The Last Epic

By Kevin Baker

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York begins in the bowels of the earth, which is appropriate, because he is digging deep—perhaps deeper than any filmmaker has ever done before—into the American past.

As the movie opens, the Dead Rabbits, a legendary, Irish street gang in pre-Civil War New York, is preparing for battle against their “Native American” (i.e., Anglo) rivals. Down in the cellars of the Old Brewery, the Rabbits sharpen blades, sharpen teeth, pick up crude clubs. As the Bono soundtrack swells, they march upstairs, kick open a door—and emerge suddenly out onto a gorgeously stark, snow-covered Paradise Square, smack in the middle of the Five Points, and what is more, America.

The scene is thrilling. Before us on the screen is a forgotten people, marching literally up from the depths of history. The Old Brewery was just that, a vast, abandoned beer brewery that became a slum unto itself, but in Scorsese’s depiction its basement bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the Roman catacombs. His Irish immigrants go up to battle with both a Gaelic cross, and a pagan amulet, a brace of dead hares, swinging from a stick before them. They are even led by a “priest,” the fictional gang leader “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson) who wears a protective, clerical-looking leather collar around his throat.

Surely no filmmaker has issued such a brazen challenge to the verities of American history, or to the history of its cinema. It is more than coincidence, surely, that Scorsese’s immigrant troika—the priest, the cross-bearer, the man bearing his obscene gang standard—replaces here the old, Yankee-Doodle-Dandy flag bearer, and fife-and-drum icon that goes back to the Revolution. The copy line of Gangs is “America was born in the streets,” and we are made immediately to understand that Scorsese means it, that by his lights the real America, the one we know today, did not really exist before the immigrants fought their way in.

In many ways these opening moments are the best part of the film. They are so powerful that they all but overwhelm the rest of the movie, because they are all we really need to see. Scorsese does provide another resonant, matching shot much later, when Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Vallon’s son, returns from disgrace and near death to nail a dead rabbit back up in Paradise Square. In this resurrection he walks out through “Bandits’ Roost,” a notorious alleyway near the Five Points immortalized by the great photographer/reformer Jacob Riis, in his book, How the Other Half Lives.

Riis took two photos of the Roost. In the most famous one, which now adorns the cover of the latest printing of Herbert Asbury’s book, The Gangs of New York, it looks like the very wellspring of urban dread. Idle men lounge along the alley walls, and stare menacingly into the camera; one of them is carrying what looks like a club, or even a shotgun. In the other, less-well-known picture, the alleyway is transformed. There is a religious festival going on, the Feast of St. Rocco, and a poignant, homey altar, blazing with candles, has been erected at the back of the Roost.

This is, in short, the yin and yang of the immigrant experience, and Scorsese makes the most of it by having DiCaprio’s character come out of the alley, walking toward where Riis’s camera would have been. We are, for the first time, seeing this world from the immigrant’s point of view.

I don’t know if a comparable shot exists in all of American cinema. What’s more—as Scorsese, the formidable film scholar, was undoubtedly aware—the pictures of Bandits’ Roost also served as inspiration for D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, 1912 two-reeler, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the very first gangster film. Scorsese, in other words, is taking on not only the received history of America, but how that history has been depicted, directly challenging the ghost of Griffith—the earlier, false claimant of a “new birth” for America.

As both these scenes indicate, Gangs of New York is a tremendously ambitious film. It has even been said that—in the age of digital—this may be the last, true movie epic. Certainly, Scorsese’s decision to shoot the film at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios has paid off. The look of the movie is fantastic, almost hyper-realistic. The crude wooden buildings drive home the point that much of antebellum New York was itself little more than a frontier town, raw and violent, and open for the taking.

Scorsese loads his film as well with telling historical details. Here are bucketshop bars that serve beer and whiskey sucked through a rubber hose, straight from the barrel. Here is a genuine ratbaiting—a sport that entailed betting on how many rats a trained terrier could kill—and there is a legendary, gangland bouncer known as “Hellcat Maggie,” who supposedly bit off men’s ears with her well-honed teeth, and kept them in a jar by the bar. Here is a volunteer fire company that breaks up a draft office run by the U.S. Army, and sets off the worst riot in American history.

