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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Blood Stays On The Blade

Gangs of New York & Paradise Alley

Seaghán Ó Murchú

As Martin Scorsese’s film opens, we are told that ‘St Michael the Archangel drove Satan out of Paradise’ — Paradise Square being the local plot upon which the first of many battles in Gangs of New York commences. Such a struggle — self-consciously mythic symbols — comprises the movie’s theme, fought over in the Five Points slum of Manhattan and across the country in the American Civil War: who is in charge of the nation’s destiny? Is it the nativists or the Irish, coming in 15,000 a week to Castle Island? The abolitionists and the slaves and the teeming masses, or those who got there first and got theirs first?

Daniel Day-Lewis, literally tongue-in-cheek, has great fun with his never more sinister than when amusing character: Bill the Butcher, the local “native” cut-throat, an anti-Catholic godfather in cahoots with Boss Tweed (Tammany Hall’s rousingly sardonic, oily pol played with unctuous hypocrisy by Jim Broadbent) controls New York City by dividing the immigrants so as to conquer them. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese veterans, both enliven the texture of the director’s vision with golds, sepias, Fellinesque carnival and bordello and church. History aflame: the whole film saturates with a familiarity surprising us: within the urban core, we see what looks more like ramshackle frontier facades and half-built tenements. The rawness of lives spent begging, whoring, brawling and toiling truly scrapes at us — the first sounds we hear in the film are those of a razor upon flesh. A fine scene shows a grimy saloon where the lyrics of ‘New York Girls’ comment (contrasting with Howard Shore’s clumsy score, sprinklings of Irish folk enliven the film’s texture all too infrequently — why Robbie Robertson is its ‘musical director’ is anybody’s guess) on its motley females for hire within. Almost like the bar scene in Star Wars. Such examples illustrate how the movie’s dynamism better sustains itself in sumptuous set design and off-hand nuances than a gripping storyline. The sheer weight of two and three-quarter hours drags down too much of the playing time into leaden set-pieces visually stunning but often dramatically inert. The problem is that two major events here conflate clumsily into one clichéd narrative.

Since the film starts in 1846, the earlier New York has not yet been really taken over by enough invading Irish. The revenge plot set up here holds no surprises: melodramatic convention leaves Leonardo diCaprio’s vengeful ‘Amsterdam’ and Cameron Diaz’ pickpocketing prostitute ‘Jenny’ with little opportunity to deliver much beneath their characters’ superficial dialogue. After a powerful brawl, the film jumps ahead to 1862; now the Irish masses are much more threatening, although Boss Tweed meets the boats with soup, bread, and — after those embarking immediately sign in as citizens — an appeal to these unwashed hordes to vote Tammany. The oul’ Oirish boyos from the slum have long been broken up; one has turned traitor, one’s a cop, one’s been shunted aside. Soon, another will prove an informer: Irish American plot devices always endure, long before Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney. Here the Bowery Boys are still vehemently anti-papist. Thankfully, despite the prominent medal and crucifix expected in a Scorsese movie about betrayal and redemption and blood-sacrifice, we are spared a gunrunning priest, although the one cleric shown here looks pretty menacing precisely because of his oddly Christ-like mien. The ‘Priest’ in the opening is only that in costume: the father of the son who seeks to avenge his death, the Kerry-born leader of the pack, with a ‘dog-collar’; protecting his neck and packing a handy-sized Celtic cross (where do you buy these?) as his chosen weapon. Ah, no heavy-handed symbolism here to be sure.

Not much insight might be expected from an action film, and here Brendan Gleeson (Monk McGinn) delivers the obligatory nod to the past. The Irish have fought the invader for a thousand years, he tells Amsterdam, but he never thought the war would follow them here to these new shores. I suppose Monk’s counting Vikings as the Saxon precursors to make it already much longer than the rhetorical 800 years of oppression rebels a century and a half later have rejected. Gleeson’s role appears to have been more substantial than the film as shown presents, along with Liam Neeson’s and John C. Reilly’s personae. All fine actors, they need more space to act than the script and editing allow them here. There are lapses throughout that may be faulted due to the battles fought between Miramax and Scorsese over a cut that the director delivered of about 3:40. The overwhelming heft, for the eye and ear, that this film drops into the viewer’s squirming lap leaves you with Gangs of New York as too much for one sitting. What could have been either an intriguing look into the motley peoples already comprising NYC: Chinese, blacks, Germans, Poles, ‘natives’ and of course Irish or the draft riots recedes into quick peeks: the varieties of criminal gangs, the Asian subculture, the downtown aristocracy, political corruption, the fire brigades, and the free blacks, to name a few-becomes more a vivid but fragmented dream once you’ve emerged from the theatre.

