The theater grows dark and a hush falls over the crowd.
The amplifiers crackle with life as a beam of light clashes with a white screen.
The credits then roll ... GANGS OF NEW YORK ... a screenplay by Terrence J Brady.
...okay, maybe not exactly. (More on that later).
Opening the weekend before Christmas 2002, Martin Scorsese's long-awaited epic paints a vicious social and political history of New York City (and America) but is receiving a mixed bag of critical reviews. The turbulent and harsh depiction of the immigrant passage into the "new world" seems to have shocked many a spectator. A spectator under the assumption that Lady Liberty once sat at the docks with open arms and a road map to the stars.
Instead, the director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas strips back the candy-coated pages from U.S. History 101 and depicts a world of corrupt politicians, racial and religious strife, class separation, street warfare, drug use and prostitution. An unseemly melting pot that boileth over.
The film opens in a long forgotten section of Lower Manhattan called the "Five Points." The year 1846. Two rival gangs square off in an arena covered with pristine white snow. A bloodbath in slow motion ensues, undercut by a jarring score, as a group of children sit on the sidelines watching the event unfold. When the dust settles, the virginal snow has mutated into pinkish pulp sprinkled with bits of flesh and bone. The Irish-American leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), is one of the many slaughtered. Welcome to America!
The remaining story is set 15 years later as Priest Vallon's grown son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DeCaprio), returns to the area in his bid for revenge. While Five Points is still a far cry from aristocratic Upper Broadway, there is a delusive peace as Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his American-born gang maintain a stranglehold on the area.
Backed by Boss Tweed and his Tamany Hall, the Butcher is a sinister psychopath and a fierce Nativist with a vehement hatred for the immigrant masses who land in his neighborhood each day. He takes a shine to the aloof Amsterdam and embraces him as an apprentice - unaware of his past. The young protégé becomes immersed in the seedy dealings of the Butcher’s organization, winning the respect of his "foster-father," as he carefully plots his revenge.
The plot thickens when Amsterdam is beguiled by a flirtatious pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) and betrayed by an associate who exposes his true identity (and scheme) to the Butcher. The ultimate confrontation between the two is further fueled by the outbreak of civil rioting in response to the government’s decision to begin drafting men for the conflict between the States.
No, I won’t reveal how it all unfolds. That, you must see for yourself.
Back to the "credits" mentioned above. I’ve been told that when a screenwriter first sees their name sprawled across the silver screen, the experience is similar to the elation one feels when realizing they have all six numbers for a million dollar lottery ticket. Screenwriting (any form of writing for that matter) can be classified as a form of self-persecution. The script-to-screen process can take years (see below) if ever at all. When those years of sweat and anguish do become a reality, the moment of triumph arrives when these words flicker onto the screen: "Screenplay by ...."
Gangs of New York, conceived in 1978, was slated for a 1980-81 release. The box office failure of "Heaven's Gate" (1980) made studios wary of expensive historical dramas and the idea was shelved. Granted, in 1978, I hadn't begun penning screenplays but many years later (1998), I wrote a treatment after reading about the Civil War Draft Riots while researching another script.
Oblivious to Scorsese’s film concept, I sketched out a "Romeo & Juliet" tale set in Manhattan during the Draft Riots. The treatment was tentatively called Order Restored and I had high hopes of turning it into a full blown screenplay but it became sidelined by other writing projects. After hearing about Scorsese’s film, my heart sank - though I knew I had to see it.
Opening Day. I was at the film's first showing and quickly found myself mesmerized by the gritty landscape of mid-nineteenth century Manhattan. A smile crept across my face in the dark. While I had nothing to do with the creation of this motion picture, I finally felt I was watching a script I conceived (more or less) flash across the big screen.
I may never see any of my screenplays unfold into a Hollywood feature. I may never hold a winning lottery ticket. But for those three hours, Scorsese helped me achieve a small dose of that elation all screenwriters dream of - and that made my Christmas. Thank you Marty.
© Terrence J. Brady