The reaction to the film has split between those who yell "Yay!" about it and those who yell "Aargh" -- either you love it or feel deeply frustrated by it. I've heard it called "a masterpiece." I've heard it called "a train wreck." Its release was delayed a year while Scorcese and Miramax Films tinkered with the editing. And while the reaction to it from critics has been explosive -- either hugely positive or hugely frustrated -- my reaction is quieter. I wasn't bowled over, which seems to have been Scorcese and Company's intent. But I'm remembering a lot of the film, even at two-and-a-half hours plus in length.
The underlying story of Gangs of New York can be reduced to "A boy sees his father killed and vows to kill his father's killer." (And Moby-Dick can be summed up as "A whaler is pissed at a whale.") The boy is Amsterdam Vallon -- named significantly (I'm sure) after New York's first name -- whose father "Priest" Vallon dies at the hand of the vividly deranged Bill the Butcher in that 1846 riot.
Plotting his revenge 16 years later, Amsterdam drops the use of his last name and ingratiates himself into a circle of thieves who work for Bill the Butcher, now a confidant of political and municipal leaders -- so he's just as violent and deranged as ever, with power added. Uh oh. In the spirit of melodrama, there's a love triangle: Bill and Amsterdam have feelings for a pickpocket named Jenny. And (significantly) there is a yearly celebration of the battle of 1846; Bill even keeps a drawing of "Priest" Vallon on his mantel, explaining why Amsterdam doesn't go by his last name.
The film is detail-crammed. Racism rears its ugly head, from Bill and many others (be ready for the "n-word"). So do issues of sexuality: we get occasional glimpses of transvestites known as "she-hes," and the film hints at the forced-to-be-close relationship some of these men have with a church, where each side has to tolerate the other during a church-sponsored dance (were there fewer women than men in New York at the time?). It quickly details the different kinds of crooks who'd work a big city; Jenny, along with being a pickpocket, dresses as a servant, enters rich people's uptown homes, and steals trinkets. P.T. Barnum appears, as does his museum and his freaks of nature. When boxing turns out to be illegal in New York, Bill and Amsterdam (who helps gamblers place their bets) build a boxing ring on a float in the Harbor since it is technically outside of the city. I liked a stage play version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," showing the high melodrama of mid-19th-century entertainment. (An actor plays a God-like Abraham Lincoln, hanging over the stage and telling people to do this and that at the play's finale.)
Ugliness happens throughout. Underhanded acts like the voter fraud some Manhattan residents use to elect an Irish sheriff (the motivation being to help gain more power for the mistreated and under-represented immigrants) lead to horribly underhanded acts...like Bill killing the man who won the election to sheriff.
The film is bookended by two horrific battles: a bloody 1840s confrontation between "native" Americans (meaning people who had lived in the States for a few generations, if that) and recently-arrived Irish; and another fight among many of the same people that coincides with an 1860s riot over a Civil War draft. THAT's where the most powerful parts of the film are. And flaws in the rest of the movie aside, the build towards battle in both sequences is overwhelming.
The film opens with the Irish in underground tunnels -- some of which native New Yorker Scorcese says still exist in New York -- gathering people and weapons for the fight, which will determine which group will have the most control over the Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
Two hours later in film-time, simmering resentment over both that 1846 battle and the Union's draft explodes into riot.
(In the film, that draft is delayed by such official actions as this: in an intriguing and sad sequence, we see a stream of even newer Irish immigrants stepping off a ship from the Motherland, signing papers to become U.S. citizens, signing other papers to enter the Union Army, and boarding another ship to sail to the South -- all while caskets of bodies are being hoisted off that vessel. Scorcese, a master of long, long, long camera moves, shows this in a single shot lasting a whole minute.)
But a riot over the war eventually happens. Fighting breaks out all across Manhattan, while on the soundtrack we hear the frantic click-click-click sending of telegraphs describing the chaos and demanding aid -- which comes (in the film, not in history) in the form of Naval vessels firing on the rioters.
And the revenge Amsterdam Vallon has planned for gets interrupted by the bigger struggle. Yes, he and Bill finally fight (that's significant; melodrama practically demands a one-on-one fight), but Bill is mortally wounded by shrapnel from one of those Naval ships. Earlier in the film, Bill had insisted that a true Native must be willing to die for his country, or else he was not truly an American; here he looks at his wound and says, smugly, "Now I am a true American." And Amsterdam isn't? seems to be one of the film's points.
The gulf of bloody experience between those battles twenty years apart shows a sad progression from one kind of fighting to another. The 1846 battle is preceded by a formal challenge, as Bill and Priest use language like "By the ancient laws of combat..." The 1860s battle that coincides with the riot basically begins with (I'm paraphrasing) "All right. Let's fight." Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am.
What Gangs of New York becomes, in the end, for me at least, is a story about the dangers of forgetting where it is you come from. This character actor I'm fond of, John C. Reilly (he's been in -- off the top of my head -- Boogie Nights, Magnolia, For Love of the Game, Never Been Kissed, The Perfect Storm; you'd recognize him and his square-shaped face), is one of the Irish immigrants headed to battle at the start. As the years pass, he becomes a police officer, and -- in his case -- becomes smug and corrupted. His language and demeanor are far changed from his younger days; he seems to have erased that part of his life, locking up or harassing the very people he fought side-by-side with in the 1840s. (He even steals from a thief, taking some jewelry and saying "That would be nice for Mrs. Mulraney." Um, he knows his commandments, right? He has a job because of people who ignore "Thou Shalt Not Steal.") (But, then, so do I.*)
That happens throughout: former allies end up on opposite sides of the law, or of politics, and their conflicts end in death and disaster. Or they seem to be good guys at first -- at least the young Amsterdam thinks so -- but show racist colors later on.
The last scene earns a quiet power (even with me, though I have issues with how it is shot and edited that I won't get into here since I don't want to get too technical). Over on the Queens side of the East River, post-riot, Amsterdam and Jenny journey to the graveyard where "Priest" Vallon and Bill the Butcher are (significantly!) buried side by side. They walk away; the two people in fact fade away as they do so. We then see the same view over the next 130 years as Manhattan becomes the Manhattan we know (at least until 2001, if you know what I mean). And only hints of the graveyard remain.
History is a precarious thing, as you readers of histories know. If that event (choose whatever) had gone another way instead of the way things happened, future events would have gone in a different, perhaps radically so, direction. (I'm now reading Son of the Morning Star, about the Little Big Horn, which speculates on how the conflict might have played out if troops had marched more slowly, for instance, or if Custer had followed his orders more strictly; what happened one day might not have happened another day, in other words.) And that always bears remembering.
* At the time, I was working in the fraud detection and prevention department of a call center.