BIRTH OF A NATION, THE (D.W. Griffith, 1915, USA, 187m, BW)
Production notes and credits
* Studio: D.W. Griffith Productions
* Director and producer: D.W. Griffith
* Writer: D.W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods
* Music: Joseph Carl Breil
* Running time: 190 minutes
* Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman)
* Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron)
* Henry B. Walthall (Colonel Ben Cameron)
* Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron)
* Ralph Lewis (Austin Stoneman)
* George Siegmann (Silas Lynch)
Silent film, released in 1915, that was the first “blockbuster” Hollywood hit. It was the longest and most profitable film then produced and the most artistically advanced film of its day. It secured both the future of feature-length films and the reception of film as a serious medium. An epic about the American Civil War (1861–65) and the Reconstruction era that followed, it has long been hailed for its technical and dramatic innovations but condemned for the racism inherent in the script and its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
Based on the novel The Clansman (1905) by Thomas Dixon, the two-part epic traces the impact of the Civil War on two families: the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South, each on separate sides of the conflict. The first half of the film is set from the outbreak of the war through the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, while the concluding section deals with the chaos of the Reconstruction period.
Director D.W. Griffith revolutionized the young art of moviemaking with this big-budget ($110,000) and artistically ambitious re-creation of the Civil War years. Shooting on the film began in secrecy in late 1914. Although a script existed, Griffith kept most of the continuity in his head—a remarkable feat considering that the completed film contained 1,544 separate shots at a time when the most elaborate spectacles, Italian epics such as Cabiria (1914), boasted fewer than 100. Running nearly three hours, it was the longest movie ever released, and its sweeping battle re-creations and large-scale action thrilled audiences. It was also innovative in technique, using special effects, deep focus photography, jump cuts, and facial close-ups.
However, the movie has long been condemned for its overt racism. Blacks are portrayed as the root of all evil, spreading crime and lusting after white women, and the KKK is portrayed in a heroic light as a saviour of order and civilization. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested the showing of the film and tried to get it banned. The KKK had practically disappeared by the 1870s, with the end of Reconstruction. However, it was revived near Atlanta, Ga., by Col. William J. Simmons, a preacher and promoter of fraternal orders who had been inspired by The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation. Riots and violence broke out in several cities where the film was shown. It was banned in eight Northern and Midwestern states. Such measures, however, did not prevent The Birth of a Nation from becoming one of the most popular films of the silent era. It achieved national distribution in the year of its release and was seen by nearly three million people.
Notwithstanding this controversial legacy and the challenge the film presents for modern viewers, The Birth of a Nation remains a landmark work in cinematic history. This view was reflected in 1992 when the U.S. Library of Congress classified it among the “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” produced in the United States and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.
These words by James Agee about D. W. Griffith are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic. On the other hand, the equally distinguished critic Andrew Sarris wrote about Griffith's masterpiece: "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."
Here are two more quotations about the film:
"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing it at a White House screening. The words are quoted onscreen at the beginning of most prints of the film
"...the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."--Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the NAACP, which protested against the film's blackface villains and heroic Ku Klux Klanners.
Nobody seems to know the source of the Wilson quote, which is cited in every discussion of the film. Not dear Lillian Gish, whose "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me" is a touchingly affectionate and yet clear-eyed memoir a man she always called "Mister" and clearly loved. And not Richard Schickel, whose "D. W. Griffith: An American Life" is a great biography. Certainly the quote is suspiciously similar to Coleridge's famous comment about the acting of Edmund Kean ("like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”).
My guess is that Wilson said something like it in private, and found it prudent to deny when progressive editorialists attacked the film. Certainly "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.
Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.
To understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.
But it is possible to separate the content from the craft? Garry Wills observes that Griffith's film "raises the same questions that Leni Riefenstahl's films do, or Ezra Pound's poems. If art should serve beauty and truth, how can great art be in the thrall of hateful ideologies?"
