Why "Gangs of New York" Doesn't Deserve an Oscar

Culture Watch

Mr. Toplin is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is the author or editor of ten books including, most recently, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows its award for Best Picture on March 24, Gangs of New York will be among the five motion pictures under consideration. Probably the Academy's members will not agree with Miramax, which promoted its film as the greatest historical epic since Gone With the Wind. Those who vote for the Academy Awards are also unlikely to agree with the Atlanta Constitution's film critic, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, who called Gangs "one of the most thrilling history lessons ever put on the screen." The movie's director, Martin Scorcese, may finish in a competitive place in the race for Best Director, but that honor could come in recognition of lifetime achievement rather than particular skill in crafting his latest production. Gangs of New York is not a great work of drama, and it is certainly not a fine example of cinematic history.

Martin Scorcese seems to have forgotten to include a fundamentally important element that is at the core of most successful historical cinema: the uplifting morality tale about good people struggling against evil forces. Some historians may find this pattern of hero-versus-villain storytelling disturbingly simplistic, but successful Hollywood artists recognize the potency of morality tales for exciting audience interest in stories about the past.

Historical dramas typically carry inspiring messages that attract audience sympathy for the protagonist. They relate, for example, the story of William Wallace's battle for Scottish freedom (Braveheart), the African Americans' struggle for dignity and equality (Glory), Mahatma Gandhi's campaign for India's independence (Gandhi), or Oskar Schindler's moral awakening during the crisis of the Holocaust (Schindler's List). Even Titanic, for all its syrupy romance, carried poignant messages that celebrated the virtues of the common folk and implied criticism of the arrogant rich. In contrast, there are no uplifting messages in Gangs of New York. From beginning to end, the film communicates a sneering cynicism towards New York's local past, America's ethnic and racial history, and the country's Nineteenth Century experience with democracy.

Criticism of conditions in the past can provoke useful discussion, of course, and historians are quick to compliment artists who identify conflict in U.S. history rather than simply glorify consensus and progress. In this case, though, the absence of any uplifting message seriously undermines the dramatic impact. No character in Gangs provokes much sympathy or emotional involvement from the audience, not even Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose antagonism toward the movie's villain appears to be motivated almost totally by ethnic rivalry and a desire to avenge his father's murder.

Martin Scorcese's production tells the story of two rivals, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill Cutter (Daniel Day-Lewis) who compete against a backdrop of Irish-Nativist violence in the Five Points area of New York City from the late 1840s to 1863. Day-Lewis, in a brilliant characterization that could win the Academy's prize for Best Actor, plays a nattily-dressed and vicious leader of a bunch of Protestant thugs who resent the Irish newcomers. In the opening scenes of the movie Cutter slays Amsterdam's father (Liam Neeson) in a bloody rumble at Five Points. Years later, revenge-minded Amsterdam becomes a protégé of Cutter and awaits a chance for retribution. Tensions between the two men are complicated by their mutual interest in Jenny (Cameron Diaz) and Cutter's apparent father-son relationship with Amsterdam. In the final minutes of the story the two men fight to the death while the New York City's 1863 draft riots bring great destruction to sections of the city.

In almost every scene of Gangs, Director Martin Scorcese elevates violence as the story's principal theme. Ads for the film claim that "America was born on the streets," and the director observes that his story serves as "a template for what's still going on today, with the rivalry between new waves of immigrants and older assimilated groups." To ensure that audiences recognize connections with the present, Scorcese closes the production with views of New York City's skyline of the 1860s that morph into different historical periods and then reach Twenty-First Century form. Throughout the movie, from its first scenes of punching, gouging and stabbing to its later episodes of slicing and shooting, Gangs constantly reminds audiences that American "democracy" began and developed in orgies of violence.

There is some truth to the film's suggestions about aggression in the streets of Nineteenth Century American cities, but Scorcese leaves the impression that his portrayal of violent life characterizes the essence of American society in those times. A visitor to mid-century New York, it seems, would view little more than Nativist attacks, draft riots, and individual beatings and murders. To be sure, troublesome gangs, such as Plug Uglies, the Hartley Mob, and the Molasses Gang did rule some streets in old Gotham. Furthermore, in Scorcese's defense, we can acknowledge that Hollywood's historical dramas must focus tightly on particular subjects and neglect many aspects of life that do not contribute to the principal narrative. Their pictures of the past are never "comprehensive." The almost exclusive attention to brutality in this picture, however, results in a highly distorted image. Scorcese draws his portrayal of daily mayhem from a questionable source. Herbert Ashbury's 1928 book with the same title as the movie contained much sensationalized commentary about life in Five Points based largely on unsubstantiated anecdotes and inaccurate details.

The interpretation portrayed in Gangs of New York, as in many movies about the past, reflects not only history but, also, the personality of the filmmaker. Scorcese has exhibited a fascination with violence throughout his career. His interest in the theme was evident in his first production in film school, which presented a rather humorous look at a man's bloody shaving experience. Several other Scorcese pictures featured aggression, rage, and bloodshed at their core, such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Casino, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. The director, a follower of the auteur theory, has made the study of violence central to his body of work.

Gangs of New York examines this familiar subject in a historical setting, and, not surprisingly, the director implies that violence was a common characteristic of politics and social life in America's past. Martin Scorcese sees a Darwinian struggle for survival in an urban jungle. He depicts this vicious conflict not only in the Catholic-Protestant clashes but also in the ferocious meeting of rival firefighters who slug out their differences in the midst of a blaze (here Scorcese seems to be referring to a July, 1857 dispute between groups that represented municipal and metropolitan forces). In these and other depictions, the director reveals a career-long infatuation with physical confrontation rather than the particular discovery of an intriguing insight about the American past.

