Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
“The blood stays on the blade,” Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) tells his young son Amsterdam (Cian McCormack) as he slices his cheek with a razor blade, inducting the boy into a creed of macho lore. Priest shows him a medal of St. Michael: “He cast Satan out of paradise!” Father, holding an iron Celtic cross, leads Son and a gathering army of jostling tribes—Celts, Africans, sheer barbarians—out of an underground labyrinth. These warriors inclue Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), who’s filed her teeth into fangs, McGloin (Gary Lewis), and Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). Their rise to the day passes through eons; from Neolithic depths to the medieval squalor of the Old Bakery building, used as a home by immigrant families. Pounding on the soundtrack is a “shammy,” a military march with a syncopated tin whistle, a Civil War style that eventually mutated into jazz. Like a negotiation between Agamemnon and Achilles, Priest briefly discusses payment to take part in battle with Walter “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), who wields a club riddled with notches for men he’s laid low, before Monk kicks the doors open on the snow-crusted amphitheatre of Paradise Square, the Five Points, New York, 1846.
This great opening sequence lays out the scheme of Gangs of New York, a devolution of American society and a study of the nature of myth—the way cultural memory is transmitted through legendary narrative. Its plot evokes The Iliad, Gilgamesh, Saul and David, and many other legends, tied to a factual work of social history. The germ for the film was planted when, as a boy, Scorsese heard a piece of Catholic New York folklore, of communal resistance to an attempt by Protestant Nativists to burn down a Catholic Church. Scorsese re-encountered the tale in the book The Gangs of New York by demimonde historian Herbert Asbury, published in the 1920s. For 31 years, Scorsese tried to turn that work into a movie. He finally got the money from Miramax, shooting the film on detailed sets at Cinecitta, home of the Italian film industry and of so many epic film productions. The film was supposed to do for Scorsese what Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan did for Steven Spielberg—garner him an Oscar, which, of course, it did not. Scorsese wanted The Clash to act in the film when he tried to make it in the 1970s, and heavy doses of such punk spirit, period cynicism, and black comedy drive the film, rather than an easily laudable “quality” aesthetic.
The germ for the core subject of Gangs of New York was found in the true tale of Bill Poole, a Nativist-affiliated enforcer, probably assassinated by the son of an Irish immigrant he had murdered. Scorsese had screenwriter Jay Cocks pen a script, refined later by Kenneth Lonnergan and Steven Zaillian, telling the story of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), who leads the Federation of American Natives to challenge Priest’s Dead Rabbits and allied Irish gangs in a fateful rumble. Bill claims the mantle of his father, killed in the War of 1812, as a defender of his nation from “the foreign hordes.” The gang members, outcasts and victims of Empires, drag power out of the earth and wield it fearlessly in this recklessly created New World. Their titanic street battle is a whirl of cracked skulls, torn mouths, gouged eyes, bitten-off ears. Bill kills Priest, whom he declares an honourable enemy. He outlaws the Dead Rabbits and orders Amsterdam committed to Hellgate Asylum.
When Amsterdam has grown into the glowering adult form of Leonardo DiCaprio, he is released from Hellgate, given a bible by the warden, and told “God has forgiven you. Now you must learn to forgive.” Amsterdam throws the bible off a bridge as he walks back to Manhattan, and retrieves from the now-emptied caves below the Old Bakery his St. Michael medal and a knife of his father’s. He is assaulted by, but easily beats, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) and Negro pal Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard Jr.); Johnny had, as a boy, aided Amsterdam in his attempt to escape the Butcher’s men, and Amsterdam falls in with their gang of petty thieves. Monk now runs a barber shop. Amsterdam learns that Bill, in an annual act of political theatre, commemorates his killing of Priest by drinking a flaming glass of alcohol before his assembled court. Amsterdam determines to kill him in the act.
New York is kaleidoscopic with nationalities, brisk patricians and vigorous plebeians, a seething society trying to cut out its two cancers—slavery and poverty—before they become terminal. The Civil War is hurting. Irish immigrants streaming off the boats are shoved into uniforms and shipped off to fight the Confederates. The first draft in U.S. history is about to begin, spreading discontent amongst the poor who can’t cough up the $300 to be exempted. Bill likes to throw knives at Lincoln’s posters as his bully boys, who now include McGloin, assault Negro freemen. McGloin typifies the racism of Irish immigrants, displacing the loathing directed at them onto blacks.
