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“You Have To Give A Sense Of What People Wanted”
Martin Scorsese has drawn on his own youth and his feelings about the past—and has rebuilt 1860s New York—to make a movie about the fight for American democracy. Here he tells why it is both so hard and so necessary to get history on film.
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Good question. I don’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by the supposedly smooth shift between paganism and Christianity in the ancient world. As I understand it, when Constantine converted to Christianity, gladiatorial combats still took place for another hundred years, maybe more. They say, O.K., we’ll worship Jesus, and peace and love, but gladiatorial combat, that’s pretty good!
I’ve always wanted to try to make a television series on a Roman family that starts off as “pagans.” You’d see their daily rituals, their sacrifices to the household gods, how they live their life with the sense of a pantheon of gods that are uninterested in humanity, how they feel that because the gods don’t care about them, they can kind of toy with them. And then Christianity becomes the state religion. And by the last two or three episodes, they really have the philosophy of Christians, and everything is different. I would love to do something like that. You know, the fall of the Roman Empire has been dealt with in film, but to do it on a small scale, in one family!
Is there anything in this era, or in American history, that has changed our basic way of comprehending our world?
If there is anything, I think it is that wars have not been fought on American soil for a long time. Younger people now have no concept of how wars came about. They think you can run this democracy without a struggle, but there’s a constant struggle. It’s a daily struggle. In the nineteenth century, everything seemed to be settled by force. And from the Revolutionary period to the end of the Civil War, the nation really wasn’t a nation yet. It had to be battled out.
What we show is based on that idea. But again, it’s an impression, a kind of artistic interpretation. As one of our guys put it, it’s the truth wrapped in a package of lies. We hope.
So there is an obligation to the truth. Films like Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation really affected how we looked at the South and slavery in a very ugly way.
The Birth of a Nation is almost impossible to watch, because of its racism. Which does not change the fact that Griffith was a genius, in terms of his art.
Can any film today influence our idea of a time, of a period, the way those two films did? Is it possible to make a film that really shapes Americans or America?
Right now, I don’t think so. Each film costs more and more to make, and you need a bigger and bigger return at the box office, and that leads you to take fewer chances. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to do it. You have to try. You have to have some sense of responsibility to say something that may have some meaning, and some depth, and may help people understand a little more of what this extraordinary experiment is all about. And that includes understanding the implications of immigration, which is also now occurring all over Europe. What happens in Gangs of New York, with immigration, is happening now in France, in Italy, in England. And that’s why if we lighten up on the history at certain points in the movie, we don’t lighten up on the passion and the rage that these opposing groups felt.
You’ve spoken in the past of directors smuggling ideas into films. Is there any idea you’re trying to smuggle into Gangs of New York?
I think not. I think in this one the ideas are out front. But how does one stop a war if the new generations have not experienced it? They may know about it, and see movies about it, but they haven’t lived through one. How does one change human nature—the worst aspect of which is settling everything by violence—if people haven’t experienced it? It’s the old line: If you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.
This picture, we feel, has something to do with what it means to put together a country based on our principles, the principles of the Founding Fathers. What Adams called this great experiment. And it’s about how people could be totally wrong and feel they were totally right. I mean, totally wrong about what the country’s supposed to be. Bill the Butcher looks at the Irish immigrants coming off the boat, and he curses them, and his nativists throw rocks at them. Because they consider themselves the true Americans. That’s what this is all about.