Before there was John Gotti, before Carlo Gambino, before Lucky Luciano, there was Bill “the Butcher” Poole.
The 19th-century boxer, fixer and, yes, actual butcher, was a forerunner of the mobsters who later controlled New York City. Poole began as a thug with the Bowery Boys street gang and rose to become a massive figure in the 1850s. He enswathed himself in the Stars and Stripes, squeezing his corrupt grip over the Five Points area and steering the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party, whose political agenda didn’t amount to more than terrorizing Irish-Catholic immigrants.
Martin Scorsese tells Poole’s story—dramatically if not always accurately—in Gangs of New York, an epic undertaking that presents Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th Century as a cross between Hell’s Kitchen and the Wild West. Gangs is based on a 1928 book of the same name that Scorsese discovered as a young man. He was stunned to learn that he grew up just blocks from its setting and yearned to tell the story for 30 years (keep reading to see the odd casting choices he considered along the way).
The movie strays from the more factual book, but that’s to be expected. Bill Poole becomes Bill Cutting—the perfect name for a butcher. The character of Amsterdam Vallon is invented to build story and allow for the casting of box-office giant Leonardo DiCaprio. And the requisite love triangle is created between DiCaprio, Bill the Butcher and a saucy pickpocket played (unconvincingly) by Cameron Diaz.
The film’s most egregious factual flaw? Most of Gangs takes place during the Civil War, and the inevitable showdown between the main characters occurs as New York burns during the Draft Riots of 1863. Problem is, Poole was actually murdered in 1855. Bill the Butcher had as much to do with that draft uprising as Joe the Plumber.
But so what? You’re not watching a documentary; you’re watching an engaging look at the genesis of organized crime in America. Think of it as Roots meets The Departed.
DiCaprio does a fine job as a Dickensian character who becomes Cutting’s protégé, but eventually rebels and forms the Dead Rabbits gang (not named after the furry rodent, but a corruption of the Gaelic word ráibéad, meaning “a man to be feared”). There’s a strong supporting cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson and Jim Broadbent, who’s charmingly smarmy as Tammany Hall boss William Tweed. Other historical figures make brief appearances, including editor Horace Greeley and showman P.T. Barnum.
But the real reason to watch the film is to witness the gargantuan performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. As Bill the Butcher, he preens, he struts, he rants. Dressed in a stovepipe hat and checkered pants, he carves enemies with a meat cleaver and picks his teeth with a steak knife. He’s got a handlebar mustache, slicked-down hair and a glass eye—which he taps with a stiletto. This is what you want in your prehistoric godfather—a cross between Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes and Scarface’s Tony Montana.
Day-Lewis, as always, immersed himself in his role. He perfected the 19th-century Noo Yawk inflection by listening to early recordings (including some by poet Walt Whitman) and talking in the accent for eight months—on and off the set. He hired circus performers to teach him knife throwing and apprenticed in a butcher shop to learn how to incise and gut carcasses. He became Bill the Butcher—so much so that after a few days, he got into some celebrated post-shooting fistfights.
If Gangs of New York has shortcomings, it’s that it tries to be too much. Essentially, Scorsese presents old Gotham as a battleground among three groups. The first—represented by The Butcher—is the working-class natives, English and Dutch descendents whose gangs hold sway over the town’s day-to-day running. The second—their sworn enemies—are the new Irish immigrants, who form their own gangs just to scrap for survival. And the third is the establishment, represented by corrupt cops and politicians; they are the least noble of the three.
“The country was up for grabs,” Scorsese said in an interview soon after Gangs’ release. “New York was a powder keg. . . . It was chaos, tribal chaos. Gradually, there was a street-by-street, block-by-block working out of democracy as people learned somehow to live together. If democracy didn’t happen in New York, it wasn’t going to happen anywhere.”
Perhaps, but you won’t see much of the democratic process in this film. Mostly there’s fighting—vicious, close-up hand-to-hand brawling with clubs and fists and knives. Lots of knives. And lots of factions: rich against poor, white against black, gang against gang.
The film opens with a Gladiator-like battle between natives and immigrants. That culminates with the death of the Irish leader, “Priest” Vallon (Neeson), whom we come to see as the only honorable man in New York. Priest’s young son, Amsterdam, witnesses the slaying at the hands of Bill the Butcher. And that sets up the rest of the story—the son must avenge his father.
