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“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

Scorsese is one of the great American directors, but he is also one of the great New York directors. Scorsese was one of the three directors – along with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen – to contribute to the anthology film New York Stories. Many of Scorsese’s classic films are set in and around New York City, from Mean Streets to Taxi Driver to The King of Comedy to After Hours. Scorsese has discussed at length how much of his filmmaking draws from his own experiences and memory, and it makes sense that much of that should be anchored in New York itself.

As such, it’s interesting that Gangs of New York is one of the last of Scorsese’s major films about New York City. The Departed and Shutter Island are set in Boston. Hugo is set in Paris. Silence is a historical epic primarily set in Japan. Even The Irishman spends a lot of time in Frank Sheehan’s home town of Philadelphia. The Wolf of Wall Street is obviously set largely in New York, but seems less interested in the city itself than the people who inhabit it. Indeed, the early part of the film focuses on Jordan’s time in Long Island rather than than in the city itself.

However, unlike Mean Streets or Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy, Gangs of New York is not particularly interested in present day New York City. Indeed, even in the closing montage that guides the audience from the film’s historical setting to something approaching the present day, the film stops short of arriving at the moment of its release. The World Trade Centre is left standing, meaning that the closing image came from more than a year before the film’s eventual theatrical release.

Of course, Gangs of New York is not Scorsese’s first historical film. The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas and Casino were all period pieces in their own way. In fact, Gangs of New York is not even Scorsese’s first exploration of the history of New York City. Daniel Day Lewis had previously starred in The Age of Innocence, which was a film fascinated with how the upper classes of nineteenth century New York forged their own identities. Even Bringing Out the Dead is positioned as a historical film, a snapshot of “the apocalyptic landscape of pre-Guiliani New York.”

There is a sense of nostalgia in all of this, in Scorsese seeming to accept that the New York that he knew is gone. It is changed. It has moved on. As part of The Concert for New York City broadcast in October 2001, produced a short film called The Neighbourhood, in which he revisited the part of New York where he grew up. Scorsese sweetly and tenderly reflects on how that part of the city has changed from an ethnically Italian area into a hub of the local Asian American community.

The only real evidence that the Italians were ever there is a lone cheese shop on the corner, where Catherine Scorsese would buy her cheese every week. Indeed, the owner still remembers her order and even offers the director a sample for him to try. The world changes and moves on. Everything is in flux. Indeed, this was obvious even from the framing of The Neighbourhood. The short documentary aired as part of a charity fundraiser acknowledging the events of 9/11, the terrorist attacks that represented “the true beginning of the twenty-first century.”

The Neighbourhood feels like a companion piece to Gangs of New York, and even explains some of Scorsese’s interest in it. The Italian Americans who feature so heavily in so many of the quintessential Martin Scorsese movies are entirely absent from Gangs of New York, with the story instead focusing on the arrival of the Irish into New York City. In practice, this as large a departure for Scorsese as something like Kundun. Like Italian Americans, these new Irish Americans are white and Catholic, so their experiences and their culture is not radically different.

Part of what drew Scorsese to Gangs of New York, and what informed its Irish American perspective, was his own experience as an Italian American growing up in a neighbourhood and realising that the Italian Americans weren’t the first immigrants to have made it their home. “I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us,” he explains, suggesting that Gangs of New York is an act of exhumation or archeology.

One of the interesting recurring trends within Scorsese’s filmography is the fixation on the outsider among outsiders. Many of Scorsese’s films are set within a subculture that is recognisably Italian American, and so familiar to Scorsese. The director has talked at length about how as a kid growing up he would have been very familiar with these sorts of figures moving in these sorts of circles. Indeed, Scorsese would frequently cast his mother Catherine and his father Charles in small roles within these films.

However, films like Goodfellas and Casino feature protagonists outside that subculture. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill can never be “made” because he has Irish blood. In Casino, Sam Rothstein’s Jewish heritage keeps him at a remove, both from the mobsters and from the locals. Scorsese’s cinema is so fascinated with outsiders that it often pivots on characters who exist outside groups that are themselves outside the mainstream. The focus on the Irish in Gangs of New York feels like an extension of this, representing a history already lost by the time Scorsese was growing up.

