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Topics in History: History through Film

Topics in History: History through Film

Topics is a course at Southport High School taught by Kevin Sanders that analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens.

Student: Quinn Carmody

Film Reviewed: Gangs of New York

Al Capone, Pablo Escobar and John Gotti are all Famous gang lords that ruled vast swathes of the United States, but what about some of the smaller gang lords who may be stuck to certain areas like New York? Gangs of New York starts off with a young Amsterdam Vallon and his father Priest Vallon getting ready for a war against Bill “The Butcher” for control of Five Points. The battle climaxes, and we find that Vallon has died to Bill. They send Amsterdam off to a boarding school; he later gets out and returns to Five Points to enact his revenge. From there Amsterdam brings his childhood friend and a few others in order to try and take down Bill.

While the plot is nothing extraordinary the reasons behind it could be that serious watchers can use film theory (or theories) in order to examine the deeper meaning into why a movie was made a certain way or why certain things happen. For instance, Marxist Theory is a way of making and analyzing a film based on the differences in class representations. We can see this especially when we focus on the Schermerhorns during the big fight between Amsterdam and Bill near the end of the movie. The Schermerhorns are relaxed and don’t expect really any fighting to show up on their doorstep. This is due to them constantly separating themselves and almost being the mastermind behind why these people are still in the poorer area of Five Points. While we can  see Marxist Theory during that particular segment we can also see it just about everywhere with the rich setting the poor against themselves in the form of Bill and his anti-immigrant policies so one could view Bill as not the villain but actually the Schermerhorns and their constant greed.

There are also things like Auteur Theory, which analyzes a film’s elements for what the director meant beyond the literal. A good instance of this would be during the closeup on Bill in the first fight for Five Points when Amsterdam was young. It was a closeup on his eye that shows an eagle with a shield typical of what you would find on a dollar bill. While not immediately obvious it showcases Bill’s American-centric view on the world; this builds him as a natural villain to our immigrant protagonists. Later on when Bill dies, and the immigrants win control of Five Points back from the “natives,” Bill closes his eyes, and we get that same closeup of the eye closing which is a representation of a closing on American-centric views in New York.

Formalist Theory on the other hand is looking at the technical elements of a film to try and discern meaning from them; the technical elements include things like camera angles and lighting. A very common shot in this theory would be the use of shadows on the face to either showcase mysteriousness or a dour attitude. There are many shots similar to this within Gangs of New York.

Film Theories are not exclusive though; you can mix them to create something else. Take Marxist Theory and the rich gang’s usage of money in order to set the poor against each other in hopes that they may climb up the latter as well. We can see this with Bill dressing as a richer fellow than those he surrounds himself with, but he is never truly accepted by the Schermerhorns. You can also use Auteur Theory to virtually produce the same depiction from that scene and even expand upon what you have already learned from Marxist Theory. All in all Gangs of New York allows for a great depth to be explored within its many meanings and could all be interpreted differently based on its different viewers. This optional complexity really makes the movie worthwhile to watch and also to look into as it has a variety of messages hidden within.

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