Themes in Gangs of New York

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Themes in Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York is a Martin Scorsese film that portrays racial, class, and group warfare at its pinnacle. The film captures the avarice and violence of the mid-1800s that plagued New York and other major cities at the time. This is a time in which robber barons threatened economies and to get ahead financially often meant destroying the future of others. Gangs of New York features several divisions of people, among racial, national, class, and political lines. But above all, groups, or gangs, are formed that are highly self-interested and take on realist perspectives about economic gains: earning windfalls is worth the destruction of other groups.

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Greed is a major theme throughout the film. From Bill the Butcher to the politicians briefly mentioned in the film, everyone wants to get way ahead financially at any cost. Along with nationalistic and individualistic pride, greed is a driving force of violence in the film. Individuals, such as Bill the Butcher, form networks of alliances that must eventually confront one another in a time of resource scarcity. Perhaps if individuals in this film, much like in real life during the mid-1800s, would not reach for more, but be satisfied with what they have, then resources may not be scarce. However, this is not the reality of those times. Greed is conveyed in Give me Liberty! in discussions of the economic nature of the mid-1800s, where individuals sought to make huge profits. Wealthy land and railroad owners sought to make quick financial gains by creating monopolies and cornering the markets of resources.

Nationalism is another prominent theme in the movie. National groups, such as Irish Americans, are the target of violence. They are hoping to find freedom and the American dream here, much like can be found in discussion of motivations for liberty in Give me Liberty! It is not only these groups though. There is a strong sense of American nationalism, even patriotism, from most individuals in the film. For example, Bill the Butcher dies saying ‘Thank God I died a true American’. There is a strong sense of nationalism behind many of the motives in the film. The tense setting is preparing for the final battle of the film, which ends up looking much more like a civil war than an ethnic conflict.

Ethnicity and nationalism are not the only major dividers of people in this film. There are strong divisions by class, which reinforces the greed theme when the viewers see glimpses into the lives of the rich in the film. However, the perspective throughout is that of a low to middle class individual. Thus, the viewers, no matter which side of the ethnic war they are on, are prompted to be against the upper classes. While the upper classes seem to be often targets of violence during this time, they are heavily protected by the government and others. This theme relates strongly to Give me Liberty! in that the book discusses the growing inequalities of wealth during the 1800s. Such inequality culminates in attacks against the upper classes.

Violence is another major theme in the film. In fact, the film is full of violent scenes from beginning to end. But the violence in the film signifies the importance of the other themes discussed. From greed, to nationalism and class warfare, violence highlights the importance of these themes. People were willing to kill and risk dying for more money, for national pride (such as the Irish Americans), and to stand up against the upper classes. The film portrays a huge clash at the end of the film that embodies the building hatred and jealousy between, mostly, ethnic groups. Violence related to Give me Liberty! in the depictions of individuals’ fights for freedom, beginning with the American Revolution.

The film certainly game me an appreciation of the political and economic atmosphere during this time. The film evokes strong emotions about greed, especially. Reading history is one thing, but to experience it even if in exaggerated detail is generally much more memorable. But I tried not to take too much detail from the film as history. Instead, I sought to understand the general atmosphere of the film, which I think is somewhat telling of the environment of New York during that time.

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