Presiding over the city is the Tammany Hall boss William Tweed (Jim Broadbent). He governs through bribes, vote-cramming, dirt-dealing, and back-stabbing. Tweed makes overtures to Bill, wanting him to aid the Tammany machine with muscle work, clobbering political opponents and mustering the voting power of the slums. “The appearance of the law must be upheld,” Tweed asserts, “especially when it’s being broken.” Bill perceives himself the emperor of the underclass, his strength, the streets that converge on Paradise Square: “Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.” Public utilities are a tool of such politics; volunteer fire services in the town war with each other and rob burning houses. A brawl between a team sponsored by Tweed and another gives Amsterdam and Johnny an opportunity to brave the flames and get the loot. From the window, Amsterdam catches sight of Bill riding on a fire engine to Tweed’s aid, bathed in demonic red with Melvillian portent. Amsterdam and his gang must share spoils with Happy Jack, now an extremely corrupt policeman, and with Bill, whom Amsterdam and Johnny pay off at Satan’s Circus, the saloon he holds court in. They’re treated to the sight of Bill stabbing a man he plays cards with in the hand for making small bets, then assuring the boys, “Come closer, I won’t bite.”
Bill gives the lads a lucrative score, a Portuguese ship in the harbour. They find the crew’s been massacred by another gang. Amsterdam steals away the captain’s body and sells it to science. Bill congratulates them: “They made the Police Gazette, a periodical of note.” He soon finds himself drawn close by Bill, a trusted lieutenant for his well-proven smarts and toughness; Bill clearly fancies Amsterdam as a surrogate son. Bill, who really is a butcher by trade, educates him in the finer points of knife fighting on a pig carcass. The Natives attend a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which an actor playing Lincoln preaches harmony. They pelt the actors with missiles. In the ruckus, an assassin tries to shoot Bill. Amsterdam reflexively tackles and kills him, and Bill’s wound is slight. Amsterdam is stricken over his confused impulses, and Monk, having recognised him, questions him pointedly about his intentions.
The link between the Democratic Party and the Irish that eventually produced JFK begins here, when Bill, having rejected entirely the idea of courting the immigrant vote (“If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I’d shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil!”) forces Tweed to reject the Nativists and embrace the Irish. “You’re turning your back on the future,” Tweed warns. “Not our future,” Bill replies. The soundtrack jostles with folk music, Irish shanties, African laments, field-hand chorals, and Chinese melodies, all of which one day will be compressed into American pop music. Scorsese’s camera laps up the antique, pimped-up styling the gangs affect, eyeing the roots not just for his own films’ social studies, but for the popularity of gangster and Western films, punk music and gangsta rap, in the power-defying showiness of these criminal-warriors.
The film mixes physical realism and grand theatricality. Scorsese references Visconti again—he frames advancing soldiers after the Battle of Palermo sequence of The Leopard (1963). His staging of fights and baroque sense of period style evokes Sergio Leone, John Ford, even Samuel Fuller, as he has singers walking through shots, for example, when Finbar Furey, as a publican, plays to the camera like a congenial host to a patron, sings the period ditty “New York Girls” as we explore Satan’s Circus. Pitch-black comedy gives the film idiosyncratic punch, like in a public execution where the bailiff disgustedly announces crimes that includes “sodomy!” or when Bill pretends to cry over the corpse of a “poor, defenceless little rabbit” Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket, comes into Amsterdam’s life. Rescued off the street as a child by Bill, she became his lover before having an abortion that left her scarred, something Bill can’t abide. Amsterdam and Jenny’s encounters are fraught with mutual loathing and sexual attraction, which comes to a head when she steals his St. Michael medal, prompting him to trail her across town to get it back. When churchmen who are rebuilding the Old Bakery as a Church hold a dance, everyone flocks there, including transvestite prostitutes who solicit incredulity from the ecumenical Minister (Alec McCowen). Johnny, severely smitten by Jenny, is heartbroken when she chooses to dance with Amsterdam. Their later attempt to rut on the docks ceases abruptly when Amsterdam realises she is “the Butcher’s leavings.”
After the assassination attempt, Bill and Amsterdam retreat to a brothel; Jenny tends Bill’s wound as the men lounge with bare-breasted prostitutes and smoke opium. Bill watches Jimmy Spoils dancing to a jig, and comments, “An Irish ditty mixed with the rhythms of a dark continent, stirred to a fine American mess.” Despite himself, Bill is aware of what is happening to his country. He beds three women, each a different colour, whilst Jenny and Amsterdam have a noisy quarrel (“Is there anyone in the Five Points you haven’t fucked?” “Yes, you!”) that turns into vigorous sex. Amsterdam awakens in the morning to Bill, seated by his bed with Old Glory wrapped around his shoulders, recalling how Priest had given him a severe beating in their first fight. Bill punished himself for flinching from Priest by plucking out his left eye (he now sports a glass one with an bald eagle painted in place of the pupil) before returning strong enough to kill Priest. At 47, Bill says he has kept power by “the spectacle of fearsome acts.” Jealous, Johnny spills Amsterdam’s ancestry to Bill. When, finally, Amsterdam throws a knife at Bill as he’s drinking his fiery liquor, Bill parries the blade with dazzling skill and plants his own in Amsterdam’s belly. He offers a spectacle of murder for the baying crowd, but, respecting the chance Priest gave him, restrains his abuse of Amsterdam to beating him terribly and scarring him.
