Comparison of "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed"

by Elaine Anderson

"Gangs of New York" and "The Departed" are two Martin Scorsese films that explore the intricacies of organized crime. "Gangs of New York" focuses on New York City in 1863, when gangs prevailed. "The Departed" revolves around the Irish mafia in present-day Boston. Although both movies feature gang-related plot lines and Irish gangs, their similarities begin to diverge upon closer evaluation.

Plot Lines

Although both films cover the corruption and violence of organized gangs and the duplicity of infiltration, "Gangs of New York" packs a more personal punch than "The Departed." In "Gangs of New York," the protagonist, Amsterdam Vallon, embarks upon a revenge quest against Bill "the Butcher" Cutting to avenge the death of his father. The Butcher was a ruthless gang leader of the Natives, a gang devoted to retaining control over New York against immigrants, especially the Irish gangs rising in Five Points. Vallon infiltrates the Butcher's inner circle as he plots his revenge. However, while "The Departed" also deals with gang violence and the Irish mafia, its setting in present day Boston supports a story that is much less fueled by personal emotions. Instead, two parallel infiltrations occur: A criminal infiltrates the police force as an informant to his crime boss, and a policeman goes undercover into the mafia as an informant to the police. Each man attempts to discover his rival's identity before he is exposed himself.

Actors and Characters

Leonardo DiCaprio is the only actor to appear in both films: as Vallon in "Gangs of New York" and Billy Costigan in "The Departed." In each film, DiCaprio serves as the protagonist. In each film, his character infiltrates the inner circle of the gang leader that he wishes to overthrow. The main antagonists in each film are the crime bosses. In "Gangs of New York," the Butcher, played by Daniel Day Lewis, wields fear to rule 19th-century New York City. Jack Nicholson reigns as Frank Costello in "The Departed." The antagonists are interesting opposites: The Butcher wants to drive the Irish out of New York; Costello, head of the Irish mafia, wants to entrench himself in Boston.

Time Periods

Because "Gangs of New York" is set between the 1840s and 1860s, the film includes many historical events and political figures. Few references to history and politics arise in the present day setting of "The Departed." For instance, in 1846, waves of Irish immigrants descend upon New York City in the film, reflecting the massive levels of immigration around the time of the Irish potato famine. Also, the Butcher's violent reign dovetails with the corruption and greed of New York's most well-known politician of the time, Boss Tweed.


The major themes of both films are corruption and trust. In each film, the protagonists blur their identities as they become engulfed in the corrupt worlds of gangs and mafia. The closer they get to the crime bosses, the more pressure they are under to follow the correct path and avoid letting their true identities come to light. Each protagonist must trust in himself while each antagonist must learn that true trust rarely exists in a world of backstabbing crime and corruption.

Photo Credits

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