The film is set in 1863 and follows fictional gang leader Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in his roles as crime boss and political kingmaker under the helm of "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent). The film culminates in a violent confrontation between Cutting and his mob with the protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his allies, which prefaces the real-life New York Draft Riots of 1863. It was released on December 20, 2002 and grossed $193 million worldwide.
In the slum neighborhood of Five Points, Manhattan in 1846, two gangs have a final battle in Paradise Square: The nativist, Protestant "Natives" led by Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, and the Irish Catholic immigrant "Dead Rabbits" led by "Priest" Vallon. Bill kills Vallon and orders that he be buried with honor, and declares the Dead Rabbits outlawed. Having witnessed this, Vallon's young son hides the knife that killed his father and is taken to an orphanage on Blackwell's Island.
In September 1862, Vallon's son, now calling himself Amsterdam, returns to Five Points seeking revenge and retrieves the knife. An old acquaintance, Johnny Sirocco, familiarizes him with the local clans of gangs and thieves, all of whom pay tribute to Bill, who controls the neighborhood. Amsterdam joins Johnny's gang of thieves and is introduced to Bill, but keeps his past a secret. He learns that many of his father's former loyalists are now in Bill's employ, including "Happy Jack" Mulraney, who is now a corrupt constable, and McGloin, who is one of Bill's lieutenants. Each year, Bill celebrates the anniversary of his victory over the Dead Rabbits; Amsterdam plans to murder him publicly during this celebration.
Amsterdam becomes attracted to pickpocket and grifter Jenny Everdeane, who Johnny is infatuated with. Amsterdam's interest is dampened, however, upon learning that she was once Bill's ward and still enjoys his affections. Amsterdam gains Bill's confidence and Bill becomes his mentor, involving him in the dealings of corrupt politician William M. Tweed. Amsterdam saves Bill from an assassination attempt, and is tormented by the thought that he may have done so out of honest devotion. Jenny nurses Bill's wounds, and she and Amsterdam have a furious argument which dissolves into passionate lovemaking. Bill speaks to Amsterdam of the downfall of civilization and how he has maintained power through the spectacle of violence and fear. He says that Priest Vallon was his last worthy enemy, and that the Priest once beat him but spared his life, leaving him ashamed, which gave him the strength of will to return and fight for his own authority.
On the evening of the anniversary, Johnny, in a fit of jealousy over Jenny, reveals Amsterdam's true identity and intentions to Bill. Bill baits Amsterdam with a knife throwing act involving Jenny. As Bill toasts Priest Vallon, Amsterdam throws his knife, but Bill deflects it and wounds Amsterdam with a counter throw. Bill proclaims that rather than dying, Amsterdam shall live in shame, and burns his cheek with a hot blade. Going into hiding, Jenny nurses Amsterdam back to health and implores him to escape with her to San Francisco. "Monk" McGinn, a barber who fought for Priest Vallon, gives Amsterdam a straight razor that belonged to Amsterdam's father.
Amsterdam announces his return by hanging a dead rabbit in Paradise Square. Bill sends Happy Jack to investigate, but Amsterdam kills him and hangs his body in the square. In retaliation, Bill has Johnny severely beaten and run through with a pike, leaving it to Amsterdam to end his suffering. The racist McGloin attacks Amsterdam's African American friend Jimmy, but is beaten by Amsterdam and his new gang of Dead Rabbits. The Natives confront them, and Bill promises to return when they are ready to fight. The incident garners newspaper coverage, and Tweed presents Amsterdam with a plan to defeat Bill's influence: Tweed will back the candidacy of Monk McGinn for sheriff in exchange for the support of the Irish vote. Bill and Amsterdam each force people to vote, some of them several times, resulting in Monk winning by more votes than there are voters. Bill, humiliated, murders Monk. Amsterdam challenges Bill and the Natives to fight.
