Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #60

The actor:Daniel Day-Lewis
The character:Bill “the Butcher” Cutting
The film:Gangs of New York
The line: “Thank God. I die a true American.”

One of the writing talents that I’ve always admired is the way some writers have with what I can only call “old-timey language.” Whether or not it’s actually all that accurate to the time itself is not entirely the point. It’s the way that things are said that lets you know that these people exist out of our time. The costumes, the hair, the makeup, the sets all do their work. But for me it’s the language that rings truest. This is no little piece of why I love The Crucible as much as I do; the wording Arthur Miller brings to that play facilitates ideas and history with such aplomb. While my first love in Gangs of New York is the colossal violence of the picture—forgive me, for I was seventeen and awful—the one that has endured most is my love of the movie’s nearly unique screenplay. Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, a really great trio of screenwriters, put together sounds that I never expected to hear before, words in conjunction that I could not have predicted, and poetry from the mouths of men who haven’t wiped the blood away from their teeth just yet.

“In which part of that excrementitious isle were your forbears spawned?” Bill asks Amsterdam one day. To Boss Tweed, he provides his theory of how Irish Catholics vote, that their choice comes from “Their king in the pointy hat what sits on his throne in Rome.” I’ve glommed onto their use of “sand” to mean courage, a word that no longer exists in that form; I’ve not had as much opportunity to use “fidlam bens,” as much as that deserves to be brought back to life. There’s a hilarious line where Monk McGinn tries to explain to Amsterdam who William Shakespeare was by telling him “he wrote the King James Bible.”

Then there are the lines which come as part of a larger monologue, working as eloquent doors to slam in the face of unsuspecting audience members. “God’s only man spared by the Butcher.” “They’re to remind me what I owe God when I die.” “It’s warmer than you’d think.”

And then there’s this one, one which is not memorable because of its phrasing or because of its prosody. It’s a phrase that one could hear as easily in 1863 as in 1963, and assuming we still have Americans in 2063, you’d guess this would still sound contemporary. It stands out in the scope of the movie because it is so incredibly normal. It is, at base, the way that Bill the Butcher conceives himself. I suppose that it even makes a good deal of sense from a certain point of view; his father was killed in the War of 1812, and Bill has become a major political figure in New York City. What it means to be a true American, as far as Bill comes to it, is also to be fatally prejudiced, to be murderous, to be xenophobic. It means, as Boss Tweed tells him, that his form of Americanism is mired in the past. From his insistence that he killed the last honorable man fifteen years ago to his refusal to believe that true Americans can be anything besides WASPs, Bill is the past. Yet in the future, everything that’s wrong with him sounds the same from his lips as it might from any other revanchist.

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