Flawed but magnificent – Scorsese’s sprawling epic escapes the pitfalls of perfection to be something much greater. This dark, fascinating exploration of civilisation dives into the cesspit of 1860s New York as tribal gangs vie for supremacy. 

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a remarkable performance as Bill the Butcher, a violent and psychopathic villain of Shakespearean proportions. Day-Lewis cuts a truly menacing figure as the “Native American” gang leader virulently opposed to Irish immigration. Yet, perhaps even more horrifying is that his brutality is tempered with frequent xenophobic monologues.

Scorsese’s spectacle is as provocative as it is entertaining. ‘Gangs of New York’ shines best, in highlighting society’s ancient tribal instincts. As crowded masses claw for survival in a milieu of destitution, cruelty and corruption, they are unified by ethnic groupings. Religion fails to unify and make peace. Instead, a toxic mix of racial and cultural hostility is fostered as rival factions jostle for political influence and dominance. 

‘Gangs’ reveals a greater truth: that the old enemies of bigotry, intolerance, and resentment are deeply embedded in society. They are perpetual blemishes that humanity has yet to overcome. An assessment that remains relevant 18 years after the film’s release and 150 years after the reign of Bill the Butcher. 

Scorsese examines an interesting period in history and offers a narrative of historical change to explain how modern civilisation emerged from savage brutality. Bill’s amorality served as an essential phase in the development of civilisation; his strength and determination drew people together, but the violence and racism by which he achieved this unity eventually led to a desire for law and order. Modern civilisation may now enjoy the niceties of morality and social justice. Scorsese reminds us of the violence that lies underneath the surface of this civil society and the ruthlessness with which it was built.

This is not the usual jubilant tale of rectitude and enlightenment that is typically depicted in blockbuster pictures. The evident brutality and racism, combined with the general indifference of the upper classes toward lower class suffering, portrays America as an unprincipled society. 

The parable of ‘Gangs of New York’ is how ultimately self-defeating xenophobia really is, especially in a society moving, however slowly, toward inclusion. The ubiquity of violence and cruelty illustrate how much civilisation has changed in a century and a half. Contrastingly, the animosity and bigotry remind us that society has scarcely progressed at all.


Jack O’Grady – Film & TV Writer