There is a sense of historical churn there, an understanding that times change and cultures are lost or wiped out. Indeed, the absence of Italian Americans from Gangs of New York seems quite intentional. One of the more common historical criticisms of Gangs of New York was that it grossly over-represents the presence of Chinese immigrants in New York City in the lead up to the Civil War, which historians have characterised as “minuscule.”

However, that choice seems calculated. The presence and influence of these immigrants suggests its own future turning of the wheel; that culture will eventually get to carve out its own space on the same turf. After all, what was once “the Five Points” now includes “a section of modern Chinatown.” As such, Gangs of New York is signalling the paradox of all this; the sense of impermanence and yet consistency to life in New York. The Irish are fighting for a space they will lose to the Italians, while the Chinese will eventually take that part of the city for themselves.

It should be noted that Gangs of New York is not especially historically accurate. Although Herbert Asbury’s book is regarded as a classic of urban anthropology, later historians have cast doubt on much of his reporting. It is debatable whether figures like “Hell-Cat Maggie” and “the Forty Thieves” ever actually existed. Scorsese’s film only amplifies that ambiguity. The film blends historical figures like Boss Tweed and P.T. Barnum with fictional creations like Amsterdam Vallon.

The film even pointedly distorts the historical reality of one of its central characters. William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting is very clearly modeled on the historical personality William Poole. Poole espoused many of the same political beliefs as Cutting, and was similarly woven into the social fabric of New York City. However, Poole died over a decade before the Draft Riots that serve as the climax of Gangs of New York, and so the version of “Bill the Butcher” who appears in Gangs of New York is just an echo of the real historical figure.

Gangs of New York operates on something approaching dream logic, as if conjuring memories (rather than history) from the collective unconscious. Scorsese populates the film with images and scenes that are drawn from historical events, but which exist outside the chronology of the film’s setting. The confrontation at the church is one example:

Growing up in that neighborhood, Scorsese became fascinated with the stories of the immigrants who came before him. “One story was about a group of mostly Irish immigrants having a showdown in front of the church with a gang of Protestant American-Born men, who felt they were the only true Americans,” recalled Scorsese in a book on the film’s making. “On this occasion the immigrants banded together, gathering up all the weapons they could find and defended their church against the attacking mob.”

This exact scene unfolds in the film, with the Irish-American protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) leading the face-off against Bill the Butcher’s nativist gang. This moment, like many others in the film, reveals what we could call the Martin Scorsese Thesis of Immigrant Assimilation: Becoming American requires not only enduring violence but being able to return it as well. It is a question of power, of how big a “gang” you can assemble.

The scene obviously resonates with Scorsese, who discusses that snapshot of history in The Neighbourhood, even editing together footage from the as-yet-unreleased Gangs of New York to dramatise the story. Gangs of New York is not so much about the documented history of New York, but instead the vague memory of it.

“Some of it I half remember, and the rest… the rest I took from dreams,” explains Amsterdam Vallon in the film’s opening voice-over, and he may be speaking for Scorsese himself. It’s notable that Gangs of New York features an early establishing shot of an opening eye – one neatly juxtaposed with a shot towards the end of an eye closing. This choice of shot positions Gangs of New York with Scorsese’s more spiritual films, like The Last Temptation of Christ or Kundun, both of which feature a similar early shot. These are tales of faith and mystery as much as history and fact.

Indeed, Gangs of New York has a lot in common with The Last Temptation of Christ, even beyond the potential shared casting of Willem Dafoe and the weight that Mel Gibson might have brought. At one point in Gangs of New York, Amsterdam is exposed. He is shamed and brutalised. Order is restored to the community and he is cast out. He disappears into a cave, presumed dead. After three weeks (rather than three days), Amsterdam emerges from the cave to lead his people with a renewed purpose and a divine prominence. (The church even becomes his headquarters.)

The story of Gangs of New York is couched in explicitly religious terms. Amsterdam is the son of “Priest” Vallon and has his faith restored in exile by “Monk” McGinn. In the film’s opening scene, “Priest” asks his son to identify a mascot. “Now, son, who’s that?” His son replies, “Saint Michael.” Pressed to elaborate, Amsterdam explains, “He cast Satan out of Paradise.” The implication is that William Cutting is Lucifer in this analogy. As an adult, Amsterdam is reintroduced to William riding through smoke, lit by the red glow of a raging tenement fire.

