birth

The Birth Of A Nation (Cert 15)

1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 194 minutes approx.

D.W Griffith’s silent epic Birth Of A Nation has that rare distinction of being a film that elicits both praise and vitriol in equal measures and deservedly so. It is a film that essentially deals with black and white yet ironically is hard to be viewed in such reductive terms, purely because of the paradox it presents to us.

On the one hand it redefined filmmaking in Hollywood and is a veritable filmmakers manual, while on the other, it presents us with an ugly look at the appalling attitudes toward race relations of a bygone era reflecting upon another bygone era, with vulgar depictions of its coloured characters, as well as proffering the ludicrous notion that the contemptible Ku Klux Klan should be venerated as the saviours of the white race. How can one film get it so right and yet so wrong at the same time?

The legend of this film is well documented. Prolific director D.W Griffith chose to dramatise the story of the of the US Civil War of the 1860’s – in which  his own father fought – using the 1905 novel The Clansman by Rev. Thomas Dixon, a noted White Supremacist, as his source material. Commercially the film was an unequivocal success, being the first “blockbuster”, breaking the $1 million dollar revenue barrier with ease, making profit hand over fist.

However, even in 1915, the appalling depiction of black people caused many public boycotts and disruptions to screenings of Birth…, along with public slanging matches between Griffith and dismissive film critics (examples of which can be found in the booklet accompanying this release). The end result was Griffith’s rebuttal in the form of Intolerance, his next epic, which was better received by critics but a box office disaster, and while he went on to have many more hits, just over a decade later Griffith’s career would be over.

Many reviews and articles about this film will lead you to believe that it is a three hour plus exercise in demonising black people. This is not entirely true. The reality is that the first two hours of the film are based mostly around the US Civil War as viewed by Griffith at that period in time, and the various romantic subplots, while the more controversial material features predominantly in the final part.

Unfortunately, these scenes are so repugnant that many feel the need to throw the baby out with the bath water and condemn the entire film as a result. Therefore I would like to address the balance, and in this review look at what everyone else ignores – the positives of the film!

The story is as much about the devastation that war brings as any, with some old fashioned romantic cross pollination thrown in for good measure, courtesy of two families: the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons of the South. Eldest Stoneman son Phil (Elmer Clifton) is in love with Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper), while her elder brother Ben (Henry B. Walthall), becomes besotted with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish).

When the Civil War breaks out, the two families find themselves in opposition to one another due to their geographical loyalties. The North is eventually victorious and the country is reunited until the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, making Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), the most powerful politician in the land.

Stoneman looks to abolish racial segregation and sends mulatto (mixed race) politician Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) to instigate the empowerment of the black people of the south, giving them the vote and other hitherto “white only” privileges. However Lynch manipulates the black people and instead initiates an uprising, with the racial boot now on the other foot. When Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) kills herself after being chased by an amorous black soldier Gus (Walter Long), Ben Cameron forms the Ku Klux Klan – going against Austin Stoneman’s edicts – in the name of retaliation.

While Griffith unquestionably dropped an almighty clanger in the final act, he did succeed in many other ways which is why balance is essential when discussing Birth… Inspired by the huge scale of European productions of the time, most notably Italy’s Cabiria from 1914, Griffith decided to that Birth… would match these grand epics and show the naysayers the true possibilities of film as an art form.

Employing, and in some cases improving on, the techniques he had witnessed, Griffith went over budget on numerous occasions to fulfil his grand vision and it paid off with spectacular battle scenes that still impress to this day. Nothing had been seen on this scale in the US before but thanks to Griffith and his loyal, but largely unsung hero of a cameraman Billy Bitzer, they had now, which no doubt played a huge part in the film’s success, as well as influencing the next generation of filmmakers.

Aside from setting new standards on the production front, Griffith was, for all his faults, a master storyteller, and even with the ominous presence of the racial content, he keeps the viewer engrossed and invested for the duration. Through the use of close-ups, establishing shots and other simple techniques, Griffith creates a visual narrative flow that ensures every arc and subplot is easily followed and is instantly identifiable, which again was fresh to US audiences at this time.

The final diamond in the rough in Birth… for both Griffith and film fans alike is Lillian Gish. Up until then, her career was typical of a Biograph starlet – the lead in a dramatic short one minute, a background character in the next. As Elsie Stoneman, Gish rose to the occasion and Griffith found his new muse while the audience had a new star to follow.

Not since his collaborations with Mary Pickford had Griffith been so inspired as he had been with Gish, demonstrated in the many bona fide classics they made together post Birth…. The key sequence here for Ms. Gish comes after Elsie accepts Ben’s marriage proposal and she floats around her room on a restless romantic high, finding love in every object she encounters. Poetry in motion, and the portent of what was to come from the greatest actress of the silent (or any) era.

