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Martin Scorsese's subtle message of hope within his film 'Gangs of New York'

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese

Having read Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction book, The Gangs of New York, the legendary auteur Martin Scorsese decided to make a film based on it. However, lack of money and fame made him wait until he bought the rights in 1979 and later found a willing financial investor in Miramax Films. After a long and frustrating battle, he finally made the film in 2002. 

The film is a classic revenge tale. Due to rising tension among the Protestant and Catholic communities in Five Points, Priest Vallon is mercilessly slaughtered by William ‘Bill the Butcher’ in 1846. Vallon’s son, who witnesses the killing, returns to the town in 1862, using the alias of Amsterdam to murder Bill and avenge his father’s murder.   

Nominated for ten Oscars, Gangs of New York was the first Martin Scorsese film Leonardo DiCaprio starred in, kickstarting a working relationship like no other and the rest, they say, is history. While critics have praised Daniel Day-Lewis’ “electrifying performance” as the ruthless Bill, DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is a quintessential Dickensian hero whose eyes serve as the narrative lens. He does a spectacular job paving his way into Scorsese’s heart which marked the beginning of a new era. 

The film production history is peppered with Easter eggs containing interesting trivia. For instance, Daniel Day-Lewis had to be coaxed into playing the iconic role of the notorious Bill by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. As Leo himself confirmed, “Scorsese had actually said to me, ‘I’m not sure how Daniel feels, if he’s ready to work or not…you should have a conversation with him and suss it out.’’ So committed was Day-Lewis after agreeing to be a part of the production, that he did not talk to Leo for the nine long months of filmography to stay in character. 

Similarly, if one pays close attention to the ending scene of the film, one which shows a continuous time-lapse effect as the Draft Riots from 1863 finally culminates into present-day New York, one can see the Twin Towers standing intact, although the devastating 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre had demolished the towers 15 months prior to the release of the film. 

Gangs of New York was shot well ahead of the September 2001 attacks but the inclusion of the Twin Towers sparked controversy. Martin Scorsese, unapologetic and unabashed, had a wonderful explanation to that; his film was a tribute to New York City and its people, it was a tribute to the city gradually growing up. He did not intend to depict the skyline without including a major part of it. 

To quote Scorsese, “It had to end with [the modern skyline being built], or the movie shouldn’t have existed…We did the paintings and edited that skyline sequence before September 11, and afterwards, it was suggested that we should take out the towers, but I felt…it’s not my job to revise the New York skyline. The people in the film were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it. And if the skyline collapses, ultimately, they will build another one.”

It was Scorsese’s love letter to the city he loved, a city that rose up like a phoenix from the ashes of destruction to be the “amazingly great city” it is today. It also instilled in the locals a sense of hope and adoration no matter what, New York City would never succumb to any obstacles that lay in its path. We have to thank good ol’ Marty for that!