This mythic structure informs and shapes the film. The core narrative of Gangs of New York is standard Campbellian stuff, as if Scorsese were trying to construct a story that might echo the populist works of Spielberg or Lucas. It is the story of a young boy who loses his father at a young age, who returns to seek vengeance. He finds a new father figure, but must overthrow this pretender in order to become his own man. The result is a movie that feels like a twisted funhouse mirror of the standard “dad stuff” preoccupations of blockbuster American cinema.

It’s perhaps too much to compare the narrative beats of Gangs of New York to Star Wars, but it is also not unreasonable. Jenny’s association with Amsterdam and Cutting adds a quasi-incestuous dynamic to the movie’s central love affair. There’s even an endearing literalism to the movie’s storytelling the echoes the Jungian archetypes of this sort of blockbuster fare, with the Irish characters starting out hiding in subterranean caves before “Monk” quite literally ascends to the role of sheriff towering over the Five Points below.

Amsterdam understands the importance of myth, even as he wanders through a world conjured into being from an anthropological study of New York of questionable veracity. Gangs of New York would be a shorter movie if Amsterdam took the first opportunity that he had to assassinate Cutting, but instead he bides his time. “When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark,” he explains. “You kill him where the whole court can see him die.” Naturally, Amsterdam is drawn to Cutting, and starts to feel conflicted. “Monk” rightly observes the drama is “Shakespearean.”

It’s notable that Cutting’s branding of Amsterdam takes place in a Chinese theatre, after an improvised knife show involving Jenny. As such, Gangs of New York establishes that its Oedipal drama is literally theatrical. After all, despite the care that Scorsese takes in adding texture to this world, it would be easy to transpose the drama between Amsterdam, Cutting and Jenny to any time and place. The original pitch for the movie, back when it would have starred Malcolm McDowell was “a western set in outer space.”

Even if Gangs of New York is not firmly or literally historical in terms of its central story, the film is haunted by history. Scorsese frequently invokes echoes of iconic images from American and international history. The Draft Riots are framed in terms of Vietnam, a conflict in which the rich bought their way out of service while the poor were conscripted to fight and die. The scene of Union soldiers confronting unarmed protesters recalls images of the National Guard doing the same at Kent State in May 1970.

One memorable image from the climax of Gangs of New York finds a rogue elephant interrupting the climactic battle between Amsterdam and Cutting. While this image was drawn from a real historical event that had taken place several years after the Draft Riots, when Barnum’s Circus burned down and several animals reportedly escaped, Scorsese himself likened the image to another historical event, “It reminded me of the bombings of Berlin in ’45, when the zoo was hit and the animals ran out. Civilization in Berlin was gone.”

Gangs of New York is myth on screen. Contemporary reviews grasped this instinctively, with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation serving as one of the default points of comparison. The exact assertion that Gangs of New York was “nothing less than Scorsese’s Birth of a Nation” appeared in pieces for The A.V. Club, The New York Times and Timeout. Scorsese leans into comparisons with a certain mode of American historical epic; one late sequence of Jenny surveying the carnage after the riots is framed to evoke one of the most famous shots from Gone with the Wind.

It is interesting how many narratives of the United States treat the Civil War rather than the War of Independence as the starting point of American history. In the collective cultural memory, it seems like American history was shaped more profoundly by the divisions of that conflict than by the shared idealism of the battle for independence. Even the western is typically framed in the context of the Civil War, treating that trauma as formative and defining. As such, Gangs of New York is something of an origin story for the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson described The Birth of a Nation as “like writing history with lightning.” In truth, it was more about casting a sort of mythology, a vague and primal memory enriched and elaborated in the telling. Gangs of New York understands this, with “Monk” even suggesting to Amsterdam that the conflict raging over the Five Points is just the manifestation of something that has long been simmering in the collective unconscious. Gangs of New York understands this, feeling more like a dream than a historical account.