While the final part of the film revives you with a fantastically edited montage and frantic voiceover as the draft riots break out and the Irish reject having to pay $300 to buy out of forced conscription in a war they see fought to free blacks who will only undercut the immigrants’ own hard-won barely-paid employment, it’s too much too late. This should have been its own film alone. Awkwardly, the film must make out the Irish to be bigots and lynchers even as it tries to also explain the draft riots (still the most deadly in U.S. history) as a class war against the Yankee cabal. The Irish, after all, were heavily represented both among the rioters and those who sought to end the riots among the police and the soldiery. After already a feature-length film about Amsterdam’s long-planned comeuppance of his father’s killer, now we see the riots manipulated as a backdrop for Amsterdam’s own duel to the death. It gets confusing and rather unbelievable. As the natives and the Irish face off at Five Points, the U.S. Navy happens to simultaneously bombard Paradise Square. Talk about Scorsese’s mean streets. No deus present, except the priest, but quite an assault ex machina.

We have to watch survivors staggering through smoke, and the last image of the film incorporates the Twin Towers. The script and symbols insist — powerfully but hamfistedly — in that multicultural indoctrination so urged upon current Americans as to this film’s relevance. Yet what a jumble: the condition of the blacks never is clarified: some live in Five Points, so why then the fight against them? The role hinted at between Amsterdam and the Chinese: another puzzle. The class gap between the nativists and municipal hegemony: rushed through. All the other newly arrived Europeans in the presumably polyglot city: barely acknowledged. Although a welcome bit of Gaelic here and there shows just how foreign the Irish could be to the ‘natives’, much in this film appears to have been lost on the cutting room floor. But still we have time for the finale, rising into yet another bombastic U2 song, ‘The Hands that Built America.’ All I could think about was why we had to hear the band in the opening clip, synthesizers and all, circa 1846, and how ‘The Man that Built America’ had already been taken by Horslips.

Paradise Alley appeared a few months ago from historical researcher turned novelist Kevin Baker. I read it before watching the film, and its explanations of the riots deepen what in the film becomes rapid voiceover and snippets of dialogue alone. The action of this novel — set not only in Five Points but ranging over the city — occurs during the draft riots, but concentrates upon the black-Irish interactions that preceded and precipitated the reaction. The best scene in Gangs for me showed in one take this panorama: Irish coming off the boat, being pelted with rocks by native gangs, taken aside by Tammanyites and handed bread and a reminder to vote. Then passing a table where men sign up to be a citizen and then sign up for the army. They change into uniforms, are armed with a reminder ‘keep your muskets dry’, and bid farewell to mothers and families. As they board their second ship, wondering aloud where Tennessee is, we see overhead coffins being taken off the troopship and placed on the wharf near the point of embarkation of the immigrant Irish only minutes before.

Baker heats this tension into which the Irish arrive and simmers another potboiler similar in its revenge and violence to Scorsese’s recipe. Both draw upon the same sources. But Baker offers characters — male and female, unlike Scorsese’s masculine imbalance — scarred by famine, by slavery, and by exploitation that we comprehend more convincingly than the scenes in Gangs. True, a six-hundred page novel may take us longer to navigate than even a Hollywood blockbuster, but the pay-offs reveal a complexity of relationships in the already filthy, squalid, and sordid metropolis that set designers and costumers can furnish only for the exteriors. Baker (if again his novel sags under its own ambition) nonetheless can enter the consciousness of both an escaped slave and famine survivors more powerfully than Scorsese can in the predictability of his appealingly stuffed but ultimately hollow characters portrayed in his film. See it for its wonderful look - Dickens meets Sergio Leone - but for the depth, read Baker or the best novel on the event, Peter Quinn’s 1994 Banished Children of Eve. Now, that should have been a movie!

For more Gangs of New York, see Mike Davis's
The Bloody Streets of New York



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

12 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Political Violence and Questions of Legitimacy
Christina Sherlock


Acquiring Transmission Points
Anthony McIntyre


The Blood Stays on the Blade

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Identity Under Siege
Paul de Rooij


No War On Iraq
Davy Carlin


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


9 January 2003


Pressure on Sinn Fein Grows
Tommy McKearney


Hiroshima non amour: Desmond Fennell’s predictable dissent

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Bush and Blair are going for it: Time to Act
Davy Carlin


Lied His Way In - Lied His Way Out
Anthony McIntyre


Six Soldiers
Annie Higgins


Imperialism - It Hasn't Gone Away, You Know
Brian Kelly


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists


The Letters page has been updated.




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