As the latest collaboration between the director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio arrives on screens in the United Kingdom this month, it made me cast my mind back to their first collaboration together, Gangs of New York (2002). To me this movie represented the point when Scorsese seemed to expand upon his much vaunted career concerns and return to an ultimate desire to place his own stamp on historical precedent. While Scorsese's gangster movies are what he is celebrated for, and rightly so, Gangs represents a concern with historiographical thought that had not been realised before by the director, even in the many historical and costume dramas that hold his name above the title card in terms of the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Age of Innocence (1993) and the underrated Kundum (1997).

Gangs of New York arrived in 2002 and was nominated for over seven Academy Awards. However, it was beaten to the Best Picture award by Rob Marshall's Chicago (2002), which is dumfounding to say the least. Whilst Scorsese lost out to Roman Polanski in the best director category for his holocaust drama The Pianist (2002), the movie itself faced a number of production problems and an original edit that was near to the four hour mark (it was rejected by the producer Harvey Weinstein as he told his director to cut it down). For Scorsese this was a passion project he had wanted to make since 1978, however, studio enthusiasm for the project dissipated somewhat because of the failure at the box office of other epics that attempted to dramatize history and its natural cinematic potential.

Scorsese came across the project after he read Herbert J.Asbury's book, 'The Gangs of New York', which chronicled gangland culture in the United States from the early eighteenth century up until 1928. Scorsese soon realised that the upper class family he had shown in The Age of Innocence (1993) were in the context of Asbury's book a gang of some kind too. When Scorsese eventually got his project back from the depths, he created a work of such mastery that it resurrected a small historical period whose resonance had been dormant for years and he also managed to place fictional and real characters within that period and tell a marvellous story in the process.

  • Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York

The movie is set in the early 1860s in New York at a place in Manhattan called the Five Points which is essentially a slum. Here a complex ethnic mix of people (Irish, African Americans, Jews and Germans) lived in a place where vice and crime were commonplace, as the author Charles Dickens himself referenced upon visiting the Five Points in 1841. During the civil war a draft was introduced, which on July 13th 1863 culminated in three days of rioting which resulted in near to 2000 deaths. In the supposedly 'free' from slavery North, a hundred African Americans were killed, many of them lynched and as dramatized in the movie. The government were eventually forced to take severe action against their own citizens.

Into this environment we meet our main protagonist Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. An Irishman who returns to the Five Points to seek vengeance against Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting - a glass eyed sociopath who is loaded with a Jesse James like anger at the North and its support of the abolitionists who have destroyed the union. Bill is played with charisma and brutality by Daniel Day Lewis who walks along the line between pantomime villain and worthy actor with such aplomb that he munches up the screen. Cameron Diaz plays Jenny Everdeane, an adept sneak thief in her own right.

Vallon gets close to Bill to destroy him and eventually falls deeper into the abyss once he actually starts to find kinship alongside the man who murdered his father. Eventually he is discovered and it is at this point that many reviewers at the time claimed that the movie went awry. It is noteworthy that as DiCaprio's character is able to assume his own identity the city begins to crumble soon after these events as history makes it mark on the narrative journey of the characters. I myself find this to be a broadly succinct part of the movie, the civil war has divided a country searching for an identity defined by slavery, immigration, war and violence and these divisions form a wonderful backdrop for a main character who is attempting to realise who he is amongst the malaise.

In terms of the narrative what I love most about the movie is the fact that Scorsese grounds the story by giving us an inward jump into the history by telling the contextually mundane story about Vallon and his experiences. Once the draft riots conclude we then watch how the New York skyline has changed in the years since the 19th century. The movie seemingly has an appreciation of how big the lives of supposedly small people can be even when set against the weight of history, as Vallon says before the title card arrives, "for the rest of time it would be like no one even knew that we was ever here." This notion of forgotten history is perhaps made even more poignant by 12 Years a Slave (2013) and its current success. Not only was the book it is based on widely unknown before now, but also slavery has poignant relevance for the United States and its present and past histories. Here all of that 19th century history plays out in the context of this movie as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln himself loom large over America and the Five Points.

Gangs of New York is a masterful piece of film making, the cast is excellent, as is the writing and direction from a cinematic master in Martin Scorsese. He makes a movie that is rich in terms of cinema and also manages to ask profound questions about acknowledged history and its relevance to our own lives. For that, like the history shown here, it should never be forgotten.