Gangs and Government

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Gangs and Governments

by Daniel McCarthy

Gangs of New York is about as seasonally inappropriate as can be. There’s no peace on earth or goodwill to anyone in Martin Scorsese’s bloody new film about gang warfare in mid-19th century New York City. For that reason it isn’t likely to do well at the box office, although it does provide an invaluable respite for men who’ve had to take the kids to see The Santa Clause 2 more than once or sit through the latest Sandra Bullock / Jennifer Lopez romantic sniffler with the wife or girlfriend. There’s nothing like ultraviolence to cleanse the pallet of any lingering sentimental aftertaste. Gangs is also a film for those of us who can’t tell an ork from a Klingon.

Most importantly though, Gangs of New York dramatizes the contrast between two kinds of organized violence, the ethnic criminal gang and the State. Unlike Scorsese’s earlier Casino and Goodfellas, there’s little glamorization of underworld here; in fact, there are really no sympathetic characters at all, although the lead villain, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, does have a malevolent magnetism of sorts. But as bad as the gangs are — murderous, treacherous, racist, and petty — the film quite clearly makes them out to be the lesser evil. Scorsese may mean to make a Hobbesian point here, that the overwhelming violence of the State is what it takes to secure civilization, but whatever interpretation he intends the evidence itself is beyond dispute. The gangs of New York are nothing next to the gang that runs the State.

The film opens and closes with street battles. The first of these is the 1846 Battle of the Five Points between a gang of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, and the native gangs led by Bill the Butcher. The second is a reprise of that battle fought against the backdrop of the draft riots of 1863. In between we follow the story of Amsterdam Vallon (a lifeless Leonardo DiCaprio), son of the slain leader of the Dead Rabbits, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Amsterdam wants revenge on Bill the Butcher for killing his father, and is willing to use either guile or force to get it. His mission brings him closer to Bill than he had expected, and also brings him into contact with a girl thief, Jenny Everdeane (eye-pleasing Cameron Diaz), with whom he’s soon sharing a bed. This is less a plot than a series of genre conventions, but the atmospheric setting, not to mention bouts of intense bloodshed, stop it from getting too boring. Day-Lewis is the only stand-out; his Bill Cutting is the most memorable cinema villain in recent history and by himself would make the film worth watching.

Both immigrant and native gangs have a code of honor of sorts. When they fight they agree to terms of combat — when and where the battle will be met, what weapons will be used. They have rules of war which they take seriously. There is even a degree of respect accorded to a fallen foe, if he has proved himself worthy. Bill the Butcher cherishes the memory of Priest Vallon, of whom he says "I killed the last honorable man years ago." Similarly, vanquished enemies are accorded some mercy; we meet the survivors of Priest Vallon’s Dead Rabbits later in the film, and most seem to have been allowed to live in peace, albeit with some significant restrictions (of which I cannot say more without revealing too much of the plot). Yet none of this leavens the brutal nature of the gangs: they murder, steal, and extort for a living and get their jollies from random acts of cruelty. They also have a habit of stabbing one another in the back: they’re not that honorable.

And then we have the government. Young Amsterdam Vallon is amazed to learn that different branches of the government are fighting their own wars against one another. Metropolitan police and fire services clash with municipal police and firemen. "Boss" Tweed (William Broadbent) doesn’t so much keep control of the city as simply keep his own revenues flowing by cutting deals with all sides and betraying allies whenever convenient. While the film generally takes a sympathetic view of Irish immigrants, it is scathing in its portrayal of Tweed manipulating them for their votes, buying them off or negotiating with gangs to coerce immigrants (and natives) into going to the polls and voting the right way. The immigrants are all so much fodder for the Tammany machine, in what’s an exact parallel of the way in which masses of immigrants even today are fodder for the Democratic Party. Unfortunately Scorsese cannot resist pulling his punch in the election day scene, where he seems to suggest that Tammany’s corruption is not really so bad if it at least advances the fortunes of ethnic minorities. That aside, the picture he paints of the "democratic process" is not a flattering one, and given the election scandals of recent years it’s hard to think that the criticism here is merely historical.

But even Tammany is a sideshow compared to Lincoln’s war, waged in the background throughout the film. The hapless new immigrants are not only bribed and coerced into the Tammany machine, they’re also conscripted and sent off to kill and be killed by other Americans. The gang war between the immigrants and natives is only a microcosm of the larger war being fought behind the scenes. But with several important differences. The ethnic gangs don’t have to conscript their fighters, and the federal army doesn’t obey the quaint rules of war that the gangs have. At the climax of the movie the army moves in to quash draft rioters. While the Dead Rabbits and the natives face off with sticks and knives, as they’d agreed to in their join war council, the federal troops come in with rifles and artillery. The carnage surpasses anything seen in the gang fight at the start of the movie. Then the snow on the ground was colored pink by the mayhem; here, at the end, there’s no snow, but the blood runs ankle deep in the bare streets. It’s not a brawl, as we’d seen in the beginning. It’s a massacre.

The very end of the film gets a bit sentimental and, together with sporadic hints earlier, suggests that Scorsese wants to say that all this slaughter was necessary to make America. The U2 theme song for the movie is "The Hands that Built America." In a sense, the characters of this film, the immigrants, natives and unseen warlords in Washington, DC, did build America, but it was a new America, a centralized nation-state, that they built, and they built it on the bones and ashes of the old 1789 Republic. It may be true that the overwhelming force of the federal army put an end to these particular gangs of New York, but in the long run what did we get? There’s no shortage of gang violence in the US today, even with the federal tyranny in place, and in terms of narrowsighted, vindictive battles over honor and power, well, States are even better at those than ethnic mobs are. Just look at the feud between the Bushes and Saddam Hussein.

Gangs of New York is a morally bleak film, with its unsympathetic characters and casual violence, but it’s a serious one, well worth seeing — even apart from Day-Lewis’s performance — for what it shows about the realities of gangs and governments alike. Whatever Scorsese himself may or may not have intended, in showing the bloody reality of this episode in American history, Gangs of New York is, in its moral vision, deeply anti-statist.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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