VHS Revival revisits Martin Scorsese’s grand guignol of American history.
It is no secret that world history is documented by the victors.
Not only do they tell us how they won and for what reasons, they are able to bend and embellish those facts as their intentions dictate. Systems of power create heroes and villains. They tell us what lessons we should learn, and how best to live our lives if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past. Above all else, they insist that we be proud of our fallen leaders, while courageously placing our faith in those who will inevitably decide our futures.
Gangs of New York lays waste to those historical pretensions, painting a bloody picture of the savagely grand guignol – a story as fantastical in presentation as it is authentic in its depictions. It begins with the infamous battle of Five Points on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of the few unseemly events that was actually documented in the history books – albeit it as a mere footnote – and explores the vast corruption of American democracy and the politics of the savage streets.
Mulberry Street… and Worth… Cross and Orange… and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you. – Bill the Butcher
Those streets are here presided over by the tyrannical Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is the most colourful of a cast of characters scribbled with a Dickensian malformation, grotesque caricatures who spit venom and bask in the decadence of proletarian warfare. Bill rules the community with a prodigious blend of draconian cruelty and oddly poignant philosophies, proving to be a man as at home in the throes of debauch as he is in the platitudes of honour and propriety. Having vanquished Liam Neeson’s Priest Vallon, he holds the fallen in high esteem, keeping a picture of the deceased on his mantle and toasting the only man who was ever worthy of his fury. Bill the Butcher is one of the great characters of modern cinema, a savage hypocrite who taps his glass eye with the tip of his blade while speaking with a profound diction that earns the respect of corrupt officials and local thugs alike. Day-Lewis famously came out of retirement for the role, and his is a performance of spellbinding complexity, his slights of endearing pride and explosions of fury breathtakingly novelistic.
Events unravel through the largely unassuming eye of Amsterdam, the son of Priest Vallon, who flees the viscera strewn scene of the Five Points and returns in adulthood to enact his revenge. Amsterdam is played by Scorsese mainstay Leonardo Di Caprio, who is the lead here in title alone. That’s not to say his performance is not exemplary. Instead, his character has more of a perfunctory role, acting as a subtle lens through which we are shown the extravagances of those around him. It is through him that we are are able to become better acquainted with a whole host of elusive personalities, characters such steely pickpocket and main love interest Jenny (Cameron Diaz), hired club and former friend to Vallon, Monk (Brendan Gleeson) and corrupt sheriff Happy Jack, played by a delightfully insidious John C. Reilly, who strolls the Five Points with a self-serving malevolence that is indicative of the society as a whole.
It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you’d think. – Amsterdam Vallon
Crucially, it is through Amsterdam that we are able to gain an intimate understanding of the movie’s true marquee character, The Butcher himself. After witnessing an act of brave loyalty in which Amsterdam pulls his friend from a burning house, Bill takes an instant liking to the young stranger and promptly takes him under his wing. Perhaps regarding him as the son he never had, the seething scourge of the Five Points reveals a much more tender side, teaching Amsterdam how to earn, and displaying the most effective ways to slay a man by thrusting his blade into the gutted pig which hangs from his ceiling like a punching bag. Amsterdam befriends The Butcher with duplicitous intentions, but when he instinctively stops an assassination attempt on his pseudo-mentor he becomes a character of great conflict, torn between the teachings of his surrogate father and the father of distant memory who he so brutally vanquished.
It is the richness of the movie’s characters that prove to be Scorsese’s biggest triumph; those, and the crudely realised world they inhabit. The vast and glorious sets which represent Old New York are simply astonishing, the result of many struggles both physical and financial, and it is impossible to not become completely immersed in the images he has so painstakingly imagined. This is a no holds barred revisionist history of the years leading up to the American Civil War, a time when votes were bought and sold, while thousands of men were bribed and drafted to the battlefields upon which they would inevitably meet their demise. Incidentally, those proletarians forced into battle – many of them refugees fleeing the Irish Famine – could buy their way out of the draft for three-hundred dollars. The fact that they didn’t have a scrap of bread between them was the apparent reason for this show of empathy.
My father was killed in battle, too. 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. – Walter ‘Monk’ McGinn
It might be called a miracle that American democracy could be forged out of this inhumane and unforgiving landscape, and that is certainly the stance here, as one last battle of independent honour is crushed by the emerging war, only to dissolve into an image of a modern, seemingly democratic New York Landscape. But upon closer inspection, it seems that not much has changed in regards to the way in which the world operates. The only thing that is different is how that operation is presented and received.
The Civil War was one promoted by the victors as a humane fight against slavery, but any free-thinking individual will understand that wars are not the moral crusades they are portrayed as being; they are acts of oppression and terror, the pursuit of power and control. It is unlikely that those ruling classes of the late 19th century suddenly had a change of heart in regards to the people they enslaved and abused. The fact is, slavery was no longer pragmatic, and the true nature of the Civil War was a struggle among the business elite. On one side you had the modern industrial movement led by the British, and on the other the outmoded plantations for which slavery was essential.
The fact is, today’s society holds many similarities to that which appears in Gangs of New York. There is still widespread violence in the streets and tyrannical figures such as Bill the Butcher with their fingers in political pies. There is corrupt law enforcement. There are conveniently flexible laws and underhanded tactics – the same which see thousands of impressionable young men die in wars which are fought for nothing more than financial gain – while the disparity between the common man and private power has perhaps never been so prominent. But unlike those rabid dogs who fought for what little they could gain, we are merely domesticated animals, dictated to by a system of sophisticated propaganda that keeps us largely in the dark.