Gangs of New York
dir. Martin Scorsese
Opens Fri Dec 20 at various theaters.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
dir. Peter Jackson
Opens Wed. Dec 18 at various theaters.

It feels right somehow that the two most important mainstream film releases of the season share more than a release date. Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Peter Jackson's The Two Towers are event films in every sense. Both tell stories of primal human conflict, of epic adversity and the quest for epic redemption. Both are concerned with myth and legend. Both are set long ago--one in American history, one in a fable--but both are easily read as crafty allegories for the present moment. The crucial distinctions between these two magnum opera lie in the two filmmakers' interpretations of the nature of war, and what those interpretations demand of the audience.

Combining real history, richly imagined historiography, and classical melodrama, Gangs of New York tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon, a young Irish immigrant (Leonardo DiCaprio) in mid-19th-century New York City seeking to avenge the murder of his father by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), a rival gang leader who has since grown into a powerful crime boss.

Pre-industrial New York is a mire of thuggery and political corruption--"not a city, but a furnace where a city might one day be forged"--peopled by warring ethnic factions, and presided over by "the spectacle of fearsome acts." As the conflict between Vallon and Bill intensifies, the blood of progress boils. Scorsese invests the picture with increasingly Biblical gravity in an attempt to portray the birth of a nation as a violent, ritualistic collision between two men. But this collision is set against the backdrop of history, and just as the climactic duel is set to explode, an even bigger explosion--the Civil War--supersedes it. Suddenly, the mortal enemies are united by a common foe that renders their rivalry obsolete and pulls them unwillingly into the modern age.

It's telling that Scorsese makes the U.S. government the ultimate aggressor, because Gangs of New York is about tribalism as it relates to the essential character of America. In the end, America demands that all tribes surrender themselves, whether they like it or not, to the greater identity of an intrinsically divided nation. The brutal, bloody federalization of conflict is what makes the country a country.

Meanwhile, in Middle-earth, where conflict truly is a matter of good vs. evil, the morality is considerably less complex, though the drama is not. The Two Towers is the second chapter of the quest to destroy the ring of power, which was forged by the dark lord, but then fell into the hands of a guileless little Hobbit, the only creature who can resist its limitless temptation and deliver it into the ancient fires where it was wrought, thereby freeing the world of evil. Little Frodo's allies are a wizard, a man, an Elf, a Dwarf, and three fellow Hobbits. His enemies are basic-ally everything else: Orcs, demonic ring wraiths, evil wizards, an insidious little beastie named Gollum, and the dark lord himself, whose eye is forever trained on the precious ring Frodo carries. As the quest drags wearily forward, the forces of evil decimate the land "in the fires of industry," and threaten to destroy all that is noble (and weak) in the world of man by way of superior numbers and a ruthless will to power.

Because its moral-ity is simple, and because no one can doubt the eventual triumph of good, The Two Towers becomes a deeply rousing tribute to the spirit of resistance in the face of certain defeat. The film resonates so deeply, despite its potentially embarrassing fantasy trappings, because the filmmaker recognizes that violence and sacrifice are unavoidable aspects of the survival of civilizations.

"I will not risk open war," says a doomed king. "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not," comes the reply.

It's the same situation in Gangs of New York. Both films take a fatalistic view of man's tendency toward violence and corruption, and neither is willing to rest on the platitudes of anti-war sentiment. What separates The Two Towers is its faith in the possibility of heroes, and its admission, as one of those heroes plainly states, that "good is worth fighting for."

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