Topics in History: History through Film

A Southport student review of the 2002 movie Gangs of New York

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, which analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, Chad Gill reviews the film Gangs of New York.

By Chad Gill

Gangs of New York is a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. This movie portrays how floods of Irish workers that went to the United States were treated upon arriving. English and Dutch locals in New York’s neighborhood of Five Points clearly showed they were not too fond of the newcomers. Bill the Butcher took the case to a new level when he leads a gang of locals into a war with them. Bill murders Priest Vallon, the head of the Irish, and his son Amsterdam runs away. A few years later, Amsterdam, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, returns and looks for retribution for his father. Gangs of New York is a historical film that follows the experiences of a youthful Irish American man.

Gangs of New York starts in the year 1846, in which Amsterdam’s father, a Catholic Irish immigrant, sets out to battle the Protestants already in New York. Irish participation in the war occurred because they didn’t want to teach Protestant teachings, which they were not in favor of, to be approved by the government. After the grisly scene where Amsterdam’s father is killed, the film is told from Amsterdam’s perspective. He depicts what occurs in the city of Five Points and how the residents act. In Five Points. Amsterdam says that foreigners are not invited nor are they hired by anyone. Irish migrants went to the United States, especially in the north, since “job opportunities were most abundant, and the new arrivals would not have to compete with slave labor.” (Foner 319) Locals of Five Points didn’t acknowledge any settling newcomers since they were following orders of Bill the Butcher, who appears as though he is in complete control of the city. He is working under William “Chief” Tweed, the head of Tammany Hall. His method of fighting for control of the city is through fights and arson. Amsterdam’s perspective shapes the historical narrative in the movie by portraying what occurred during the span of the 1860s just as recounting the narrative of his existence with his partners, who were also immigrants.

Racism, the Irish movement and fights among Catholics and Protestants were significant pieces of history that influence the current day. Gangs of New York would not be suggested as an instructing apparatus for finding out about the Irish American historical experience during the mid-19th century United States. In spite of the fact that the film is engaging and interesting, it discards certain occasions in history that understudies will at last learn. For example, it never mentions the Civil War and how it influences the North and the South, though it did change a lot of what was happening in the movie. Subjugation in New York was excluded from the film, despite the fact that it had a couple of scenes that demonstrated how African Americans were treated during this time. The film’s emphasis is for the most part on a person who needs vengeance for the execution of his father. Amsterdam’s father himself was an immigrant to the United States and was in the long run executed for his confidence and braveness of expressing his belief in Catholicism. Amsterdam was an American brought into the world as an Irish resident who would like to keep the religion by which he was raised. Scenes show Amsterdam and Jenny Everdeane having affection only serve as a distraction to the people who wanted to learn about Irish immigration. The idea of Irish immigration is far more important than affection, as well as the physical toll they had to go through just to experience life among Americans. Gangs of New York would be suggested for its amusement and entertainment but not as an educational instrument.