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Cinema’s Duty to the Past: Why Using History as a Vehicle to Tell Your Own Story is Wrong

By Alex Smith

[1] Gangs of New York is an instructive film to study when looking at how cinema and history can and should interact, both in the ways that it succeeds and fails. This is also a great example of the ways in which a director's predispositions can influence the way that a historical film is put on screen. Taking these two lines of exploration together, this movie is a great tool to illustrate what a historical director's duties and responsibilities are, both to his audience and to the historical moment that he is portraying. Gangs of New York shows the possibilities as well as the limitations of the genre and can help future directors bring history to the screen in the most honest and faithful way.

[2] The first goal of any historical film is to transport the audience back in time to the historical event being depicted. This is no easy task, and many historical films are robbed of potential impact by failing to immerse the viewer. Gangs of New York positively soars in this regard. The level of detail that Scorsese and his team required, and produced, is breathtaking, starting with the set itself. The Five Points neighborhood that serves as the setting for most of the film was built from the ground up in the back lots of Cinecitta, a film studio in Rome. This allowed the scenes a greater degree of authenticity, as the environment that the actors had to interact with was fully realized in front of them. Had the actors been required to use their imaginations to fill out the scenery, the level of consistency and continuity they displayed in their interactions with it would not have been possible.

[3] This level of detail was not confined to the set design by any means. Costumes and props were created with extraordinary care as researchers for the film combed the historical record for information to aid in their creation. This included contemporary descriptions from books and newspapers, as well as illustrations and manuals detailing how certain products were constructed. Similarly, the filmmakers hired dialect and movement coaches to train the actors to walk and talk as though they were in 19th-century New York City. Importantly, this painstaking attention to detail was not just reserved for the lead actors or the most important scenes but was employed unfailingly throughout the entire movie, in costuming every extra and weathering every fence post. Taken all together, this led to the highly immersive film that we have before us. This is Gangs of New York's highest achievement, and it should serve as a model for future historical films to follow.

[4] This was not a model that Scorsese and his crew invented, however, for a time it was one of the most popular modes used in Hollywood. This tradition, which Scorsese's film falls squarely within, is the epic. Even the filming location, Cinecitta studios, had its roots in the epic with such classics as Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963) filmed in the same back lots. The epic film is something of a dinosaur in modern cinema, mostly because of the exorbitant production costs typically required. Scorsese and his team prove that this does not have to be the case and in so doing revitalize the legitimacy of the epic form. Not only that, but this is strong evidence that the epic is perhaps the form best equipped to bringing history to the screen. Future historical filmmaker should take note of this fact and consider utilizing it in their productions. Scorsese and his team provide a blueprint for how to transport an audience back in time and recreate the feeling and emotion of a particular historical time period.

[5] While the film was exceptional in its reproduction of the feeling of 19th-century New York City, it fell noticeably short when it came to historical facts. There were some large inaccuracies, such as the conflation of the Draft Riots with the Bowery Boys riots, events that took place six years apart, but these types of artistic choices are deemed to be intentional and thus are forgivable. Any historical filmmaker is necessarily going to stray from the source material somewhat to punch it up; this comes with the territory, and no legitimate criticism will be leveled against Scorsese or anyone else for not being a documentarian. However, there were many places throughout the film at which more subtle inaccuracies undermined the message that the film was trying to make. The gangs in the book are shown to be composed of men who had devoted their lives to sporting culture, when, in fact, this was far from the truth. Very few members of street gangs would have lived to be as old as Bill the Butcher and his compatriots, they either would have died as a result of their lifestyle or else found a more stable means of subsistence. The actual demographic would have been much younger, with an average age of late teens to early twenties.

[6] Dying as a result of their lifestyle would not, however, have been likely to be at the hands of an enemy but, rather, as the result of disease. Casualties on the scale of those inflicted in the opening battle scene would only have been possible in skirmishes taking place between the Union and the Confederacy. The number of dead produced on that single day would have exceeded total homicides in the entire city for any one-year period during this era. Disease was the most prevalent cause of death, because of wretched living conditions and nonexistent medical care. This fact further impugns the idea that street gangs could possibly have such large numbers of middle-aged men when minor injuries would often result in death. What we get, then, is a highly distorted picture of New York City where these 19th-century street gangs are meant to represent an early form of organized crime. This is a significant leap from their actual status as largely social and political clubs. Characterizing the participants as members of fringe groups that operated outside of society is also disingenuous as, for the most part, the young men involved supported themselves through honest labor. This is something the film is almost devoid of, outside of Bill's occasional butchering.

[7] These inaccuracies and misrepresentations were not mistakes on Scorsese's part, however, but intentional decisions to tell a certain story. The power of street culture in urban settings has long fascinated Martin Scorsese, dating back to his childhood growing up in Manhattan's little Italy. The ways that individuals are able to exert control over their neighborhoods through violence and fear are themes that Scorsese has explored throughout his entire career, from 1973's Mean Streets to Goodfellas and Casino in the 1990's up to The Departed in 2006. Gangs of New York was constructed to fit into this ongoing narrative. To his credit, Scorsese told the story this way because he feels strongly about the truth that this narrative holds for American life, but in this case it is unfortunately anachronistic. Unfortunately, however, by approaching this material with this preconceived notion, Scorsese was not able to truly capture the character of 19th-century New York.

