Twenty-something Richard travels to Thailand and finds himself in possession of a strange map. Rumours state that it leads to a solitary beach paradise, a tropical bliss - excited and intrigued, he sets out to find it.
Having seen his father killed in a major gang fight in New York, young Amsterdam Vallon is spirited away for his own safety. Some years later, 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. 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 time of the Civil War and forced conscription leads to the worst riots in US history. Amid the violence and corruption, young Vallon tries to establish himself in the area and also seek revenge over his father's death. Written by
I am a Civil War "buff," so I wanted to see this movie the moment I heard it was being made. Yes, the New York Draft Riots did happen, just two weeks AFTER the Northern victory at Gettysburg, demonstrating that the outcome of the War was anything but certain, even after Lee had been forced to retreat to the south bank of the Potomac River. Today, many would find this surprising.
The movie did take some license, however. There was no wholesale firing on civilians by Union soldiers. In fact, reported deaths after three days of rioting were less than one-hundred. Many of the dead were randomly selected blacks, who were hanged and mutilated (which was accurately depicted in the film). Today, many would also find this surprising, because the schools teach that the North was good, and the South was bad. The truth is that blacks were subjected to inhumane treatment everywhere, especially in the Nothern cities.
There was also no firing by offshore naval vessels. That was artistic license. (My source for all of the above is a doctoral dissertation that was published about ten years ago titled "The New York City Draft Riots.")
The movie makes the important point that the North had run out of "home grown" manpower to fight the South. Had it not been for Irish and German volunteers through 1863, and black volunteers in 1864, the North would have sued for peace. The 1864 Democratic Platform promised to bring the War to a swift and speedy conclusion.
Bravo to Scorsese for bringing all of this to light. In the meantime, the movie is about twenty minutes to long. The brothel scenes, the "uptown" scenes, and some of the scenes in the catacombs struck me as slow and superfluous. On the other hand, the street scenes and the scenes of the random gangs (of which I wish there were more) were glorious.
One thing Scorsese left out, however: The mountains of animal and human waste in the streets! Not long after his movie was released, the History Channel produced a documentary on the Five Points area, and it is staggering to consider the tons and tons of animal and human waste piling up in the streets, and the thousands of gallons of urine running in the gutters. There were old photos of waste in the streets stacked six feet high. Needless to say, infant mortality in such a fetid environment was about 50%. Scorsese leaves this out, and there is scarcely a horse in the movie.
Day-Lewis does a superb job with a character that is unevenly developed. He is a homicidal thug in the beginning, a menacing, but somewhat benign, presence in the middle, and a psychotic killer in the end. It isn't really clear why he vacillates the way he does. Bi-polar, I guess. DiCaprio proves he can act, and he exudes a manliness he did not possess in earlier films. Diaz turns in a creditable performance. The cast of thousands adds a nice touch to the film.
I would never say this is a "great" film, but it certainly is worth a look. Kudos to Scorsese for the herculean effort, and a tip of the kepi for the poetic ending, which reminded me of the ending in 1936's "San Francisco."
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