With such a reputation to precede it Birth Of A Nation looks set to polarise opinion as long as man is still around to talk about it. What was once a labour of love for a filmmaker looking to push the boundaries of his profession has evolved into a hulking beast of forthright dissension.

For all its clumsy and egregious faults, this is a film that needs to be seen and needs to be discussed, if only to understand the attitudes of the past and how far we have come as a result. To consign Birth… to the dustbin of history is pure censorship and it deserves better; it is TOO important as a landmark in filmmaking to end up a mere future footnote.

You don’t need to agree with the viewpoints of this film, nor should you, but as a historical document is has few equals. D.W Griffith’s own sophistry that his film was a drama and not a documentary will continue to invite derision, but, like it or not, he was right. This excellent Blu-ray release from Eureka is a perfect way to find out what all the fuss is about. It won’t be an easy watch but it will be a revelatory one.

 

Extras:

New 1080p presentation in original 1:33:1 aspect ratio

Music Soundtrack in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround

Short archive introduction featuring D.W Griffith and Walter Huston

1930 Re-Release title sequence

Seven D.W Griffith Civil War shorts:

In The Border States (1910)

The House With Closed Shutters (1910)

The Fugitive (1910)

His Trust (1911)

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

Swords And Hearts (1911)

The Battle (1911)

 

1993 “Making Of” Documentary

44-Page Booklet

 

Rating – *****

Man In Black

N.B – the rating is for the overall release package including extras than just the film itself.

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4 thoughts on “The Birth Of A Nation

  1. Though I agree with most of your comments regarding this film, and with its huge importance for cinematic history, I would like to point out a few minor details.

    I do not think it is fair to say that the film is just “a footnote.” Most critics do acknowledge its vast impact, and most do mention its strong points along with the weak.

    You claim that the first two-thirds are about the civil war, and only the last third is marred by racism. In fact, it is more like the other way around. On the copy at archive.org, the war ends at 1:12 and the film’s second part begins at 1:27 out of a total three hours to the minute. No matter which way you slice it, more than half the film is severely racist in content, but even if you consider only the first part, there are some racial slurs there as well, even excepting the fact that Griffith here builds up for the second part.

    Again, I do not want to belittle your many good points, only point out some facts.

    I reviewed the film on my own blog recently. If you care to have a look, the post is here: http://silverinahaystack.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/the-birth-of-a-nation-1915/

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my review and for your comment.

      Just to clarify a couple of points in response:

      I never said the film *was* a footnote rather that is is too important to *become* one. My fear is that the more it is vilified for its racist content with each passing generation, the bigger the danger is that people will ignore it or even call for it to be banned, meaning that knowledge or suppression of the film’s existence and its importance in cinemas history will be diluted and reduced over time for future generations. I know that true cineastes will never let it go but you’d be amazed at how many people are unaware of it existence or its impact outside of the negative press it has received (and no doubt will continue to do so).

      In my defence of my “racism ratio” (for wanting a better term) I should point out that I usually limit myself to 1000 words per reviews and I did in fact make a special dispensation for this review. To that end I was forced to somewhat generalise on some points (which I have now altered – along with the “footnote” point – I hope, for increased clarity) due to these constraints.

      Perhaps it wasn’t clear but I did say that the racial material featured “predominantly” in the final hour or so; to wit: the scenes of the chamber meeting that are usually shown to highlight the racist material appears around the two hour mark on the Blu-ray (which is 3hrs 13 minutes) and the storyline of involving the birth of the KKK is all in the final 75 minutes so, while I freely admit that there are some questionable moments in the first portion of the film, the bulk of it, and the worst of it, is in the final part of the film.

      To put it another way, I think people can safely watch the first half or so of “Birth…” without feeling *too* upset at the material – the painted black faces for instance will elicit groans but it was what it was back then – but will find the final 75-80 minutes understandably a little harder to swallow.

      I hope that has clarified things for you and again I thank you for taking the time to comment. It proves that still, after 100 years, this film has the power to engender discussion! 🙂

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  2. Thanks for your review of this very, very controversial film! (I am thrilled to read about all those Biograph shorts included on the Blu-ray!) I’m one of those “baby with the bathwater” people but I appreciate your intelligent and informed review on the subject. Thanks for participating!

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    1. Thank for your comments. I’ve always been fairly ambivalent so if there is a point to make about an issue that isn’t so – pardon the pun – “black and white” I am almost compelled to raise it! 😛

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