It's been said that Martin Scorsese wanted to make Gangs of New York 25 or 30 years ago, but couldn't get the financing. The movie that he finally did make, over a somewhat torturous two or so years, forms the backdrop, the historical context for all of the other movies he's made that were set in New York City. In a sense, it should have been the first.
But let's be thankful for what we've got, eh? Scorsese wound up making smaller, less ambitious pictures in the 70s instead of this one, including no less than two classics in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and had he made GONY back then, we'd have missed seeing Daniel Day-Lewis play the role of Bill the Butcher. I hate to use worn-out cliches like "you can't imagine anyone else in that role," but here it is perfectly apt. Day-Lewis inhabits the character, giving him such swagger and gusto that the murderous thief is damned near likeable. It's hard to accept that any actor as good as Daniel Day-Lewis should dislike making movies so much that he had to be dragged away from his job as a cobbler in Florence to make this one. Apparently since finishing GONY he's gone right back into retirement from film. Too bad for us.
The violence and carnage in the movie are hard to take at times, at least in part because they aren't Hollywood carnage and violence. The fight scenes are more chaotic than choreographed; men are dispatched, with very little that could be called sentiment, while their families watch; Bill the Butcher operates on his victims with a sadistic glee that might be more familiar in a slasher flick, except that he's possibly the best-developed character in the film. You are often left wondering if life in the slums of downtown NYC was really as brutal and barbaric as this back in the mid-1800s. Perhaps it was. The overall effect of the picture is more visceral than anything else, because the violence is never romanticized.
In GONY, Scorsese insists that we see the chaos of those times as the necessary foundation for today's "civilized society." He wants us to share his vision of barbarism as the inevitable precursor and shaping force for the New York we know today. Two small elements in the film highlight this theme. Contrast Scorsese's brief appearance in GONY as a wealthy uptown squire with what is perhaps his most memorable appearance in one of his own films - the dark, creepy little guy in the back of Travis Bickle's cab in Taxi Driver - and note the progression. Then there's the closing montage, where the NYC skyline grows taller over a hundred years, until the final shot, where we see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, still standing, with the nineteenth-century graveyard in the foreground. That last shot, on the screen for maybe two or three seconds, is why the movie could not be released at the end of 2001 as originally planned.