If the hands that built America are as bloodstained as Gangs of New York makes out, and the fingernails which clawed it up from the streets are really as unkempt as Martin Scorsese would have us believe, then its founding fathers have a lot more to answer for than can be rectified with a turkey every November. Gangs of New York is a complete mess: there’s mud and bodies everywhere, no sidewalk (or even a pavement!) and most of the buildings seem to be held up by a sticky mixture of spit and dried alcohol. Leonardo DiCaprio is greasy, spotty, slitty eyed and anything but suave and even Cameron Diaz, though blossom-like in appearance, is actually mad.
All in all then, a promising start for this enthusiastically brutal depiction of Civil War-era New York. While the North and South are busy fighting each other somewhere far, far away, in New York the Irish and the Natives, lead in an Oscar-gunning performance if ever there was one by Daniel Day-Lewis, are busily scrapping away for supremacy over the Five Points.
Although I was a nipper when the film came out (I’m starting to notice a repetitive trend in my retros here…), Gangs of New York affected me in a way I’d never before experienced from watching a film. As a member of the MTV Generation, the violence and gore naturally left me cold and unmoved for the most part, but the grittiness of the story was something I’d never encountered. I watched it endlessly, bought it on DVD and even made my mum get me the complete screenplay for Christmas (shamefully, some years later the book served as a prop-up for a wonky leg on my cupboard. But still). I can’t really tell you why, but for some reason it was Gangs of New York which introduced me to real grown up film-making as I understand it today.
Gangs of New York cuts no corners when it comes to recreating its mid-19th century namesake. An American historian, whose name I found on Wikipedia, said that the set “couldn’t have been much better”, and indeed it’s the setting over anything else that had the biggest impact on me. When I think of New York its famous skyline is the first thing that comes to mind. Well, barely 150 years ago this grand city was squat, rancid and impressive only for its levels of squalor. The six-strong art direction team has clearly put their heart and soul into turning the Italian plains into New York City. The opening and most bloody scene showing the first battle between the Irish Dead Rabbits Gang and William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting’s Natives takes place on a blisteringly cold day, so cold that even the charred remains of a burnt down church have frozen. It all looks so real and so brutal.
Perhaps the most visually stunning scene also comes from the opening few minutes, as The Dead Rabbits, headed by Liam Neeson as Priest Vallon, prepare for battle. In one sweeping shot, they rise from their underground base through an unfinished building, picking up new and strange characters along the way. Sandy Powell’s stunning costume design becomes all too evident very quickly. Not only are these characters clad realistically (I imagine) but each character is magnificently defined. No two extras look alike, and this is most particularly displayed later in the film when Priest Vallon’s prodigal son (DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points after years in an orphanage and is given the grand tour by childhood friend, Billy. This tour, though, doesn’t cover the best bars or dance halls, or even local no-go zones, but the gangs; each paving stone is earmarked by one of the hundreds of gangs active in New York at this time and each gang has its own uniform and its own style. It’s a joy to behold and I can only imagine the hard work and fun the costume department must have had in bringing this back to life.
But you can have all the silks and fine furs in the world and it wouldn’t mean a thing without the one element crucial to establishing such strong cultural groups: music. It’s without a doubt this film’s soundtrack (one of my all-time favourites) which makes Gangs of New York. The first soundtrack I ever bought on my own steam, it covers everything from traditional Irish folk to what I can only assume is early Chinese hip hop. It adds some touching notes to what would otherwise become almost documentary style scenes; the Irish immigrants arriving in the USA, signing their name as citizens on one form and their name as ‘volunteers’ in the US army on another is beautifully accompanied by ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, a tender ballad following the story of your typical Irish conscript.
Gangs of New York is definitely more visually appealing than it is, um, aurally. By which I mean the script is very good, certainly, but it does not stand up against such strength as the visual elements of this film. It was nominated for an impressive ten Oscars but failed to win any, although if anyone should feel hard done by it’s most definitely the stars of the creative team who took a shining beacon of a modern city, dipped it in blood, threw it to the dogs and came back in an hour’s time to see what was left. And then made a film about it.