The New York City draft riots break out just as the gangs are preparing to battle, and Union Army soldiers are deployed to control the rioters. As the rival gangs face off, they are interrupted by cannon fire from naval ships firing directly into Paradise Square. Between the cannons and soldiers, many of the gang members are killed including McGloin. Bill and Amsterdam face off against one another until Bill is severely wounded by a piece of shrapnel. Declaring "Thank God, I die a true American", he is finally killed by Amsterdam.
Bill is buried on a hilltop cemetery in Brooklyn, adjacent to Priest Vallon. Amsterdam buries his father's razor and leaves for San Francisco with Jenny, narrating that in time New York would be rebuilt as if "we were never here". The passage of time is depicted rapidly, with modern New York being built up over the next hundred years and the graves of Bill and the Priest becoming overgrown and forgotten.
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese had grown up in Little Italy in the borough of Manhattan in New York City during the 1950s. At the time, he had noticed there were parts of his neighborhood that were much older than the rest, including tombstones from the 1810s in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, cobblestone streets and small basements located under more recent large buildings; this sparked Scorsese's curiosity about the history of the area: "I gradually realized that the Italian-Americans weren’t the first ones there, that other people had been there before us. As I began to understand this, it fascinated me. I kept wondering, how did New York look? What were the people like? How did they walk, eat, work, dress?"
In 1970, Scorsese came across Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld (1928) about the city's nineteenth century criminal underworld and found it to be a revelation. In the portraits of the city's criminals, Scorsese saw the potential for an American epic about the battle for the modern American democracy. At the time, Scorsese was a young director without money or clout; by the end of the decade, with the success of crime films such as Mean Streets (1973), about his old neighborhood, and Taxi Driver (1976), he was a rising star. In 1979, he acquired screen rights to Asbury's book; however, it took twenty years to get the production moving forward. Difficulties arose with reproducing the monumental city scape of nineteenth century New York with the style and detail Scorsese wanted; almost nothing in New York City looked as it did in that time, and filming elsewhere was not an option. Eventually, in 1999, Scorsese was able to find a partnership with Harvey Weinstein, noted producer and co-chairman of Miramax Films.
In order to create the sets that Scorsese envisioned, the production was filmed at the large Cinecittà Studio in Rome, Italy. Production designer Dante Ferretti recreated over a mile of mid-nineteenth century New York buildings, consisting of a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront including two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty-building stretch of lower Broadway, a patrician mansion, and replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino. For the Five Points, Ferretti recreated George Catlin's painting of the area.
Particular attention was also paid to the speech of characters, as loyalties were often revealed by their accents. The film's voice coach, Tim Monich, resisted using a generic Irish brogue and instead focused on distinctive dialects of Ireland and Great Britain. As DiCaprio's character was born in Ireland but raised in the United States, his accent was designed to be a blend of accents typical of the half-Americanized. To develop the unique, lost accents of the Yankee "Nativists" such as Daniel Day-Lewis's character, Monich studied old poems, ballads, newspaper articles (which sometimes imitated spoken dialect as a form of humor) and the Rogue's Lexicon, a book of underworld idioms compiled by New York’s police commissioner, so that his men would be able to tell what criminals were talking about. An important piece was an 1892 wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reciting four lines of a poem in which he pronounced the word "world" as "woild", and the "a" of "an" nasal and flat, like "ayan". Monich concluded that native nineteenth century New Yorkers probably sounded something like the proverbial Brooklyn cabbie of the mid-twentieth.
Filming began in New York and Rome in August 30, 2000 and continued through April 14, 2001. Due to the strong personalities and clashing visions of director and producer, the three year production became a story in and of itself. Scorsese strongly defended his artistic vision on issues of taste and length while Weinstein fought for a streamlined, more commercial version. During the delays, noted actors such as Robert De Niro and Willem Dafoe had to leave the production due to conflicts with their other productions. Costs overshot the original budget by 25 percent, bringing the total cost over $100 million. The increased budget made the film vital to Miramax Films' short term success.
