Article – Gangs of New York

Downstate New York

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, January 2003)

Martin Scorsese’s new film, Gangs of New York, is easily his most ambitious work to date. Detailing the epic street battles of a nascent America, it is quite a departure for him.

Martin Scorsese shares with his mate Steven Spielberg a pretty hefty workrate. Despite them both being far from movie brats anymore (Scorsese is now 60), they do tend to produce at least a film every 18 months or so. So the nearly four year gap since Scorsese’s last film, Bringing Out The Dead, came as quite a surprise to the many ardent followers of the diminutive maestro.
The reason was simple: he’d embarked upon the biggest and most complicated shoot of his career; Gangs of New York. It was never an idea that came forth fully fledged wither. Scorsese originally wanted to do it back in the seventies, when the high priced farrago that was Heaven’s Gate torpedoed all historical films for the foreseeable future. Scorsese kept the idea on the backburner, however, and spent most of the intervening time going over scripts with collaborator Jay Cocks. The finished version boasts three more scriptwriters.
The story of Gangs of New York is based on a time of near-anarchy in the history of the US. Whilst the 19th Century, since the defeat of Napoleon, is seen as a time of peace in Europe, in America it was anything but. Immigration meant an ever-changing and restless population and the Civil War remains one of the most deeply attritional in World History. In New York this situation was concentrated, especially in the ‘Five Points’ district (the modern day business area, ironically enough).
Gangs of New York concerns two representatives of the main factions, as a microcosm of the general air of conflict. Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of a murdered Irish Immigrant, now out for revenge. Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (played by Daniel Day Lewis) is a member of the anti-immigrant ‘Nativist’ gang. The film culminates in the two factions battling on the streets during the bloody Draft Riots, which was a prelude to the Civil War itself.
Although this story is emblematic of the country as a whole, it’s the familiar location that first drew Scorsese to the subject matter. “Ever since I was a child growing up in Lower Manhattan, I was drawn to stories of Old New York,” says Scorsese. “Each day, as I explored the neighbourhood streets, I slowly uncovered clues to an extraordinary but relatively unknown period in the city’s, and our country’s, history.”
It should be said that Scorsese is no Steven Spielberg, and this is the first time he’s had to deal with the problems more commonly associated with his blockbuster-making compadre. Aside from the historical setting, Gangs of New York also features big name stars (also including Cameron Diaz), special effects and a huge number of extras. Scorsese’s always been a fan of David Lean, but you never expected him to make a film in that style.
Which may explain the negative stories surrounding the production. It wasn’t just Scorsese making a return to moviemaking after an absence – DiCaprio hadn’t made a film since The Beach two years earlier and Daniel Day-Lewis was on an even longer sabbatical – so there was much speculation about how rusty the participants were on what was to prove a truly ambitious film. Some of the stories – DiCaprio being late on set thanks to a penchant for partying – can be safely discounted thanks to tabloid hype, but what can’t be denied is the fact that the film was over-budget and late. Rumours of ructions between Scorsese and notorious producer Harvey Weinstein have the grain of truth, not least because Weinstein has admitted they were true. But Scorsese is no James Cameron either, and it’s unlikely that Scorsese pulled a gun on his bear-like producer.
Still, Titanic ended up a happy affair, and it seems unlikely that anything produced by Scorsese can be anything less than interesting. Even if, as is entirely possible, Scorsese is not at all suited to the epic medium, the subject matter should reflect enough of his interests – gangland warfare, New York – to produce something of worth. And he seems genuinely committed to his historical subject matter: “The 1860s seemed to overflow with unbelievable stories of the working classes; of the waves of immigrants who crowded the streets and alleyways; of the corrupt politicians; and of the legends of the underworld who fought to control it all. They are the stories of the testing of America and what the young country stood for. They are the stories of our roots.”

Gangs of New York is released on the 10th January

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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