and suddenly it became a real issue. Originally it was designed as one of those quintessential views of New York, but after September 11 some worried that the sequence might take on an entirely different meaning.” And indeed, it
did. Had he done that last final shot without the towers one might have inferred a kind of critique of violence. Violence begets more violence.

Hence, the vanished towers. Instead, the decision to allow us to linger on the beauty of the intact city allows us to absorb his notion this
spectacular scene is the result of spilled blood, and that vengeance is an acceptable solution. Since Mr. Scorsese is among those celebrities who have recently come out against a war with Iraq, his decision on this point remains a puzzle.

Posted March 4, 2003

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