“My father was killed in battle, too,” the older man tells Amsterdam. “In Ireland, in the streets, fighting those who would take as their privilege what could only be got and held by the decimation of a race. That war is a thousand years old and more. We never expected it to follow us here. It didn’t. It was waiting for us when we landed.” It is a history of violence and oppression, of brutality and barbarity. It is not unique to America, although the circumstances of American history make it particularly powerful.

There is a small moment early in the film, as Cutting meets with Tweed in Tammany Hall. Amsterdam has accompanied the villain, and waits in the hallway. While standing out there, he notices a wooden statue of a Native American. It is a quiet reminder that there was an entire indigenous population in New York long before Cutting and Tweed’s ancestors arrived. That population has been largely dispossessed and erased. Something similar happens in the closing moments of the film, as the graves of “Priest” Vallon and “Bill the Butcher” are erased by the city’s progress.

It is worth acknowledging the movie’s largest blind spot. Gangs of New York is a movie about the Civil War and the Draft Riots, but it largely marginalises its African American characters who are treated as a “repressed presence.” This is a fair criticism, arguably even moreso in the historical context of Scorsese’s treatment of black characters. Too many Civil War epics erase the experience of African Americans in favour of focusing on the narratives of white people.

To be fair to Scorsese, Gangs of New York understands racism as an ordering principle within its world, and the movie repeatedly gestures at how the Irish became “white” by looking down on African Americans. When passing a protester arguing for the emancipation of black Americans, McGloin protests at the implied equivalence between Irish and African Americans. When he asks whether the protestor is suggesting that he is “no different” than a black man, Cutting snidely asserts, “You ain’t.”

This prompts McGloin to lash out at the African Americans, as if asserting his place higher on the racial totem poll. Cutting and other so-called “natives” might look down their noses at the Irish immigrants, but at least the Irish immigrants have the luxury of looking down their noses at the African or Chinese American characters. It becomes an ordering principle. McGloin can feel comfortable in himself because he can yell about finding a black man in a church.

In The Age of Innocence, the characters lament at the fact that America is not really a new world. (The film’s protagonist is rather pointedly Archer Newland.) At one point, Ellen laments, “May I tell you what most interests me about New York; not all the blind obeying of traditions, somebody else’s traditions; it seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it a copy of another country.” That idea plays across Gangs of New York, most notably with the observation from “Monk” that the conflicts of the old world were waiting for the immigrants when they arrived.

Gangs of New York makes it clear that this racist stratification of American society allows for the maintenance of the status quo. At one point, another character reminds Tweed that he has been known to remark that “you can always hire one half of the poor to kill the other half.” This is the brutal tragedy of Gangs of New York, the horrible senselessness of it all. At the core of the film is the idea that so long as various impoverished communities can be set at one another’s throats, nothing meaningful will change.

This is perhaps the aspect of Gangs of New York that has aged most interestingly and most compellingly in the years since it was originally released. One of the central tensions in Gangs of New York is about assimilation or identification, the question of whether it is better for various groups to retain their unique ethnic identity or to let themselves be swallowed up by the demands of the larger American culture.

After the defeat of “Priest” Vallon, various Irish characters try to assimilate. McGloin ingratiates himself as one of Cutting’s right-hand men. Jack becomes a police officer, albeit one under Cutting’s thumb. However, neither character ever really sheds the racist hatred that Cutting holds for them. They never cease to be seen as Irish, despite their efforts to transcend that identity. They well always be “lesser” to Cutting and the people around him. More than that, without their identity to bind them together, there is nobody to protect the community from exploitation and predation.

Indeed, Amsterdam himself is tempted by this route. Although he initially plans to assassinate Cutting, he finds himself drawn towards the affection that the older man shows to him. “It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon,” he explains, once again framing the drama in mythic terms. “It’s warmer than you’d think.” However, Amsterdam cannot erase his identity completely. When Cutting figures out Amsterdam’s plan, he brands the young man. He leaves Amsterdam with no option but to embrace (rather than hide) his identity.

Only after this can Amsterdam rally the Irish to his cause. Amsterdam is able to marshal the Irish vote for the first time, turning the immigrants into a potent political force. “If you get all of us together, we ain’t got a gang, we’ve got an army,” explains Amsterdam. It’s an aspect of the film that seems to predict the modern anxiety around concepts like “identity politics”, the idea that American politics should be interrogated and examined through the perspectives of minorities rather seeking to erase the unique aspects of their experiences.

