Gangs of New York

By on May 12, 2010

Having witnessed the death of his father in a major gang fight, young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is spirited away for his own safety. As a young man, he returns to the scene of his father’s death, the notorious Five Points district in New York. It’s 1863 and lower Manhattan is run by gangs, the most powerful of which is the Natives, headed by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (a mesmerizing Daniel Day Lewis). He believes that America should belong to native-born Americans and opposes the waves of immigrants, mostly Irish, entering the city.

It’s also the peak of violence during the Civil War and forced conscription is the impetus for the bloodiest riots in US history. Amid the violence and corruption, young Vallon tries to establish himself as gang leader, at the same time seeking revenge for his father’s death. Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly also star.

When the film was first conceived in 1978, Martin Scorsese originally planned to cast Dan Aykroyd as Amsterdam Vallon and John Belushi as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting. The project fell apart after Belushi died. A cast reshuffle had Mel Gibson as Amsterdam Vallon and Willem Dafoe as The Butcher. Eventually, Leonardo DiCaprio was cast as Amsterdam Vallon and Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as The Butcher.

Martin Scorsese recreated 19th-century New York on the lot of Cinecitta studios in Rome. When George Lucas visited the massive set, he reportedly turned to Martin Scorsese and said “Sets like that can be done with computers now.”

Most of the gangs mentioned by name were real 19th century New York gangs. Bill “The Butcher” Cutting is based largely on real-life New York gang leader Bill Poole, who also was known as “The Butcher” and had much the same prestige as Daniel Day-Lewis’ character.

The draft riots depicted in the film are largely accurate, but the real-life Bill “The Butcher” Poole (the basis for Daniel Day-Lewis’ character) was killed several years before the riots took place.

The film was conceived in 1978, and intended to be produced sometime in 1980 or 1981, but the box office failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) made studios wary of expensively ambitious historical dramas, so the idea was shelved.

gangster_movies_gangs_of_new_york2During filming Daniel Day-Lewis talked with his film accent during the entire time of production, even when he was not on the set.

Director Cameo: [Martin Scorsese] the wealthy man at the head of the table being “turtledoved” by Jenny (look for the big eyebrows)

Martin Scorsese was a big fan of the film O Lucky Man! (1973), and considered casting Malcolm McDowell as Amsterdam. Had Scorsese been able to make this film in 1978, he planned to cast Robert De Niro as “Amsterdam.”

Robert De Niro and Willem Dafoe were considered for the part of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.

Leonardo DiCaprio accidentally broke Daniel Day-Lewis’ nose while filming a fight scene. Day-Lewis continued to film the scene despite the injury.

Elmer Bernstein was commissioned to write the score, which was recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios, but it was replaced by a new soundtrack at the last minute.

The POV shot where Amsterdam re-emerges into the Five Points after recuperating from his wound (specifically, the four or five men loafing on either side of the alley) is a visual reference to a Jacob Riis photo, “Bandit’s Roost,” used as cover art on some editions of Herbert Asbury’s “Gangs of New York.”

Daniel Day-Lewis said in an interview that he listened to the music of Eminem to prepare for his role.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio both took salary reductions to preserve the budget.

The original budget was $83 million.

During the scene at the Chinese theater, Bill the Butcher calls for his boys to play some “American music” and extols it as “patriotic.” The tune they play is “Garry Owen,” a Gaelic drinking tune, which became the official song of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, chock full of Irishmen and infamous for their defeat, along with their commander, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, by Indians at Little Big Horn.

Tobey Maguire was at one time considered for the role of Johnny Sirocco.

The scenes where Bill the Butcher taps his glass eye and where he yells, “Whoopsie daisy!” during the knife-throwing act were both ad-libbed.

Bill’s hard “New Yok” accent wasn’t entirely fabricated. Martin Scorsese actually did some research by listening to a voice recording of Walt Whitman and by reading an old play in which the dialog was spelled out phonetically.

Bill says his father was killed by the British on 25 July 1814. This was probably in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, which was fought on this date in the Niagara Falls area, and was the bloodiest battle in the War of 1812.

When Amsterdam takes his medal back from Jenny, the blood on her neck is digitally added.

The original cut of the film ran an hour longer.

