Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) by Martin Scorsese

It has taken me a long time to write this since watching the movie.  I had fully expected to hate the movie.  I mean really hate it.  I was prepared to be exceedingly unkind to Marty.

I have to admit that I was completely surprised.

It’s a cynical point of view to say that History is written by the Winners.  It’s true.  There’s a large dark spot in the telling of American History that runs from the ratification of the Constitution all the way through to World War I.  Yeah, the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark, and Civil War Reconstruction are highlighted from that period.  

What get skipped is the inherent racism and class-ism that was prevalent during that time and laid the foundation for the issues we struggle with still today.

Let’s start with the religious aspect of the story.  There’s a common misconception that the early Colonists valued religious freedom, came to The Colonies to escape persecution, and established a haven in the world for the free expression of religious beliefs.  

Take a more skeptical view of history and you will see that the Colonists were escaping persecution, yes.  The Puritans, especially, so highly regarded in American Mythology, were being persecuted in England during that time.  It wasn’t long before that, though, that they had been the ones in power, had forced the abdication of the King, closed the theatres, and pretty much put the socio-political whammy on anyone who wasn’t a Protestant.  So, in the grand scheme of things, when the monarchy was restored and the Catholics came back into power, what went around came back around.

The Puritans and other Protestants came to the Colonies because they had nowhere else to go.  Several centuries of fighting in Europe and the Catholics and Protestants couldn’t find a way to get along with each other.  

So, what did they do?  Came to the Colonies and set up their own theocracy.  

I know this flies in the face of what everyone “remembers” about early American history.  The Colonists established the idea of Religious Freedom, so long as it was interpreted as Free to Practice What We Preach.  Specifically, that was a Protestantism that was extreme in its views.  Please note that the King James Bible, with all its beautiful language and Elizabethan / Shakespearean dialect refers to the Catholic Pope as the Anti-Christ.

Let me step aside and state clearly that I am not an apologist for the Catholics.  The history of the Papacy is nothing to be particularly proud of.  The Protestants of the time had every right to be dismayed over the actions of the Universal Church and in fear for the future of their mortal souls.

Fast Forward into the 1870’s (-ish) and you find these same animosities still being played out.

And here’s where the story begins.  Open warfare in the streets between Catholic immigrants (well, more-recent immigrants) and the Protestant natives (ha!  Less-recent immigrants).

By the way, I find it exceptionally ironic that the location of Five Points is now the City Hall complex for the City of New York.

Let’s move on to the Class issues.

The main thread of the story follows Amsterdam from a brief point in his childhood when he experiences this open warfare in the streets through his revenge on the murderer of his father.  Ok, that’s a workable enough story line.  As Amsterdam insinuates himself into the establishment, we get to see the inside view of what’s going on.  It’s not without its own agenda, of course, but this is a case of history being told from the point of view of the loser, instead of the winner.  

Amsterdam cozies up with Bill the Butcher.  The historical Bill Poole died several years before this story reaches its climax, but he makes a great anti-hero anyway.  I’m not going to call him a villain.  He certainly is the antagonist in this story and absolutely does some despicable things.  He has a point of view and remains true to it throughout the story.  For all intents and purposes, he is doing what he believes to be right.  

Amsterdam plots his very public revenge, while he and Bill become closer and closer as friends, almost as father and son.  There’s a particularly moving scene where Bill makes it clear the level of respect and admiration he had for Amsterdam’s father, despite “having to kill him”.  Had this been another story in another time, (say, a Restoration-era play, for example), this would have been the moment of catharsis.  Amsterdam would reveal himself, Bill would adopt him as his son, and the two would go on happily ever after working the corruption and killing those who got in the way.

Since this isn’t Restoration (thank God!), we actually get to see some movement in the characters.  Amsterdam keeps his identity secret, and Bill continues on not knowing he has a mole in the house.  Until, of course, Amsterdam is betrayed by one of his friends.  

What we get to see during these scenes is an interesting study of the peculiarities of New York government and governance during the Tammany Hall era.  Boss Tweed ran the show and there was no stopping him.  The “natives” were all in his pocket politically, and the elite lived uptown where they didn’t care what was going on anyway.

When Tweed’s cops tried to bust the Boxing racket, Amsterdam suggests putting the ring on a raft in the river.  This is one of those strange things about New York.  Belmont Park was built outside what was then the City Limits of New York because horse racing was illegal in the city.  Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in West New York (and/or Weehawken, pronounced “Wheeeeeeee! Hawkin” for you Sabrina) because dueling was illegal inside City Limits.

New York has always been like that.  It’s Social Darwinism gone to an extreme.  The rich live in a city that is vastly different from the working stiffs, who themselves are in a city vastly different from the poor.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s the most exciting city in the world, or one of them anyway, but living there is exceptionally difficult.

The wealthy had abdicated their governing power to Tweed because they believed he could keep the city under control, which he did of course.  Tweed used the business and community leaders as his muscle and personal police.  These were mostly the “natives” because they had been there for a generation or two by that time.  The ground-level work was done by the immigrants who were coming in by the thousands.  Everyone was looking one step up on that ladder all the time and doing whatever they could to climb that rung.

Ok, so Amsterdam tries to kill Bill.  But, Amsterdam had already been outed as a traitor and Bill was ready for him.  Amsterdam goes into hiding, rallies his troops, and prepares to replay the battle that his father lost two decades earlier.  His actions cast a long shadow on the politics and society of New York, though, and the seething discontent of the poor comes to a head in the Draft Riots.  Amsterdam kills Bill, Jenny can’t get out of the City (symbolic in itself, but nothing more need be said about that), Five Points is covered in blood, and as near as we can tell, none of Amsterdam’s friends remain alive at the end.  

Now, that’s an ending!

Can one Dead Rabbit spark a revolt?  Yup, but he had better be prepared to lose everything in the process.

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