The Birth of a Nation
Starring Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall,
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Review by Gregory P. Dorr
Long before Oliver Stone was a conspiratorial itch in the bulging breeches of cinema, D.W. Griffith pioneered the genre of abrasive historical revisionism. His 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation is easily the most controversial movie in history, still sparking heated debate almost 90 years later.
Griffith's sprawling civil war saga is unmistakably an important milestone in the development of film as a popular art form. The brash auteur is credited by historians as an innovator who virtually invented the narrative language of cinema. He broke out from the static "filmed-play" format of film's early years, introducing concepts like the close-up, the moving camera, and the inter-cutting of concurrent scenes for the purpose of an exciting "last minute rescue."
But it wasn't only Griffith's technical invention that gained The Birth of a Nation its unassailable reputation as a turning point in filmmaking. Due to what was apparently an insurmountable ego, Griffith attacked his craft with the bravura of a circus showman. Running longer than 3 hours, Birth was nearly six times longer than the average movie of the day, and Griffith booked it in grand music halls amidst much ballyhoo. Made for a then-staggering $110,000, it grossed over $3 million, sparking a frenzy of investors in this newly grand media.
The Birth of a Nation's content, however, is where Griffith's film runs into trouble and his innovations come up short. The story is told in two parts, the first 90 minutes depicting the emotional ravages of the Civil War, and the last two hours concerning its messy aftermath.
Griffith attempts to humanize this tragic event by dousing it in cliched melodrama that is as insufferably simplistic as it is longwinded (inspiration to James Cameron, perhaps?). Two families the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South find their mutual friendship (and romantic attractions) cruelly undermined by an unfortunate national schism over state's rights.
Griffith whose father fought for the Confederacy pays intimate detail to his idealistic vision of the antebellum South, a place where close-knit, homey families benevolently oversee plantations staffed by happy slaves (more on this later). In addition to the aforementioned narrative innovations, Griffith also displays a skillful eye, and his naturalistic style ably supports his constant reminders of the film's supposed historical accuracy.
Where Griffith fails to innovate successfully, however, is in his pacing. This first part of the movie is listless and unfocused, it's shots running mercilessly long, often redundantly reiterating the content of the inter-titles. Griffith's much revered battle scenes, while ambitious, aren't exciting they look simply like a series of smoke puffs erupting on a distant landscape.
By the time the war is finally over, and each family has lost a son, the movie's length feels interminable and it still has two hours to go!
But this is where Griffith plays his bizarre, controversial hand. The second part of the film, Reconstruction, is set in the Camerons' home state of South Carolina. It was here that the "freedmen" took greatest advantage of their emancipation, actually gaining a sizable majority in the state's lower house of representatives, thanks partially to a law disenfranchising unrepentant slave owners of the right to vote. This turn did not go down well amongst proud white Southerners whose way of life had been violently subverted. In response, white gentlemen formed "preservation" clubs like the Ku Klux Klan to frighten and repress blacks and regain control of their society.
These details Griffith stays faithful to. It's his monstrous depiction of most blacks, and his reverent celebration of the KKK, that has fueled criticism of the movie's distinguished place in history.
His politics are complex. He doesn't support slavery; he'd rather blacks were never brought to the States to plant such a seed of division. The slaves, as Griffith depicts them (played mostly by white actors in minstrel black-face), happily toiled in the pastoral cotton fields and spent their two-hour meal breaks dancing for their bemused masters' entertainment.
He attributes "radical" Republican efforts to free slaves to white lust for mulatto women. President Lincoln, to Griffith, is a heavy-hearted parental figure, kindly and thoughtful, mournful of the country's violent divide. When the slaves are liberated, they are unable to handle their newfound self-control rioting, looting, and coveting white women. Most blacks elected to the state House are disrespectful, drunken fools, while those leading the charge are malicious, power-hungry barbarians. And on and on, until the mighty Ku Klux Klan heroically restores the South to its proper order saving even a Republican leader from the indiscriminant rampage he unwittingly helped unleash on the country.
It's shocking stuff, but also riveting. Beside its value as a complicated picture of Southern resentments and reactions to the war and restoration, it's where The Birth of a Nation finally springs to life. While still overlong, suddenly the scenes have an energy and urgency lacking in the impotent prelude. With every scene Griffith slings another outlandish attack on the freedmen, and with a visual flair and passion previously untapped.
The two most talked about scenes in the film are unforgettable images steeped in racist propaganda. One involves Griffith's disgusted fixation on interracial attraction, as a young white girl fatally hurls herself off a cliff to escape the lecherous hands of an encroaching ex-slave. The second vital scene provoked by the innocent girl's death is the majestic, ferociously filmed, arrival of the KKK as saviors of the South.
Certainly movie audiences were more impressionable in 1915, and along with its unprecedented financial success, The Birth of a Nation also sparked both protests and a surge in Klan memberships across the country. Upon viewing the movie, President Woodrow Wilson claimed, "It's like history writ with lightning!"
The big question is whether Griffith's overt, ridiculous racism should preclude his veneration in film societies as well the celebration of Birth as an influential work. The question, though, is moot. Whether or not the politically correct factions in Hollywood prevent Griffith and/or his film from being mentioned at award ceremonies or on retrospective lists, his import is undeniable, and to ignore that is as much a mockery of truth as Griffith's depiction of blacks.
A completely separate, more valid question is, is the film actually good? The answer to that is a qualified "no." Still, it's a must-see for anyone interested in race-relations, or anyone who can take in the spectacle with their critical faculties intact.
To Griffith's credit, he reportedly took outrage against Birth to heart and, a changed man, followed it up in 1916 with another ambitious epic, Intolerance, decrying hatreds amongst men throughout history. The Birth of a Nation was re-released in the 1930s with all Klan references removed (how they managed that, I have no idea).
Presented in 1.33:1, but the whole frame doesn't quite fit on the screen. The print is scratchy, but well preserved for a film nearing its 90th birthday. The "original" score (sounds like a pastiche of popular classical pieces, to me) is remastered in 2.0 Dolby Surround. Includes a short documentary detailing the production of the movie with rare behind-the-scenes footage, but which never touches on the race issue. Snap Case.
Gregory P. Dorr
- Black and white
- Full screen (1.33:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Silent, with music score in Dolby 2.0 Surround
- Making-of documentary detailing the production of the movie with behind-the-scenes footage
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