But what is so significant about Scorsese’s film is not that it may or may not be the last movie epic but that it is the first—at least the first to be made about this other, secret history of America. Think about it. For all that we relentlessly celebrate the immigrant experience, for all that we pay lip service to our multicultural roots—when was the last time you saw a serious film about urban, immigrant life in the nineteenth century? An America this poor, this tempestuous and rebellious and unformed has been depicted only in our most nightmarish, post-apocalyptic fantasies—whose costumes and gang loyalties Gangs also evokes.

To many viewers the squalor and the violence of Gangs will be stunning, even shocking. Others will debate the accuracy of what they are seeing, but here the best dictum is that of Ned Buntline, America’s first great dime novelist: “When the truth meets the legend, print the legend.” Asbury’s book is a secret history unto itself, a lurid, colorful collection of gangland anecdotes that has been around since 1928, fascinating even the likes of Jorge Luis Borges with what he termed its “barbarian cosmologies.” Certainly the realities of that old America are as astonishing as anything Asbury could make up.

Where the book truly leads Scorsese astray is in his inability to imposed a strong story it. The plot of his adaptation is a simple revenge tale, and its one-dimensional characters repeatedly stand up to make stilted, often incoherent speeches about America. The artist seems overwhelmed by his love of ritual, the same devotion to ceremony and myth that has served him so well in films from Mean Streets to The Age of Innocence.

The old New York demimonde was both more and less lawless than how Scorsese has depicted it, but what’s worse is how he has distorted crucial power relationships. The Irish did not wait around for Leonardo or any other king to return to them; the whole basis of their victory in the new world was collective action, through the political machines that enabled them to take over entire urban governments. New York’s politicoes controlled the gangs—not the other way around—and the police were something of a gang unto themselves, who singlehandedly held the city in the Union during the Civil War draft riot.

The draft riot is Gangs’ big finish, but it looks and feels like something crudely tacked on. The whole rest of the film has centered around the confrontation between the Irish and the Nativist, “Know-Nothing,” anti-immigrant gangs, battling for the soul of America in the most elemental manner in the streets. The riot, by contrast, was more of a class rebellion that turned into racist massacre, with the Irish both leading the lynching of numerous African Americans and—in the police, and the military units that were hurried back to the city—ultimately crushing the revolt.

Scorsese, to his credit, shows a quick scene or two of the attacks on New York’s black citizens, but these are too fleeting to truly register. Before this, moreover, the one, minor black character in the whole movie has been a Dead Rabbit whose whole purpose seems to be to signal who the good white guys are—something that has become the worst sort of Hollywood cliché.

But it would be all but impossible to sort out the full power relationships in any film about this dense, immensely complicated period (which is why, as any of us novelists will tell you, books are such a superior medium.). Scorsese’s work is a triumph, simply by ripping away the veil of our conventional history, and replacing it with the brawling, bleeding, yearning America that was really our national past.

He makes the critical connections throughout the movie, both cinematic and historical, and it is not only that his flimsy wooden houses tie us to the cow towns, and the frontier. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Nativist gang leader speaks in an accent and patois redolent of both mid-twentieth-century New York and and modern movie gangsters—something that is altogether appropriate, since our modern mob is descended directly from the street gangs portrayed here. At the very end of the movie there is an eerie shot of the World Trade Center towers, shot prior to 9/11, and an even more evocative, and premonitory shot during the draft riot when, after a catastrophic bombardment, the DiCaprio and Day-Lewis characters stumble blindly about in an enormous cloud of dust—the end of their world, at least, upon them.

“…no one will ever even knew we were here,” one of them eulogizes sadly. They will now.

Kevin Baker is the author of Paradise Alley (HarperCollins), a novel set in New York during the draft riots.

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