Martin Scorsese ends the film with a shot of the New York skyline which includes the World Trade Center Towers, even though the film was finished after the buildings were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Scorsese chose to end on that shot rather then continue with a skyline without the WTC because the movie is supposed to be about the people who build New York, not those who tried to destroy it.

Many of the characters portrayed in the movie are actually buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The view of the skyline shown at the end of the movie would not be visible from this location, but rather from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

When Boss Tweed considers being with a prostitute, Bill The Butcher warns Tweed that she’s been “frenchified”. Frenchified was an 18th century term for venereal disease.

The movie was originally planned for Christmas 2001 release. In June 2001, trailers were released in theaters along with posters being displayed with “Christmas 2001” and “December” listed on them. At the last moment the film was pulled off the release schedule. It was released unchanged for Christmas 2002.

During the boxing scene, there is a cutaway to a man drawing a caricature of “Boss” Tweed. This is a reference to the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was primarily responsible for the eventual downfall of Tweed.

Martin Scorsese got interested in the project in the early 1970s after he read the book while house-sitting on Long Island one New Year’s Eve.

To make sure his facts were accurate, Martin Scorsese contacted Tyler Anbinder, a professor of history at George Washington University and author of the book “Five Points”.

In one scene Boss Tweed is describing to a few men the city’s need for a grand new courthouse before being interrupted. This is a reference to the infamous old New York County Courthouse, now known as the Tweed Courthouse, where Tweed and Tammany Hall had stolen millions from the city that was earmarked for the construction of the building, which became the most expensive civic building of the 19th century because of Tammany’s theft of funds.

Martin Scorsese was influenced by American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.’s groundbreaking gangster film short The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith. Biograph is the oldest movie company in America and still in business.

Martin Scorsese hired “The Magician”, an Italian man famous for a 30-year career as a pickpocket, to teach Cameron Diaz about the art of picking pockets.

Bill the Butcher has a scene with every main and supporting character in the film, a symbol of his vast influence in the Five Points.

The name has a second meaning rooted in Irish American vernacular 1857. The word “Rabbit” is the phonetic corruption of the Irish word ráibéad, meaning “man to be feared”. “Dead” is a slang intensifier meaning “very.” “Dead Ráibéad” means a man to be greatly feared.

Due to the shortage of English speaking actors in Italy, some of the extras were U.S. Air Force personnel from the 31st Fighter Wing, stationed at nearby Aviano Air Base.

Elmer Bernstein’s original unused score was released as a limited edition CD along with Bernstein’s unused scores for The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) and The Scarlet Letter (1995) in 2008.

Some of the remaining scaffolding on the back lot at Cinecittà Studios was reused by Mel Gibson for The Passion of the Christ (2004). The Roman praetorium is one of them.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers was offered a part before production, but turned it down because he said he was too busy with other projects.

Sarah Polley had the role of Jenny but lost it to Cameron Diaz when Martin Scorsese was forced to go with a more bankable star.

Sarah Michelle Gellar was originally given the role of Jenny. However, with scheduling complications between the film and Gellar’s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997), she backed out. Martin Scorsese then chose Sarah Polley for the part but later went with Cameron Diaz after studios insisted he pick a more “bankable star”.

Bill Cutting, the film’s xenophobic antagonist, has a particular dislike for Irish immigrants. Daniel Day-Lewis is a naturalized citizen of Ireland.

During the final fight scene, Amsterdam is shown wearing a cestus on each hand. A cestus is a Roman combat glove used in gladiator battles. They are essentially leather straps wrapped around the hands, but when the Romans improved on the Greek’s design and added metal spikes, they became a more deadly weapon. You can clearly see Vallon’s cesti when he is praying before the fight.

When Boss Tweed is talking to Bill, Bill says to him “I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth.” though never mentioned, this is a direct quote from The Holy Bible; Revelations 3:16

Bill’s last words, “I die a true American”, were the last words of his true-life counterpart, Bill Poole.

Priest’s murder was originally much more violent. During the opening battle, just before Bill stabs Priest Valon, an axe severs his left arm at the elbow, then Bill hacks him limb from limb. The shot of the arm being severed is still in the film moments before Bill yells for Priest to turn around.



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