[8] Martin Scorsese is an artist, and as such he has a certain amount of artistic license that he is free to exert in his productions. Many of Scorsese's seminal works dealt with specific places and times in history and the ways the people inhabiting these spaces interacted. One of Scorsese's trademarks is his naturalistic, bare-bones style, in which viewers feels that what they are witnessing is an example of real life emotions and experiences. These films feel so real because Scorsese is tapping into his actual experiences and memories in bringing the scenes to life, reproducing Scorsese's viewpoint. This is why, unsurprisingly, a few themes find their way to the center of many of Scorsese's films, themes about manhood and the power of sublegal groups in shaping urban identity. These are the things that most profoundly impacted Scorsese's development and the construction of his worldview. This is what Scorsese anachronistically brought to Gangs of New York. He read Herbert Asbury's book and felt an immediate connection and understanding for the characters involved. Unfortunately for Scorsese, this was because Asbury was also writing anachronistically, constructing the characters and gangs in his book to appear as the direct predecessors of the then prominent organized crime rings of the 1920's.

[9] This may seem at first glance to be an overly critical analysis, but it is deeply important that historical filmmakers are aware of this pit-fall. In crafting a historical film, the historical material needs to be of the utmost importance. History is not a popular subject, and, as such, when history finds its way into popular culture, the manner in which it is represented and delivered is crucial. Many of the audience members seeing a given historical film will have had no other point of access to that subject matter, and that film will then stand as their sole source of information on the topic. Historical filmmakers need to be cognizant of this fact and keep it at the center of their focus. Scorsese is clearly sensitive to this issue, which makes it all the more instructive to look at this instance at which some of the central themes of this film are clearly ahistorical. In Gangs of New York Scorsese brought 19th-century New York City to life but placed 20th century New Yorkers within it. Scorsese did this because it was convenient for him and, though a certain amount of anachronism is unavoidable, in this case it was not a byproduct of the medium but a conscious decision.

[10] Martin Scorsese and fellow filmmakers are entertainers, but when they decide to take on a historical project, they must see themselves as historians as well. They have a profound impact on public perception and understanding of historical events. After seeing this film, many viewers came to understand 19th-century New York as an alien and yet extremely familiar world. Had Scorsese accurately portrayed the structure as well as the operations of these street gangs, this film never could have been made, but would that have been such a bad thing? Certainly many people would have remained entirely ignorant to this period of American history, but they would not have a warped view of it. Scorsese proved a few years later that he could more accurately bring history to the screen in his biopic of Howard Hughes, showing his particular decisions in Gangs of New York to be a bit more suspect. Virtually every critical treatment of Asbury's book quickly notes the extent of its veracity, and these are resources that Scorsese and his team undoubtedly came across. Choosing to ignore them shows that Scorsese was more interested in telling his story about American life and the creation of American identity than he was telling the story of 1860's New York City.

[11] Despite seeming somewhat unconcerned with historicity behind the scenes, Gangs of New York was outwardly an eminently historical film. This is obviously the case with the previously discussed costumes and sets but also in the editing of the film. Throughout the film, dates and locations flash on the screen for a couple of seconds serving as a caption at the beginning of certain key scenes. This gives the viewer a distinct impression of factuality. Likewise, contemporaneous photographs, maps, lithographs, and woodcuts are shown on the screen throughout the film. A number of times photographs are shown followed by a transition to a camera shot closely resembling the photo. These techniques make a defense of Scorsese difficult, since he is clearly attempting to cash in on the perceived historicity that they deliver. The filmmakers did everything that they could to make the movie look, sound, and seem historical to an uninformed observer. The result of this is to develop in the viewer a sense of trust in the material that naturally compounds the problems raised by inaccurately forming the characters in the film.

[12] Historical filmmakers have a duty and a responsibility to their public extending beyond achieving realism. They need to show their viewers truth. Historical critics will always be able to find fault with any historical film, but minor inaccuracies of this kind are understandable and forgivable. What a historical filmmaker cannot do is inject himself into his film and tell the kind of story that he wants to tell. This is Scorsese's mistake. He tells a Scorsese story instead of the story that was already there, the true story. Gangs of New York is one of the best examples out there of a film reproducing the exterior world of a historical moment, and historical filmmakers should strive to match this accomplishment. It is equally instructive, however, as a cautionary tale. Auteurs are not the best fit for historical films; they are far too concerned with communicating their own message. Gangs of New York proves this out. It is a moving and gripping film, but it is deeply flawed as a historical work. This is information that the general public will never be exposed to, and this flawed work will continue to provide most Americans with their only inroad to this period of American history. Understanding the gravity of this truth is the first qualification for any filmmaker treating a historical topic. If, through this type of analysis, Gangs of New York can serve to educate future filmmakers on how to responsibly produce historical films, then it can certainly be viewed as a success.