Rarely does a character in such a foreign time period as early America come alive as much as Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting from Gangs of New York. Bill was a brilliantly written and perfectly acted character played by Daniel Day Lewis. He was a flawed patriot, a warrior, a butcher (that was his actual day job) and a man of honor. Imagine all of these things mixed into a tall, lanky, one-eyed panther of a man and you have one dangerously complex sunovabitch. You can’t help but love the butcher; he was the living embodiment of flawed American patriotism that wants all outsiders to stay outside and everything coming to come in faster. Bill was the best part of Gangs of New York… no disrespect to Leo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Liam Neeson.
To understand Bill the Butcher you have to understand the time period that he lived in. There wasn’t much law, there were gangs and to be in a gang much less lead one, you had to be ruthless and volatile. Watching Gangs of New York for the first time will have you scared of the butcher. He was poetic in one scene and savage in the next, his word was absolute; he described his kills like a basketball player describes a 4th quarter, last second jumper. The sentiment was simple “do not cross Bill the Butcher”. One of the main things that drove home the lethality of Bill was his fighting style, it was unorthodox and he fought with the tools of his trade – a sharpened knife and a meat cleaver. Walking through a melee (and back then the street fights were melees) Bill would methodically chop and stab men where it counted. He wasn’t some ninja who could throw shurikens into your vitals; he was a tall, limping killer with knowledge of where to strike a man to kill him fast. Scared yet?
The odd thing about Bill to those foreign to the Warrior Spirit is his love and respect for the man who had taken his eye, gave him a limp and left him to suffer in shame for crossing him, one ‘Priest’ Vallon played by Liam Neeson. Many story legends depict the indomitable warrior whose focus in life is to find the one man that can best him in single combat and for Gangs of New York this was Bill. He loved a fight, prepared his steaks rare and bloody and could throw knives as skillfully as a circus trained marksman. Dare I say that we could use more villains as well written as this guy? Martin Scorsese has created many memorable characters, typically Italian or Irish gangsters but for me Bill the Butcher is up there as one of the best yet. If you haven’t had the chance to see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York I would implore you to set 3 hours away one Saturday afternoon and fix that slight ASAP.
One of my only gripes about the movie (will get back on point in a second bear with me) was the racist direction it took about 2 hours in. While the Irish versus WASP American gang warfare was the point of the movie, Scorsese threw in the lynching, burning and slaughter of black people towards the end and it didn’t flow well for the film at all. Marty should have just made a sequel or something to give us our propers (thanks for the token black dude scrapper on team Dead Rabbits though Mr. Scorcese).
Bill was shown as not only anti-Irish, anti-woman and anti-hell anything that couldn’t give him a proper fight, he was shown to be a racist of Grand Wizard caliber calling for some “darkie” slaughtering as if it was the thing to do. This still did not damage the character’s validity for me and I liked him no less.
The End of The Butcher (Spoilers Beware)
The fall of Bill was another disappointment to me only because I thought he deserved a more dramatic end despite the honor in how it went down. As you know a warrior’s honor in death is to die fighting preferably on the battlefield. Bill not only received that but he died to the blade of the son of the only man he respected – how sweet is that? Problem is, it was an epic melee going down and the gangs were decimated by cannon fire from ships raiding the Four Points to clean up the angry mob. Bill dying to Amsterdam’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) blade in the middle of a melee would have been the cherry on top of his bloody shepherd’s pie of a life but he was felled by cannon ball shrapnel long before Amsterdam could give him the coup de grace. Still, it was an honorable death for this wicked man, and at the end of the day – one that we the audience could deal with.
Once in a blue moon Hollywood serves us up a villain that we can’t help but embrace despite his/her evil ways. Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutter is a god amongst villains and this is why he is a Reel Man of Cinema.See some words or phrases that you don't understand? Check out The Dragon's Lexicon.