After post-production was nearly completed in 2001, the film was delayed for over a year. The official justification was, after the September 11, 2001 attacks certain elements of the picture may have made audiences uncomfortable; the film's closing shot is a view of modern-day New York City, complete with the World Trade Center's towers, despite their having been leveled by the attacks over a year before the film's release. However this explanation was refuted in Scorsese's own contemporary statements, where he noted that the production was still filming pick-ups even into October 2002.
Weinstein kept demanding cuts to the film's length, and some of those cuts were eventually made. In December 2001, Jeffrey Wells reviewed a purported workprint of the film as it existed in the fall of 2001. Wells reported the work print lacked narration, was about 20 minutes longer, and although it was "different than the [theatrical] version ... scene after scene after scene play[s] exactly the same in both." Despite the similarities, Wells found the work print to be richer and more satisfying than the theatrical version. While Scorsese has stated the theatrical version is his final cut, he reportedly "passed along [the] three-hour-plus [work print] version of Gangs on tape [to friends] and confided, 'Putting aside my contractual obligation to deliver a shorter, two-hour-and-forty-minute version to Miramax, this is the version I'm happiest with,' or words to that effect."
In an interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese clarified the real issues in the cutting of the film. Ebert notes,
Robbie Robertson supervised the soundtrack's collection of eclectic pop, folk, and neo-classical tracks.
Scorsese received both praise and criticism for historical depictions in the film. In a PBS interview for the History News Network, George Washington University professor Tyler Anbinder discussed the historical aspects of the film.
Asbury's book described the Bowery Boys, Plug Uglies, True Blue Americans, Shirt Tails, and Dead Rabbits, who were named after their battle standard, a dead rabbit on a pike. The book also described William Poole, the inspiration for William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting, a member of the Bowery Boys, a bare-knuckle boxer, and a leader of the Know Nothing political movement. Poole did not come from the Five Points and was assassinated nearly a decade before the Draft Riots. Both the fictional Bill and the real one had butcher shops, but Poole is not known to have killed anyone. The book also described other famous gangsters from the era such as Red Rocks Farrell, Slobbery Jim and Hell-Cat Maggie, who filed her front teeth to points and wore artificial brass fingernails.
Anbinder said that Scorsese's recreation of the visual environment of mid-19th century New York City and the Five Points "couldn't have been much better". All sets were built completely on the exterior stages of Cinecittà Studios in Rome. By 1860, New York City had 200,000 mostly Catholic Irish immigrants in a population of 800,000.
According to Paul S. Boyer, "The period from the 1830s to the 1850s was a time of almost continuous disorder and turbulence among the urban poor. The decade from 1834–1844 saw more than 200 major gang wars in New York City alone, and in other cities the pattern was similar."
As early as 1839, Mayor Philip Hone said: "This city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches" who "patrol the streets making night hideous and insulting all who are not strong enough to defend themselves." The large gang fight depicted in the film as occurring in 1846 is fictional, though there was one between the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits in the Five Points on July 4, 1857, which is not mentioned in the film. DiGirolamo concludes that "'Gangs of New York' becomes a historical epic with no change over time. The effect is to freeze ethno-cultural rivalries over the course of three decades and portray them as irrational ancestral hatreds unaltered by demographic shifts, economic cycles and political realignments."
In the film, the Draft Riots are depicted mostly as acts of destruction but there was considerable violence during that week in July 1863, which resulted in more than one hundred deaths, mostly freed African-Americans. They were especially targeted by the Irish, in part because of fears of job competition that more freed slaves would cause in the city. The film references the infamous Tweed Courthouse, as "Boss" Tweed refers to plans for the structure as being "modest" and "economical".
In the film, Chinese Americans were common enough in the city to have their own community and public venues. Significant Chinese migration to New York City did not begin until 1869 (although Chinese people migrated to America as early as the 1840s), the time when the transcontinental railroad was completed. The Chinese theater on Pell St. was not finished until the 1890s. The Old Brewery, the overcrowded tenement shown in the movie in both 1846 and 1862–63, was actually demolished in 1852.