This organising of the Irish vote, more than anything else, is what leads to the downfall of Cutting. When “Monk” is elected sheriff, he effectively humiliates Cutting in front of the local community. Like Tweed, “Monk” understands that Cutting is an artifact of an older time who has no place in a modern America. It’s notable that Tweed’s final confrontation with Cutting finds the butcher eating a steak that is barely more than raw, as if embracing his animistic impulses. Cutting kills “Monk” in broad daylight, which serves to escalate the conflicts in the final act.

Indeed, Scorsese himself has argued that the central tension in Gangs of New York is one of governance and democracy. “The country was up for grabs, and New York was a powder keg,” he has explained. “This was the America not of the West with its wide open spaces, but of claustrophobia, where everyone was crushed together. If democracy didn’t happen in New York, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.” In Gangs of New York, democracy means the protection of minority interests rather than tyranny of the majority.

This is perhaps the most powerful contemporary resonance of Gangs of New York. Scorsese himself has likened President Donald Trump to William Cutting, and other writers have explored the parallels. It’s notable that recent events in the United States – including arguments over the Confederate flag, debates about statues erected to Confederate war heroes, and the current wave of civic protests – have sparked debates about the legacy of the American Civil War, and its presentation in popular media such as Gone with the Wind.

This gets at the irony of Gangs of New York, a film which seemed designed to serve as a coda for Martin Scorsese, a closing statement about the director’s love of New York and his fascination with its muddy and complicated history. Instead, Gangs of New York ushered in a new era. It marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio. While purists might unflatteringly compare that relationship to Scorsese’s earlier work with DeNiro, there is no denying that it has been productive for both partners.

More than that, while the post-Gangs of New York era has been marked by Scorsese’s continuous threats to retire from filmmaking, the period has also seen the director at his most vital. The Departed won Scorsese a long overdue Best Director Oscar. (Indeed, Scorsese has earned nine Oscar nominations in the years since Gangs of New York, in contrast to five in the decades before.) The Wolf of Wall Street became Scorsese’s highest grossing film and an unlikely Christmas box office smash. Scorsese continues to be one of America’s most compelling filmmakers.

However, what is most surprising about Gangs of New York is the way in which the film feels like an increasingly relevent commentary on the United States itself. Films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy retain an unsettling contemporary resonance, particularly in their study of fragile and dangerous masculinity. However, Gangs of New York is a film that arguably seems more reflective of the United States at the current moment than at its time of release.

After all, Miramax famously delayed the release of Gangs of New York by a year following the attack on the World Trade Centre, although there are suggestions that the film would not have been ready for a December 2001 release date anyway. It is easy to understand why American audiences were not especially receptive to Gangs of New York when it was released in December 2002, amid other releases like Catch Me If You Can and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This was not a film that reflected how America wanted to see itself at that time. Perhaps this is the point.

Arguably the most naive suggestion of Gangs of New York is that William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting is a relic from a bygone age. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Tweed chastises Cutting for failing to see that the future is coming whether he wants it to or not. “You’re a good one for the fighting, Bill,” Tweed remarks. “But you can’t fight forever.” He clarifies, “I said, you’re turning your back on the future.” The movie seems to believe that Tweed is correct. “Not our future,” Cutting mumbles, which the film suggests confirms that Cutting has no place in modern America.

Of course, this comes with its own cynicism. In his own way, Tweed is just as much a monster as Cutter, the embodiment of a different sort of corruption – one more polished and more sophisticated, and with enough shame to not to boast of his belief that the poor can be convinced to murder each other to keep the rich afloat. Surveying the carnage after the Draft Riots, Tweed advises his lieutenant, “Tomorrow morning, get our people down to the docks. I want every man and woman coming off the boats given hot soup and bread. We’re burying a lot of votes here tonight.”