Jenny spirits Amsterdam away to the caverns, where he spends months recuperating. He is visited by Monk, who gives him what he secretly preserved, Priest’s straight-razor, his symbol of blood responsibility. Monk expects to answer to God for his killings, as opposed to Bill, who considers himself a divine wind. “Your father tried to carve out a corner of this land for his tribe,” he recalls. “That was him, that was his Dead Rabbits.” Amsterdam re-emerges from underground and hangs slaughtered rabbits in the square to announce his return and the return of his father’s ideals. Soon Amsterdam draws all his friends back, hiding in and defending the Catholic Church’s construction. They embrace their religion as well as a mission to build a safe Irish enclave. When McGloin visits to pray, he’s outraged that Jimmy Spoils is present; when he squeals about it to the church’s long-haired, one-armed, radical priest (Peter-Hugo Daly), the priest wallops him over the head. In retaliation, Bill and the Natives come to incinerate the building, but find it protected by massed ranks including families. Even Bill won’t go that far. Johnny and Happy Jack soon die in tit-for-tat killings. Tweed proposes to Amsterdam that he swing Irish support behind Tammany. Amsterdam proposes Monk for the office of Sheriff. With the aid of Tweed’s electoral shenanigans, Monk gains “a Roman triumph.” But Bill, before shocked onlookers, viciously assassinates Monk.
Bills and Amsterdam’s relationship, like several in Scorsese’s oeuvre, is as a surrogate paternal relationship, man and boy drawn to each other through mutual appreciation of the others’ strengths, and ultimately drawn to destroy each other, loaded with jealousies and sexual strife. DiCaprio inhabits Amsterdam with a fair intensity, though he lacks indelible grit as a young hard case or ease with his deliberately weird Irish-American accent. Bill and Amsterdam act out several forms of division, with Amsterdam a man straddling Bill’s dinosaur bellicosity and thoughts of a new, more hopeful world. Jenny, daughter/lover to Bill, mother/sister/lover to Amsterdam, loves each in different ways. Her attraction is Amsterdam is at first that between two rodents—tough, cunning, ruthless, but morally innocent. Violence in this embryonic world flavors all things, including sexuality. Jenny kisses Amsterdam’s scars, marks of survival from Hellgate, after showing him her Caesarian scar, a sacrament of flesh for their physical and mental pains. Written on their bodies is the violent growth of their selves and the world about them.
Bill dominates the film, and not just because of Day-Lewis’s epic, perversely witty performance. He is one of the last Titans, a creature of great physical prowess with a warrior-poet’s soul belonging to a premechanical age. He is obsessed with purity, physical, racial, and cultural. In this regard, he resembles Travis Bickle. Bill’s sense of the physical is intensely spiritual, and enacts totemic punishment on flesh—cutting out his own eye, searing Amsterdam’s face for failing to act like a man. He cannot touch Jenny’s torn body lest it speak to him of the violence, decay, and waste that otherwise surrounds him. He respects the code of honorable warriors and detests the cult of commonality, which is why he feels justified in assassinating Monk dishonorably. It’s also one of his “spectacles of fearsome acts,” a declaration that he will not yield to Amsterdam’s efforts at egalitarianism without a fight. The death of the warlords will come by the sword.
Incensed by Monk’s death, Amsterdam challenges Bill to a gang fight. Simultaneously, the beginning of the draft causes New York’s working classes rise up with virulent fury. In all of Scorsese’s films, class and ethnic tensions simmer; here is a nightmare vision of when America’s mostly closeted skeletons of race and caste resentment emerge. Scorsese observes the root of American distrust of high culture; pop culture emerges from the chaotic swirl of the lower classes. The rich propagate high culture in their mansions; as rioters torch their shiny elegance, troves of classical-style paintings burn up. So, too, do political fliers showing the linked faces of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Jimmy Spoils is lynched by the mob along with many other blacks. Jenny only avoids being murdered by shooting a woman.
Warships pummel the city, soldiers shoot rioters, and the streets run with blood. McGloin is gunned down, and Amsterdam and Bill fight in a dust cloud before another shell plants a shard of shrapnel in Bill’s side. “Thank god, I die a true American,” he says before allowing Amsterdam the coup de grace; he dies clutching the young man’s hand. The city is a burning, shattered mess, corpses laid out in long lines. Amsterdam attests, “All that we knew was mightily swept away.” The final shot is as great as the opening, as Amsterdam and Jenny pay tribute at Priest’s and Bill’s graves, side-by-side in a graveyard overlooking lower Manhattan. As they leave the frame, the burning skyline of a haunted city fades through phases in the Manhattan skyline, finally resting at the end of the 20th century, the Twin Towers still in place.