Flash forward 16 years, and the little boy comes back as DiCaprio. Not exactly the intimidating sort (especially when he shares screen time with Day-Lewis), but sharp enough to work his way into Bill’s inner circle where he can plot his revenge. He becomes the Butcher’s surrogate son and even takes on the boss’s ex-mistress (Diaz) as a lover. Shrinks would have had a field day with this if they’d existed in 1862.
The story is slow to unfold—hey, this movie runs nearly three hours—and you watch it all through a Hieronymus Bosch-like underworld of bar brawls, bareknuckle fights and toothless people betting on a caged showdown between a dog and a pack of sewer rats.
It all leads up to that final face-off between the two main characters, yoked to those infamous draft riots. You’ll have to see the movie to see how that plays out, but we were disappointed in the payoff—or lack thereof.
HIT: Gangs of New York presents the city as a smoky, claustrophobic tangle of brick streets, sagging tenements and intricate catacombs. These are complex sets with no digital shortcuts or computer-generated backgrounds. Surprisingly, Scorsese decided that the best way to recreate New York City of the 1860s was to travel 4300 miles to the Cinecitta Studio in Rome, where a five-block neighborhood was built. Gangs cost $100 million (twice the budget of any Scorsese film to date) and took eight months to film. It shows.
MISS: Cameron Diaz seems out of place as Jenny, the weathered and scarred 19th-century grifter. With those straight white teeth, she’s a little too cute for the neighborhood.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “This historical epic fudges a few facts, tacks on a pandering love story and trips on its own grand ambitions. And yet here is a film I give the highest rating. Nuts? I don’t think so. Gangs of New York is something better than perfect: It’s thrillingly alive . . . [Scorsese] makes us see ourselves in the immigrant tribes who fought with knives, picks, axes and shovels to carve out a piece of turf on the mean streets of New York.”—Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
CASTING CALL: When he first conceived Gangs, Scorsese wanted to cast John Belushi as Bill the Butcher and Dan Aykroyd as Amsterdam Vallon. Imagine what that would have become. As the project evolved over the years, other possibilities included Robert De Niro and Mel Gibson as Amsterdam, and Willem Dafoe as Bill the Butcher. Sarah Michelle Gellar was hired to play Jenny, but had to quit over a shooting conflict with her TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Take a close look at Johnny, the friend who betrays Amsterdam. Try to picture him 20 years younger. Yep, that’s Henry Thomas, who peaked as an adorable 10-year-old playing Elliott in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
REALITY CHECK: Several items that appear in the movie were not available in America in 1863, including latex balloons, a microphone and bananas.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The blue American eagle design on Bill the Butcher’s glass eye. Very cool.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: At 167 minutes, Gangs is a bit of a project to undertake. Just be thankful that Scorsese cut it down from its original four hours.
BODY COUNT: We stopped keeping score at 100, about one hour into the film.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Amsterdam plans to kill Bill the Butcher to avenge his father’s death. But working undercover, he becomes more like Bill’s protégé than his enemy. The men attend a theater showing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin one night, and a stranger walking up the aisle suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots at Bill.
The Butcher is wounded, but Amsterdam’s quick action—tackling, wrestling and killing the assassin—saves Bill’s life.
“It’s a funny feeling being taken under the wing of a dragon,” Amsterdam muses in narration. “It’s warmer than you’d think.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Far higher than any of Scorsese’s four other movies on our list. Throats are slashed, arms get hacked off by cleavers, throats are crushed. Watch for the large jar of souvenir severed ears, kept on a bar top like pickled eggs.
BEST LINE: Bill the Butcher: “I’m 47 years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The final scene shows the development of the New York skyline from 1863 on, and closes with a view of the World Trade Center towers. The movie was completed before the attack on the towers, but not released until a year after. There was debate over whether to leave the shot in, with Scorsese having the final word:
“It had to end with that, or the movie shouldn’t have existed,” he said. “The people in the film and the people of New York—good, bad, and indifferent—were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Musketeers of Pig Alley. Well, maybe not, but Scorsese has always said that the 17-minute silent-era short by D. W. Griffith influenced his crime movies more than any other.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”