Martin Scorsese brought us a movie in 2002 about organized crime in New York City. That sounds like a lot of his films, but Gangs of New York was different because it was set in the 1860s. How authentic was it? That’s hard to tell, even when you know the source material.
1. IT WAS 32 YEARS IN THE MAKING.
Martin Scorsese read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 nonfiction book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in 1970 and immediately thought it would make a good movie. He didn’t have any money or clout yet though, so he had to wait. He bought the movie rights to the book in 1979, and even got a screenplay written around that time, then spent the next 20 years trying to get the project off the ground before finding a willing financial partner in Harvey Weinstein at Miramax Films.
3. THE BOOK THAT INSPIRED MARTIN SCORSESE WASN’T ALL THAT ACCURATE.
A modern historian named Tyler Anbinder, who wrote Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum and gave Scorsese input on the Gangs screenplay, said Asbury’s book from the ‘20s exaggerated how dangerous the neighborhood was. Anbinder had access to statistics that Asbury did not, and he said, “Other than public drunkenness and prostitution, there was no more crime in Five Points than in any other part of the city.” Asbury had written that “there was one tenement where there was a murder a day,” but in fact, Anbinder said, “there was barely a murder a month in all of New York City” at that time.
Still, many of the roles were based on real people. Read about them, and who Scorsese envisioned in the roles for those three decades, plus trivia behind the production of Gangs of New York, all in a list at mental_floss.