The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil. In that case, "The Birth of a Nation" is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the most useful statements against racism were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and "Huckleberry Finn.")
Racism of the sort seen in "The Birth of a Nation" has not been acceptable for decades in American popular culture. Modern films make racism invisible, curable, an attribute of villains, or the occasion for optimistic morality plays. "Birth of a Nation" is unapologetic about its attitudes, which are those of a white Southerner, raised in the 19th century, unable to see African-Americans as fellow beings of worth and rights. It is based on Thomas Dixon's racist play, The Clansman, and the fact that Griffith wanted to adapt it reveals his own prejudices.
Griffith, for example, was criticized for using white actors in blackface to portray his black villains. There are bizarre shots where a blackface character acts in the foreground while real African-Americans labor in the fields behind him. His excuse, as relayed by Miss Gish: "There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he had trained." But of course there were no Negro actors, because blackface whites were always used, and that also explains why he did not need to train any.
Griffith's blindness to the paradox in his own statement is illuminating. His blackface actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black actors could not have been used in such sexually-charged scenes, even if Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them. Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.
The year 1915 represents the transition from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Classical Silent Period.” I took this, partly at least, from David Kalat’s description of silent movie history in his commentary to Fantômas, one of the first movies I watched on reviving this project and beginning this blog. But, the more I have watched, the more convinced I have become that 1915 really does represent a profound turning-point, especially in terms of the American film industry. While there are some standout movies from 1914, even some really good American feature-length films, most of what you see from that year still carries the baggage of “early film” and looks slow, stagey, and static by modern standards. This is especially true if we eliminate French, Italian, and Russian films from consideration. In 1915, we start getting feature-length stories that draw us in, give compelling narratives, and use the camera creatively. The best movies of this year can be put up against any but the very best of later work and still come out looking at decent.
Traditional film histories would give most of the credit for this to D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Everything that came after it was based on it, they’ll tell you, and film, or at least American film, would have remained in its stodgy and uncreative pigeonhole without Griffith and his genius. Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I regard that narrative with some distrust: it looks to me like at least some of it is because of Griffith’s own (very effective) ballyhoo and hype, and some of it is because for far too long, far too many of the people writing about film in this period had access to far too few movies of the period to make a reasonable comparison. Generations of film students were told by their professors that this was the “best” movie of the period, and, not having seen much else from before 1915 except maybe a Méliès and a couple of Edisons, they pretty much swallowed the standard story and wrote all their books based on it. In the era before home video, it took a lot of hard work to do the kind of research necessary to challenge this view.
Birth of a Nation Sheet MusicAs much as I believe that the traditional narrative deserves debunking, though, it’s possible to go too far. There’s one piece of evidence that any Griffith-fan can call to service that I simply cannot refute: this was a hugely popular film, a “blockbuster” by any standard of judgment, and a tremendous critical success that convinced many skeptics that the motion pictures really were a serious art form. People paid up to $2.00 to see it, as much as they did for live theater events, and they saw it in “traditional” theaters rather than nickelodeons, accompanied by a full orchestra and seated by uniformed ushers. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason for its popularity and impact is that it drew many casual movie-goers or non-movie-goers to its screenings, who were the more impressed with its spectacle for not being accustomed to how advanced the other movies of the day already were.
Acknowledging this fact forces me to admit that the movie must have had an influence: if only because the reality of Griffith’s commercial success after taking what most thought was an insanely expensive risk influenced the way studios responded to other directors who now wanted to make large, expensive feature films. The investment now looked like a good idea, and it has to be said that more studios made more and longer movies after “Birth” came out than they had before it. They also started to push the “genius” and importance of their best directors in their ad copy, following Griffith’s self-promoting example. In other words, reluctantly, I have to admit that, yes, “The Birth of a Nation” is at least partly responsible for the improvement in quality we see in American filmmaking during and after the year 1915.
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