Gangs of New York — The movie that’s sort of, kind of about the Civil War

Amsterdam and Cutting

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) is a gritty look into the riots of New York City before and during the Civil War. The film begins in 1846 with the gathering of two rival sides: natives and Irishmen. They meet at the center of five streets known as “Five Points” in order to settle conflict over the Irishmen’s and Irishwomen’s right to live and work in the city and in America. The protagonist of the story, a young Irish boy in 1846 by the name of Amsterdam, watches his father die at the hands of a nativist that goes by the name of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. This begins Amsterdam’s quest for revenge on Cutting as the young boy is sent to an orphanage. Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns and finds the city filled with corrupt leaders, including Cutting, who now runs Five Points. The Civil War is in its second year by this point, and the dead are returning home in coffins on the harbor just as Irish immigrants leave their boats and set foot in America for the first time. Amsterdam joins in with Cutting’s corrupt dealings within the Five Points in hopes of getting close to his enemy. He meets a woman named Jenny who is under the care of Cutting since she was an orphan child. Drama arises between Cutting and Amsterdam over Jenny and Amsterdam’s plot to kill Cutting. Amsterdam attempts a different method and amasses the Irish people of Five Points in order to take control of the town. The final confrontation takes place during the New York City draft riots of 1863, and Cutting is killed by cannon fire.

Gangs of New York is not about the Civil War; however, it is set within the context of the war. One of the first scenes depicts the celebration of and resistance to the emancipation by Lincoln. A number of other scenes also impress upon the audience the problems facing the North during the war, mainly that they needed soldiers. As Irish immigrants apply for citizenship they also sign up to be soldiers, put on their uniforms, grab their guns, and get on another boat, this one headed for the South. While this is often considered a movie about the draft riots, it would be more accurate to describe it as a film with the draft riots in the last 10 minutes. This film does offer an interesting and modern look at the racist and uncooperative North during the Civil War. People of the North are often regarded as abolitionists, and at the very least, a safe place for African Americans. This movie illustrates a small part of the difficulties they faced. The war is not a positive event in this movie; it means death and conflict. Given that Scorsese had hoped to make this movie in the 1970s, it may be possible that the Vietnam War and the subsequent wars affected this perspective.

Cocks, Jay. Gangs of New YorkDVD. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Santa Monica, CA: Miramax Films, 2002.

IMDb. Gangs of New York. Photos. (accessed April 3, 2013).


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