History-History and Film History in Gangs of New York (2002)

We delved deep into Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) in class over two, four-hour sessions, and here are some things I took away from class and things I noticed about the film after watching it this time round (my second viewing) for class.

While Gangs sets out to cover a lesser known episode in American history (the Draft Riot of 1863), I get the impression that this episode is only the backdrop against which a more expansive filmic project aimed at commenting on the nature of history, historiography and historical representation in film is set against. To support this claim, I want to talk about Anachronism and Intertextuality in Gangs of New York.

1) Anachronism: My sense of how the film seems to be about more than just the Draft Riot stems from the persistent use of anachronistic elements throughout the film. This is seen namely in terms of how the battle the film opens on begins deep within a cave-like structure that seems more ancient than the setting called for in a film set in the 1850s. This primitivism is also captured in the representation of multiple characters dressed in furs and attaching what looks like claws to their hands and feet in preparation for the upcoming battle.

The sartorial and setting choices that signify a kind of primitivism is carried into the choice of weaponry presented and used in the battle (axes, clubs, maces, bats, knives). The predominance of weaponry to do with bludgeoning one’s enemies to death and the distinct lack of firearms does not escape notice.

Add to this the kind of battle fought which was clearly based on earlier modes of battle which mostly involved close-contact fighting and were mostly wars of attrition where the side with the greater numbers would win.

Yet, the soundtrack that played over the first battle sequence had electric guitars in it? Man… that really took me out of the moment. Why were there electric guitars?

Anyway, the second battle sequence towards the end of the film between Amsterdam (DiCaprio) and Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis) which takes place 16 years after the first battle, is shrouded in dust, smoke and debris and carries the distinct flavour of guerrilla urban warfare with Bill darting in and out of frame and using the smoke as cover to deliver lightning quick ambush attacks on Amsterdam before withdrawing back into the smoke.

This kind of fighting style is definitely post-Vietnam but more than that, it is also post-9/11. The obscuring of one’s vision with dust and debris become a symbolic representation of the confusion over not just where the attack is coming from but who the enemy is.

Finally, the final sequence in the film, a series of dissolves in which Priest Vallon’s and Bill the Butcher’s graves are shown succumbing to neglect in the foreground with the mushrooming skyscrapers of Manhattan in the background, serve as a bookend to the primitivism represented in the opening sequence. To open and close on these notes seem to suggest that the objective of the film and the historical reach of the film spans beyond the 1863 Draft Riot.

So the combination of the mix of battle modes and fighting styles that seem to originate in time periods either before the 1850s or long after the 1850s and the weirdly hyper-modern soundtrack choices (electric guitars and the U2 theme song – “The Hands that Built America”) makes the film highly anachronistic despite its claims of being a piece of historical fiction.

2) Intertextuality: Someone in class astutely pointed out that the film contained a reference to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). This was the scene where the Schermerhorn residence was stormed by the angry, rioting mob. The camera moves pass Mr. Schermerhorn going to confront the mob while the women are being herded up the stairs in a traveling shot that pushes in and eventually rests on a shot of a stone lion at the foot of the stairs.

It’s definitely an odd choice of subject matter for the composition of the shot to centre on and something only a film student forced to sit through Eisenstein’s black and white film classic would pick up on or understand the significance of. The shot does put Gangs in dialogue with Battleship in a meaningful way though.

In the original Odessa Steps sequence, the faceless military and gunships open fire on unsuspecting civilians and there is a montage of shots of the stone lions. The montage creates an effect where these stone lions seem to take on a look of horror at the unfolding violence.

(the stone lion reaction shots are right at the end after the gunships fire on the citizenry)

In Gangs there is a reversal in the power dynamic because instead of the group in power (military/rich/aristocracy) firing on the disenfranchised (poor civilians/Irish immigrants), the reverse happens. The rioting mob breaks into the home of, and does violence to, the Schermerhorns – the contemporary equivalent of the aristocracy. Furthermore, there is a change of film technique from montage to a long take which seems to create not so much a look of horror on the lion’s countenance but rather an air of ineffectualness over one’s ability to stop the rising tide of violence.

The other meaningful moment of intertextuality in Gangs is at the end of the first battle sequence when the Dead Rabbits are carrying their dead out of Paradise Square the camera pulls up and out into an extreme long shot that is reminiscent of the Atlanta dead scene in Gone with the Wind (1939). Again, there is a 180 degree change in the meaning of the scene due to the way Scorsese uses it.


In the original Atlanta dead scene in Gone with the Wind the extreme long shot was meant to emphasise the tragedy of the Civil War because of the rows and rows of casualties and dead the filled the screen to its edges and beyond. But in the extreme long shot enhanced by CGI in Gangs the sequence only serves to highlight the inconsequential nature of the clash between the Nativists and the Irish immigrant community as the site of the battle gets smaller and smaller as the “camera” pulls out to capture the whole isle of Manhattan within the frame.

Out of these two clearly deliberate and intentional moments of intertextuality in Gangs I get the impression that the historical project of the film seems to be as much about representing history in film as it is about a filmic representation of history… if that makes sense.

For clarity’s sake, what I’m trying to say is that the former is a straight up question of representing a different part of history in film. The latter is about how history gets reduced to these filmic moments that can become visual quotations, a shorthand that can then be put in dialogue with one another to generate whole new layers of meaning for those who have access to this shorthand and visual vocabulary.

There’s of course also a danger in this shorthand and films like Wag the Dog (1997) comment on this more as does the chapter on the Vietnam War in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation… but that sounds like an entry for another time -_-“

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