Then again, this is perhaps the most basic of Scorsese’s historical narratives. A particularly crass and vulgar set-up is eventually replaced by something that operates on similar principles in a much more efficient manner. Casino is the story of the mob’s push westward, only to culminate in the spectacular implosion of their reign and their eventual replacement by “the corporations” who “tore down” the old casinos and rebuilt them with money from “junk bonds.” It isn’t necessarily that the future is better, it just hides its savagery with greater skill.

Still, Cutter’s rejection of a multicultural future plays differently in the years since the film was released. Gangs of New York seems to believe Tweed’s observation that one man cannot hold back history, but the past few years have demonstrated that they might make a valiant effort of it, causing untold harm and suffering in the process. It is easy to understand how Cutting became an avatar of the Trump era, from his nativist politics to his rejection of demographic shifts to the vulgarity of his corruption. If history haunts Gangs of New York, “Bill the Butcher” haunts the present.

The brutality and violence of Gangs of New York feels like a corrective to other historical fantasies of the emergence of the United States. There is a strong sense in the Early in the film, after “Priest” cuts himself shaving, Amsterdam moves to clean the razor. “No,” his father explains. “The blood stays on the blade.” The film returns repeatedly to the importance of looking at violence rather than turning away. As “Priest” lies dying, he admonishes his son, “Don’t ever look away.” Cutting himself tore out his own eye because in a moment of weakness he looked away from “Priest.”

The idea at the heart of Gangs of New York is that America has never been able to look unflinchingly at the horrors from which it was born, and that the nation has never fully understood that the violence of its own creation still shapes and informs its present. The myths of The Birth of a Nation, of John Ford’s westerns and even Gone with the Wind offer a romanticised and sentimental memory of the country’s turbulent history that does not directly confront the reality.

Of course, Gangs of New York ultimately has little space for romance. The climax of Gangs of New York finds the conflict between Amsterdam and Cutting swept aside by the larger historical narrative. Their final epic confrontation is interrupted when the army starts shelling the city around them. The patch of dirty over which they are fighting is reduced to rubble. Although Amsterdam does get to deliver a final killing blow to Cutting, “Bill the Butcher” is fatally wounded by shrapnel from a nearby blast.

Repeatedly in Gangs of New York, Scorsese uses cross cutting to suggest equivalences between the epic sweep of history and the particulars of Amsterdam’s narrative. Early in the film, a conversation between Tweed and Cutting about the future of New York is cut against Amsterdam digging in the caves looking for his father’s knife. Later on, the brewing confrontation between Amsterdam and Cutting is juxtaposed with the chaos of the riots sweeping through New York. History intrudes into the narrative.

It’s a staggering climax, in large part because it seems to suggest that the battle for the nation’s soul at the heart of the film means nothing in isolation. After all, the film’s closing shot confirms that “Priest” Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting are both lost to history. The closest thing that Gangs of New York can offer to a happy ending has Amsterdam and Jenny writing themselves out of history, literally walking out of frame as New York is built in that closing shot. There is no catharsis, no satisfaction. Cutting is dead, but the world keeps spinning.

After all, the conflicts in Gangs of New York were not necessary a part of history so much as a single expression of forces that repeat and recur across history. Cutting is the embodiment of a particularly monstrous spectre lurking in the nation’s subconscious, but vanquishing him does not vanquish it. The core battle in Gangs of New York has been waged countless times before and since, with many different participants and in many different arenas. A knife to the cut cannot end that struggle, although an unflinching gaze might yet do its part.

The closest thing to optimism within Gangs of New York is its embrace of multiculturalism. America is not a great nation because its new arrivals surrender their culture or identity. Instead, it is a great nation because its new arrivals bring their culture and identity with them. After an assassination attempt, Cutting is horrified at the site of an African American doing an Irish dance. “What in Christ’s name is that?” he laments. “Rhythms of the dark continent, thrown into the kettle with an Irish shindig. Stir it around a few times. Poured out as a fine American mess.”

Of course, Bill is wrong here. That black man doing an Irish dance is perhaps the best expression of American idealism. It’s like finding an Italian cheese shop in Chinatown. Gangs of New York remains one of Scorsese’s messiest and most divisive films, a memory of a dream clumsily and hastily recalled in waking moments. Then again, Gangs of New York is a tale of America’s past, its present and its future. It is only fitting that it should be “a fine American mess.”

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