Scorsese`s “Gangs:” A (Circus) Train Wreck
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
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
"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
Scorsese, maker of
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
of New York” to give his mobcentric theory of
America some credibility by pushing it back to the
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
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
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.
1846 prologue establishes that credibility is not
Scorsese`s highest priority. The movie was filmed on a
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
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.
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
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
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.
article in the Oct. 1951 Journal of Negro History
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).
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.
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.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and
January 05, 2003