The World Of Irish Immigrants In New York City In Gangs Of New York: Film Analysis

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Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York is an immersive cinematic experience set in the time period of the Civil War in New York City. Based off of the book The Gangs of New York written by Herbert Asbury, this film describes the difficult life of Irish immigrants by telling the stories of characters grappling to survive in the city’s Five Points section at that time. Gangs of New York was praised by critics but there were elements of the storyline that were created for the sole purpose of building tension and suspense for viewers. Although Gangs of New York was historically inaccurate at times, it gave an accurate depiction of the struggles of immigrants during this period of time and creates an emotionally capturing story of the Five Points and the people who lived in it.

The Five Points of New York City from the 1830s through the 1850s was overflowing with impoverished Irish immigrants, unruly streets gangs, and corrupt political Nativists–all fighting to dominate the crime-ridden streets and contributing to the chaotic backdrop of New York City during the American Civil War. During this time in Europe, Ireland was experiencing the Great Potato Famine of 1845 which caused nearly 1.5 million Irish people to emigrate to America to escape a life of starvation and poverty (Constitutional Rights Foundation). In the film Irish immigrants poured into the streets of New York City reflecting how real-life Irish immigrants flooded American cities like New York and Boston during the Great Famine, where they were greeted with strong hostility and racism. American born citizens, often called “natives” saw Irish immigrants as a threat. From the perspective of American natives, Irish immigrants took away their jobs, increased crime, and practiced a different religion. Most of New York’s American population was Protestant and discriminated against the Irish (History). Life in America for Irish immigrants wasn’t much better than it was in Ireland. They lived in squalor, barely got enough food to eat, and turned to crime and gang life in order to survive in the Five Points, as depicted in Gangs of New York. Rich native politicians used their money and power to manipulate immigrants and the Five Points, contributing to a chaotic and violent chapter of American history few are aware of. Immigrants were also drawn into the American Civil War. The moment they stepped off the boat onto American soil, they were greeted with citizenship but also immediately handed volunteer soldier papers. Most Irish immigrants strongly opposed volunteering for the war for either the Union or the Confederacy (Immigration to the United States). The characters in the movie and in real life also opposed the draft by starting riots across New York targeting soldiers and the wealthy.

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Starting with the film’s historical inaccuracies, the gangs that were depicted in this film such as the Dead Rabbits, the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Short Tails, the Slaughter Houses, and the Swamp Angels, are sensationalized in this film. Director Martin Scorsese is known to direct films with cliche versions of mobsters and gangs. Historians have criticised his depiction of the Five Points gangs, saying gang leaders were not the cartoonish and flambouyant mobsters shown in the film. The real gangsters of the Five Points were violent but not bloodthirsty psychopaths. They were known to socialize with political alliances at clubs and use corrupt methods to gain political power. The sensationalized film depiction of the gangsters of New York was inaccurate and portrayed this way, most likely, to match the illustration of popular gangsters such as Al Capone (National Geographic). Along with the depiction of gangsters, the film shows gangs in the movie living in underground caves or catacombs. These underground tunnels and hideouts couldn’t have existed because of water and waste being pumped underground during this time (Gangs of New York History). The film’s catacombs served the purpose of creating a dramatic backdrop for Scorsese’s depiction (Daily History). Another inaccuracy in this film is the amount of representation of Chinese immigrants movie showed prominent Chinese leaders in the Five Points, but this is inaccurate because there weren’t many Chinese immigrants in New York at that time., and. It is estimated that there were only around 100 Chinese immigrants in New York at that time (Daily History). Chinese immigrants emigrated to the United States around the 1870s and 1880s, and typically migrated to California instead of New York. The movie showed prominent Chinese leaders in the Five Points, but this is inaccurate because there weren’t many Chinese immigrants in New York at that time. Finally, the scenes on the streets show viewers that practically every person in the five points were criminals, gamblers, and pickpocket. Yet, although it is true that these kinds of people roamed Manhattan’s streets, the five points mostly had people who went to work every day, struggled to feed their families and pay rent, and lived blue-collar lives. These kinds of people were poorly represented in this film since everyone was painted as being horrible criminals (Daily History).

Yet, when looking past this film’s many historically incorrect elements, Gangs of New York got many things right when telling the story of New Yorkers during this time. A prominent element that is illustrated in this film’s scenes is on the streets of Manhattan is the large amounts of poverty, destitution, corruption, prostitution, and criminality expressed. Many women were prostitutes and people were in a constant state of drunkenness. Political leaders were corrupt and they would pull strings to keep their political opponents out of office and anything to put their own people in power (National Geographic). Crimes were committed everywhere for the sake of just surviving. This movie accurately shows the horrible circumstances in which poor people, especially irish immigrants lived in by describing how they lived in dirty homes with little luxuries (Daily History). Another way in which Gangs of New York accurately portrayed this period of American history is through showing the relationship between Irish immigrants and American born natives. This movie showed how the natives despised the Irish since they thought the Irish were dirty, horrible people who would ruin their lives and their country (History). Along with that, Gangs of New York accurately showed how angry white Americans and irish immigrants were towards the Civil War draft. Draft lotteries started on July 11th, 1863 and Americans and Irish were completely outraged and started the New York Draft Riots. Gangs of New York shows the absolute madness and chaos that consumed the streets of New York when riots broke out on July 13th (History). The movie showed how angry civilians trashed rich people’s homes who played the government 300 dollars to get out of the draft. It also showed the violence civilians turned upon African American citizens. These riots happened everywhere but were especially bloody in New York and this is clearly shown in this movie.

This film’s main storyline focuses around Amsterdam Vallon trying to get revenge on Bill the Butcher for murdering his father, Priest Vallon the leader of the gang the Dead Rabbits, during a gang battle for the leader of the five points. These characters are only speculated to be based upon real-life people. The most accurate character in the movie is Bill the Butcher who is based on gang leader William Poole. Both the movie version of Bill and the real-life version of Bill depict him as being tall, powerful, corrupt. Yet, it is very doubtful that Poole was involved in the events in the movie since he died before the Civil War even started (Daily History). Amsterdam Vallon is thought to be based on John Morrissey who did have conflicts with Poole. Morrissey was depicted as being a young gambler who led the Dead Rabbits in both the movie and in historical accounts. Morrissey and Poole did not kill each other in a dramatic battle but they were opponents of each other. Yet, these two characters in the movie were only loosely based on real people and never did many things they had done in the movie (Reel Run Down).

The Gangs of New York is a movie that shows the world of Irish Immigrants in New York City struggling to survive in a world full of corruption, poverty, filth, and hate. This film took artistic liberties by adding in character tension that never happened along with other details that made the movie more entertaining for the public. But despite these inaccuracies, audiences got the true feeling of what it was like to live in the Five Points of New York during this time. Gangs of New York hit the main themes of this time period in a historically accurate way. This essentially makes its inaccuracies acceptable. Gangs of New York is a film that encapsulates this period of American history in an encaptivating and entertaining way.


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