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Scorsese's "Gangs:" A (Circus) Train Wreck
By churning out countless Westerns in the mid-20th Century, Hollywood helped validate the idea that America was made by settlers, especially the cowboys of the Great Plains.
Around 1970, however, some brilliant young Italian-American directors and actors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro asserted a new vision of American history. America, they implied, was made not by settlers, but by Catholic and Jewish immigrants, especially the gangsters of the big cities.
Gangster movies had long been popular for the same reasons as cowboy movies: both mobsters and frontiersmen live in a Hobbesian state of nature, beyond the reaches of the law. Their life is thus full of interest.
But the notion that 20th Century urban gangsters were central to American identity probably never occurred to anybody before "The Godfather" films. Obviously, America had been around for a long, long time before Lucky Luciano got off the boat from Sicily. Indeed, historian David Hackett Fischer's great book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America shows how much of American culture was transplanted intact from Britain in the 17th Century. Much of what's distinctive about the American character today was already visible to de Tocqueville 170 years ago – before mass immigration began.
Scorsese, maker of Mean Streets and Casino, seems to have been bothered by this objection. So, he has spent over 30 years and more than $100 million to film the 1928 book "Gangs of New York" to give his mobcentric theory of America some credibility by pushing it back to the mid-19th Century.
The film's slogan: "America Was Born In The Streets." To Scorsese, who grew up in New York City's Little Italy, the most important event of 1863 was not the Battle of Gettysburg, but the New York Draft Riots.
Dubious. But Gangs of New York still might be worth seeing if it was Scorsese at his best - as visceral as Raging Bull or as turbocharged as Goodfellas. Sadly, it's not close. Judged shot by shot, Gangs isn't badly made, but it never ignites as Scorsese's best movies did. Compared to the awe-inspiring work Peter Jackson has done bringing the even larger-scale Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen, the 60-year-old Scorsese looks past his prime.
To call Gangs a train wreck of a movie doesn't do justice to its lurid excess. It's like watching the crash of a vintage Barnum & Bailey circus train, complete with Daniel Day-Lewis as the ringmaster, dressed appropriately in striped tailcoat, black boots, and black hat.
Indeed, at the climax, an immigrant mob burns down P.T. Barnum's museum and a terrified elephant escapes.
Gangs' 1846 prologue establishes that credibility is not Scorsese's highest priority. The movie was filmed on a humongous "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" post-apocalyptic-looking set, half catacombs and half landlocked "Waterworld." Scorsese stages a grotesquely violent and implausible street fight among hundreds of Irish immigrants and Day-Lewis' Nativists. They mill about for ten minutes, hacking each other to death with meat cleavers and axes. In reality, according to historians John Keegan and Victor Davis Hanson, even with shields, armor, military training, and martial discipline, armies during the edged weapons era found it hard to keep soldiers, much less street thugs, from fleeing immediately.
Eventually, Day-Lewis kills the head immigrant (played by Liam Neeson) and takes control of the Five Points slum. Sixteen years later, Neeson's son (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to avenge his father.
Gangs isn't really the politically-correct fable about evil Nativists and victimized immigrants that most reviewers have made it appear. To achieve that, Scorsese would have had to stop the movie before the Civil War. The director, in fact, ultimately seems bored with the boyish DiCaprio as the cute Irish hero and infatuated with the volcanic Day-Lewis as the brutal Nativist bad guy Bill the Butcher. This is hardly surprising. As he showed in "Raging Bull," in Scorsese's testosterone-addled worldview, a willingness to fight is the highest virtue.
Buried deep inside Gangs is the raw material for a great American tragedy about the Irish immigrant experience in New York from 1846 to 1863. There's a cruel historical irony in the tale of the immigrants who poured into Manhattan after the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. They did not get a warm welcome from native-born Americans, who resented their driving down wages. Nor did Americans want to live near the Irish immigrants, among whom cholera, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and brawling were prevalent, as detailed in Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America. Those too poor or too lower class to simply move away from the immigrants, for example as Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher, fought them in the streets.
When the Civil War came, many Irish and other immigrants in New York refused to fight for the Union that had given them refuge. (And, to be fair, many Irish did fight bravely.) The Gettysburg victory made it likely that the North would eventually win and free the slaves - a prospect that the immigrants did not relish. When the hated draft call-up began a few days later, many of the city's immigrants were primed for an anti-black pogrom that would scare the anticipated hordes of freedmen from coming to New York.
An article in the Oct. 1951 Journal of Negro History recounted:
The New York draft riots of July 1863 had their origin largely in a fear of black labor competition, which possessed the city's Irish unskilled workers. Upon emancipation, they believed, great numbers of Negroes would cross the Mason-Dixon line, underbid them in the Northern labor market and deprive them of jobs. … The New York draft disturbances remain the bloodiest race riots of American history. Police figures on deaths among the white rioters ranged from 1,200 to 1,500, and it is impossible to know how many bodies of Negro victims of the lynch mobs were borne away by the waters on either side of Manhattan Island. Significantly, the Negro population of the metropolis dropped 20% between 1860 and 1865, declining from 12,472 to 9,945.
It's a grim story, but one that needs telling in this era when American history is increasingly being rewritten into an ethnic pageant of bad guys (WASPs) versus good guys (whoever was on the other side).
In reality, there are no permanent good guys or bad guys. There are only enduring patterns of cause and effect. A pervasive one is the Law of Supply and Demand, which has consistently made mass immigration bad for American blacks.
Ultimately, Scorsese waffles. He ends up with neither a realistic tragedy, nor a crowd-pleasing potboiler about multicultural good guys beating up evil bad guys.
He shows just enough of the immigrant pogrom against blacks to undermine simple faith in his putative heroes - but not enough to leave a lasting impression of the true ironies of history.
January 05, 2003