We conclude our look at the work of Martin Scorsese with a look at his 2002 historical epic, Gangs of New York. While not strictly a fact-based film due to its original narrative, it’s a good example of how far the term ‘inspired by’ can be pushed, as well as highlighting the power of meticulous research…
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan (here’s the third draft from 1993)
Inspired by: Herbert Asbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, The Gangs of New York
Synopsis: *Spoilers* Five Points, Lower Manhattan, New York, 1846. A brutal session of hand-to-hand combat takes place between Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) gang, the US-born Natives, and Priest Vallon’s (Liam Neeson) Irish Catholic immigrant gang, the Dead Rabbits. It ends when Cutting kills Vallon; an act witnessed by the murdered man’s young son, Amsterdam. The boy is raised at Hellgate orphanage.
Five Points, 1862. Now grown, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to Five Points and reunites with an old friend, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas). He also encounters Cutting, who has no idea of Amsterdam’s identity.
When Amsterdam learns that every year Cutting celebrates his victory over the Dead Rabbits, he starts to plan a revenge killing. Amsterdam also becomes more deeply involved with highly corrupt Tammany Hall political empire of William ‘Boss’ Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is in Cutting’s pocket.
Amsterdam and Johnny run into Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and grifter who has Johnny’s affection. She steals a medal that Amsterdam’s father had given him. Amsterdam retrieves his medal and is clearly interested in her; until he learns that she is also involved with Cutting.
During a theatrical performance, Amsterdam thwarts an assassination attempt on Cutting. They retreat to a brothel where Jenny tends to Cutting’s wounds. Amsterdam and Jenny end up spending the night together. Amsterdam wakes to find Cutting sitting by him. He talks of how Priest Vallon was the last respectable enemy he ever fought and implies that Amsterdam is like the son he never had.
Out of jealousy, Johnny exposes Amsterdam’s true identity to Cutting.
During a knife-throwing act, Cutting wounds Jenny. Amsterdam retaliates but is himself injured. Cutting also burns a hot knife blade into Amsterdam’s cheek.
In hiding, Jenny nurses Amsterdam back to health. She has a plan to leave for California and wants him to join her. However, Amsterdam continues with his plan for vengeance.
A disillusioned Tweed approaches Amsterdam with a plan to neutralize Cutting through voter fraud and coercion in the upcoming election for local sheriff. Cutting’s candidate loses. He responds by murdering the victor. During the funeral, Amsterdam challenges Cutting to a traditional gang fight. Jenny books passage for California.
The New York City Civil War draft riots break out. Union soldiers enter the city to quell the violence.
As the gangs meet for the fight, they are hit by cannon fire from naval ships in the harbor. Most of the gang members are killed or dispersed. Cutting discovers he has been hit by a piece of shrapnel. Amsterdam stabs him to death. Cutting is buried in Brooklyn next to Priest Vallon’s grave.
We see modern New York City rise up, while the graves of Cutting and Vallon gradually become overgrown and forgotten.
Review: *Spoilers* At the time the film is set, the major issues affecting New York City were Irish immigration and the ongoing Civil War. Both of these real life happenings were incorporated into the original narrative to paint a vivid picture of life in this rough and violent part of the city. This was also the time of the Draft Riots, which followed President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The action in Gangs of New York mostly takes place in an actual area of lower Manhattan where five streets intersected and which, for many years, was also a disease-ridden, crime-infested slum overrun with violent battles between rival gangs (such as is witnessed to vivid effect during the opening scene of the film, which contains a good amount of gouging).
This was a film that was a long time in the making (around 20 years from initial idea to screen). While the film is ostensibly based on Asbury’s book, which was a first-hand journalistic account of the gang culture in New York, the story is pure fiction.
That being said, as is a trademark of Scorsese, no time or effort was spared in ensuring Gangs is authentic in look and detail, with the services of a historical consultant, history professor and even an archaeologist engaged.
In addition, though a fictional creation, Bill the Butcher is primarily based on the real life figure of William Poole; while Boss Tweed was a real life, wholly corrupt but extremely popular politician who ‘ran’ New York at this time.
Overall, the film definitely ‘feels’ authentic and certainly makes the most of its period setting and geographical location. Film buffs will also appreciate the fact it was shot at the famous Cinecittà Studios in Rome.
So, what about the film itself?
Well, with all the ingredients in place, including the first collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, Gangs of New York should be up there among the movie masterpieces. With a running time of 167 minutes, it’s certainly epic and there’s much to be admired throughout. The acting all around is terrific; the fight scenes are impressively staged; the film looks wonderful; and Scorsese has done a wonderful job of bringing the era to life.
The problem with Gangs of New York may just be that with so much working in its favour, it simply buckles a little under the weight of expectation. It must also be said that the ‘son goes after his father’s killer’ plot feels a little thin and ‘by the numbers’ given the fertile cinematic ground offered by the historical setting.
However, while it falls short of cinematic greatness, this is a bloody and visceral epic tale of vengeance set during a violent and unforgiving period of US history.
So what can writers take away from Gangs of New York?
The main thing to take away from this film is that ‘inspired by’ is an extremely broad term that gives the writer freedom to cherry pick history in order to craft the story they want to tell, drawing on facts and real life characters to create a strong narrative that fits seamlessly into the time period. In short…
When people start asking you the question ‘did this really happen?’, you know you’ve blended fact and fiction to great effect.
Issue 9 of RSL is out on 14 September.