Gangs provides a scathing, cynical view of this history that frequently goes over the top in its depiction of venality. All of Scorcese's dark visions contain elements of truth, yet his portrayal is so unrelenting in its ugly portraits that he allows almost no flower of human dignity to grow in the hostile urban jungle. Boss Tweed is appropriately depicted as exploitative and corrupt in his administration of power. Virtually all of the American-born thugs in the story exhibit contempt for the Irish immigrants, and the Irish, in turn, readily vent their frustrations against the lowly blacks. Scorcese depicts the municipal leadership almost solely committed to graft and extortion and a populace engaged deeply in class conflict and racism. The director's picture of mid-century New York is so consistently dark that his historical vision looks almost as miserable as John Carpenter's futuristic vision of Manhattan as a maximum security prison for criminals in Escape From New York.

Some historians will fault this movie for its specific distortions of fact (for example, the real riots of 1863 did not include as much Nativist involvement as this movie suggests, and cannons did not fire on crowds in New York at the time of the riots), but Scorcese's larger failings deserve more attention than his manipulation of small details. All cinematic historians must exercise creative license in order to craft compelling dramas and inspiring messages about problems of the past. In this case, unfortunately, the director's preoccupation with violence and corruption, an interest that he developed over a lifetime of moviemaking, led to unimaginative treatment of his historical subject. Scorcese's fixation on tales about mean streets contributed to expensive but disappointing cinema that falls far short both as drama and as history.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jason Z Alexander - 1/26/2004

Well said Mr. Simonds. If it were up to him and people like Sandra, we would live in a false world. One based on lies and idealism. Its because of his views, we have half the problems we do. People want to dress up facts with "moral stories" and political correctness instead of addressing the issues at hand. They want to forget what really happened, and tell a story about how it should of happened. Typical P.C. bullsh*t. Ideology is just that... ideas. Not fact.

Jason Z Alexander - 1/26/2004

Oh yeah Sandra - if the US President was such a "nativist"... then why in the hell did he put forth the "Immigration Plan" that would allow all current immigrants in the country to have legal status? Yeah, that sounds "nativist"....NOT. Try educating yourself while you are here in college and stop working for beads and shot glasses.

Jason Z Alexander - 1/26/2004

Yeah, we should unite. Calling people fools unites us all!!! Yeah thats it. Thats unity. You are not a hypocrite or anything. I mean, calling all Americans arrogant, thats unity!! Yeah, once again, your power to unify has overcome all. I know you are American and better than us all because you are not arrogant at all. I mean, you must be open minded and we other Americans just cant see your vision. Thats because you know all and we dont, yet you are not arrogant. Right? Again, you are not a hypocrite or arrogant. Nor are you an elitist. Only people that think they are better than others are arrogant and elitist. Only people that call others fools, and arrogant would be considered elitist. Oh wait, you called did call us fools, and arrogant... maybe you are an elitist arrogant American who thinks he knows all and we dont. Nevermind, you suck hypocrite.

Jason Z Alexander - 1/26/2004

Someone should punch you on the nose. Twice.

Mauricio Chávez-Medina - 12/18/2003

My personal appreciation of the movie´s theme is related to the rationale in the book of Richard Slotkin, volume number 1, "Regeneration Through Violence." I think, that under a different set of circumstances, violence in 1840s New York can be considered as part of the wave of violence that characterized the country for more than 200 years up to then. The story is related to a need of renewal and is pervaded by the symbolisms drawn from myths based on a sort of ethnogenesis (such as the ones that in his time Theodor Roosevelt used in his Winning of the West or his idea of "the Rough Riders". The picture depicts a microcosm os racial struggle and regeneration.

Martrez McGee - 12/16/2003

i woul like to know how to join a gang

Sandra - 8/14/2003

Mr. Toplin must be a fan of the Butcher, otherwise he surely would have gotten the message of the movie. Americans need to quit being so damned arrogant. We are a country born of different groups fighting to claim their right to this country, only because we continuously come up against some other group that got here a few years before. Thought that was pretty clear. Equally clear was the fact that Irish immigrants lived in one portion of NYC and there were other sections as well. Frankly you'd have to be a fool not to know that before watching the film. But hey, fools are all the rage these days, look at who the arrogant nativist President is.

If people are not welcomed as equal members in this country regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnic group or political affiliation; then we have no unity and the nation cannot survive.

Darrel Lewis - 7/18/2003

The http://video.go.com/gangsofnewyork/>official website doesn't seem to promote violence at all... rather it is just trying to promote the pretty faces of Leonardo Dicaprio and Cameron Diaz. History belongs to the beautiful.

Robert Simonds - 3/12/2003

Mr. Toplin's complaints about Gangs seem almost comical when he makes unfavorable comparisons to films like GWTW and Braveheart ("Walking Tall" set in Old Scotland). Historical dramas need to be reduced to simple morality tales? Can we not have more than one model for constructing historical drama? for all its imperfections, Gangs attempts to present a far more complex vision of the past than most historical dramas, and does an admirable job exploring important but complicated issues: the fluid but powerful politics of nativism; the tribal roots of America's democratic politics. Is the violence overdone? Yes. But to dismiss it as "scathing, cynical" is hardly fair. After enduring many years of Hollywood historical dramas that employ the hero-villain narrative to create films that are fundamental crimes against truth (see The Patriot for the most recent egregious example) it is refreshing to see someone in Hollywood attempt to take history seriously.