The protagonist is Amsterdam Vallon, the son of priest Vallon. The movie opens with a preparation of war between the natives and the immigrants. The priest Vallon heads the Dead Rabbits, an Irish-American gang, and fights against a nativist mob led by William Cutting. The Priest is killed on Paradise Square by Cutting, while Amsterdam watches on. Young Amsterdam is sent off to boarding school on Blackwell (Roosevelt) Island. 16 years later, Amsterdam returns to the Five Points and befriends his father’s killer, Bill Cutting (Bill the Butcher). Amsterdam gains the Butcher’s trust and later saves his life, all the while plotting his revenge for his father. Amsterdam attacks Cutting but is allowed to live in shame. Amsterdam raises an army from the large Irish immigrant population in NYC. The Dead Rabbits are reformed and fight against Cutting’s gang of natives. The fight coincides on the weeks of the Draft Riot and military warships fire on the amassed gangs before they could fight. A large number of both gangs are killed and the gangs disperse. Amsterdam manages to kill Cutting.
Everything in the movie, other than a rampaging elephant, was real. The director, Scorsese painstakingly created a mile of set made to mirror the Points. For example, there was “’a mile of sets—stores, saloons, houses, the town square, even the harbor, docks, and ships—all of them fully functional, with no facades. Visitors marveled at how stepping onto the set was like stepping back in time (Snider).’” George Lucas of the Star Wars fame marveled that that level of production would never be seen again in this modern age of CGI. Scorsese took great pains to make this movie as authentic-looking as possible.
An authentic-looking movie doesn’t mean it’s authentic however. One of the main problems critics had with the movie was how it wasn’t entirely accurate. The movie is based off the book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, written by Herbert Asbury in 1928, which wasn’t historically accurate. Like many writings written during that time about the Points, it made the Points seem much worse than it actually was. For example, the book claims that there was one tenement where there was murder in the Points every day, yet “at that he was writing about, there was barely a murder a month in all of New York City” (qtd. Chamberlain). Furthermore, the movie depicted three scenes where dirt and skulls were just strewn about in the tenements, but historical evidence says that just isn’t true. These were hard working men and women. A modern historian on the Five Points gives Scorsese some credit: “’The overall theme of the movie Scorsese gets exactly right: When the Irish first came to America they were persecuted and they literally did have to fight for their fair share of what America had to offer (qtd. Chamberlain).’” Moreover, others have pointed out that Scorsese wasn’t making a documentary; he was rather making entertainment and could take a few liberties here and there.
There are three main themes reflected in this movie: social justice, immigration, and morals & Norms.
Social Justice in that the disparity between the rich and the poor was stark for all of American history. None starker than this period during the NY Draft Riots. You had these wealthy families, the Astors, the Schermerhorns living uptown in their fancy mansions in luxury, away from the filth of Lower Manhattan, the immigrants streaming off the boats with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. There was a huge difference in wealth. Then Lincoln issued the Enrollment Act of 1863, ordering all able-bodied men to register for the draft but any man who had $300 dollars to spare could opt and pay for a substitute. The city’s immigrants responded and exploded in outrage. As Amsterdam remarks in the movie, it might as well have been one million dollars because nobody had that much money except for the Schermerhorns and Astors of the city. The draft riots contributed to the perception that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war, fought by poor men.” This class antagonism led to a week of terror and riot (Chamberlain).
Immigration obviously plays a huge role in this movie. In fact, the underlying conflict throughout this movie was that of a conflict between the native born and the immigrants. I think Bill Cutting summed the nativist sentiment well: “I don’t see no Americans. I see trespassers, Irish harps. Do a job for a nickel what a nigger does for a dime and a white man used to get a quarter for. What have they done?” (IMDb). The massive influx of immigrants made labor cheap and competitive.
What reallystruckk me as an example of moral and norms touched upon in the movie was the graphic scene where Walter ‘Monk’ McGinn, who was recently elected as sheriff of New York City was murdered by Bill Cutting. Cutting attempted to drive McGinn into a fight but McGinn, now an elected official, could no longer oblige, so he asked to settle things with words. Just as McGinn turned around to show Cutting to his rooms, the Butcher threw a meat cleaver straight into McGinn’s back, throwing him into shock and then smashed his head with his own club. McGinn tried to be the moral person in this scenario and talk civilly but this was neither the man nor the time for that. The Butcher was a ruthless man who did not follow morals or norms. But what more, after Cutting viciously murdered an elected official, the crowds watching in the streets applauded, after gasping and expressing shock. They applauded the murder, possibly signifying that the norms of that era were drastically different from that of today.