The original target release date was December 21, 2001, in time for the 2001 Academy Awards but the production overshot that goal as Scorsese was still filming. A twenty-minute clip, billed as an "extended preview", debuted at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and was shown at a star-studded event at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès with Scorsese, DiCaprio, Diaz and Weinstein in attendance.
Harvey Weinstein then wanted the film to open on December 25, 2002, but a potential conflict with another film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Catch Me If You Can produced by DreamWorks, caused him to move the opening day to an earlier position. After negotiations between several parties, including the interests of DiCaprio, Weinstein and DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, the decision was made on economic grounds: DiCaprio did not want to face a conflict of promoting two movies opening against each other; Katzenberg was able to convince Weinstein that the violence and adult material in Gangs of New York would not necessarily attract families on Christmas Day. Of main concern to all involved was attempting to maximize the film's opening day, an important part of film industry economics.
After three years in production, the film was released on December 20, 2002; a year after its original planned release date. Gangs of New York is notable in that it remains the only film released since 1986 not to award Daniel Day-Lewis top billing. While the film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, there are no plans to revisit the theatrical cut or prepare a "director's cut" for home video release. "Marty doesn't believe in that," editor Thelma Schoonmaker stated. "He believes in showing only the finished film."
The film made $77,812,000 in Canada and the United States. It also took $23,763,699 in Japan and $16,358,580 in the United Kingdom. Worldwide the film grossed a total of $193,772,504.
On review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 75% based 202 reviews, with an average rating of 7.1/10.The site's critical consensus reads, "Though flawed, the sprawling, messy Gangs of New York is redeemed by impressive production design and Day-Lewis's electrifying performance." The review aggregate website Metacritic gave the film a score of 72 out of 100. based on 39 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert praised the film but believed it fell short of Scorsese's best work, while his At the Movies co-star Richard Roeper called it a "masterpiece" and declared it a leading contender for Best Picture. Paul Clinton of CNN called the film "a grand American epic". In Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote that the film "falls somewhat short of great film status, but is still a richly impressive and densely realized work that bracingly opens the eye and mind to untaught aspects of American history." McCarthy singled out the meticulous attention to historical detail and production design for particular praise.
Some critics, however, were disappointed with the film, complaining that it fell well short of the hype surrounding it, that it tried to tackle too many themes without saying anything unique about them, and that the overall story was weak.WinsBAFTAs: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Critics' Choice Movie Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Florida Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Director (Martin Scorsese)Golden Globes: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Original Song (U2 for "The Hands That Built America")Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Original Song (U2 for The Hands That Built America)Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti)New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Online Film Critics Society Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)San Diego Film Critics Society Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Satellite Awards: Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti), Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Director (Martin Scorsese)Vancouver Film Critics Circle: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)NominationsAcademy Awards: Best Picture (Alberto Grimaldi), (Harvey Weinstein), Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti), Best Original Song (U2 for "The Hands That Built America"), Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), Best Sound (Tom Fleischman), (Eugene Gearty), (Ivan Sharrock), Best Original Screenplay (Jay Cocks), (Steven Zaillian), (Kenneth Lonergan)BAFTAs: Best Film, Best Film Music (Howard Shore), Best Visual Effects (R. Bruce Steinheimer), (Michael Owens), (Edward Hirsh), (Jon Alexander), Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), Best Makeup and Hair (Manlio Rocchetti), (Aldo Signoretti), Best Production Design (Dante Ferretti), Best Original Screenplay (Jay Cocks), (Steven Zaillian), (Kenneth Lonergan), Best Sound, Best Direction (Martin Scorsese)Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best PictureChicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus)Directors Guild of America: Best Director (Martin Scorsese)Empire Awards: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis)Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actress (Cameron Diaz)Online Film Critics Society Awards: Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti), Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Sound, Best EnsemblePhoenix Film Critics Society Awards: Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti), Best Makeup (Manlio Rocchetti, Aldo Signoretti)Satellite Awards: Best Cinematography (Michael Ballhaus), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell), Best Sound, Best Visual EffectsWriters Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan)