Director: D.W. Griffith
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods
Based on the Novel & Play by: Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall
Producer: D.W. Griffith
Running Time: 190 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
A number of film bloggers have been sharing their ‘lists of shame’ or ‘blind spots’ over the last couple of years, owning up to well known classics they haven’t seen with the intention of finally watching them. This idea of films that any self-respecting film fan needs to have seen has been around for a while and whilst some films are simply missed because you don’t get around to them, there are always a handful of films people feel they ‘should’ watch but don’t really want to. The Birth of a Nation is one of those for me, as I imagine it is for a number of people. In fact, the great David Thompson, in his book ‘Have You Seen…?’ even opens his review of The Birth of a Nation with “Do we need to see it? Yes, of course? But should you see it, or sit down with it, unprepared? No.”
For those not familiar with D.W. Griffith’s immensely popular film from 1915, it tells the story of two families brought together through love, but split apart by the American Civil War. After the war, the defeated South becomes overrun by lawlessness, brought on by the black militia being given too much power. Troubled by this, one of the family members drums together support from like-minded local men and forms the Ku Klux Klan to ‘save’ the South and bring back law and order.
So you can imagine why it’s not on the top of people’s ‘to watch’ lists any more.
I was aware of the controversial (even at the time) racist stance of the film, so was justly prepared for this aspect. As Bordwell said, you shouldn’t go into this film blind. The film is incredibly influential though and pioneered (or at least popularised) much, from the increased and more effective use of close-ups in drama to the traditional form of storytelling we see in cinema today. Its success helped show the world that cinema could tell fully formed stories on an epic scale and feel ‘important’ (before this films were more of a sideshow giving only simple pleasures), helping form Hollywood as we now know it.
All of the history behind The Birth of a Nation wasn’t enough to win me over though I’m afraid. Compared to other silent classics I’ve caught up with recently which have blown me away, such as Sunrise and The Passion of Joan of Arc (admitedly both late-period silents), Griffith’s film has not aged well in my eyes and it’s not just down to the racism. The film is split into two halves and the first half was nowhere near as offensive as I expected. Focussing on the family feuds and the Civil War, ‘Part 1’ has no mention of the Ku Klux Klan and there are only a couple of cringeworthy references to ‘mulatos’ as well as a number of ‘black face’ white actors. What hasn’t aged well in this first half is the pacing and drama. I really struggled to sit through the first hour and a half of the film. It is unbelievably dull. I’ve never been a huge fan of melodrama, so that didn’t help as it rears it’s ugly head for much of the time, but it’s all so drawn out too. Griffith helped popularise intercutting, but he tends to intercut between scenes without either really progressing, which drags scenes out rather than making them punchier. The storytelling in this first half is rather messy too, with ‘historical facsimiles’ being thrown in throughout the film to give reference to where we are in the development of the war. Not knowing a lot about American history (sorry Grandad – I’m only half American) I still found it a bit confusing as there is little depth or background given to the scenes. Luckily, the battle scenes in the final third of part 1 were quite impressive and a dramatic retelling of Lincoln’s assassination at the end gave a glimmer of promise for the second half. I doubt I’d have stuck with it otherwise.
Well, the second half of the film is a whole other story. Taking cue from these battle scenes and the assassination, part 2 is much more exciting and better paced thankfully, with a number of set pieces remaining quite impressive. Unfortunately, the second half is also where the racist attitudes truly rear their ugly head. I expected the film to be dated, but it really is quite uncomfortably offensive. At times Griffith seems to be trying to redeem himself in making the African Americans seem friendly, hard-working and loyal, but at the same time he clearly states that it is ‘dangerous’ to free them and let them do what they want. In the latter half only the doting black servants of the main family are seen in a positive light (as they’re still doing their duty), whilst the rest of the African American population of the South are sex-hungry animals who wreak havoc on the town, reducing it to a place of sin and debauchery. Of course the KKK will save the day though – those fine Christian fellows.
Also, racism aside, with regards to the film’s influence, I couldn’t help but feel it was the start of the type of films that I hate (although I’m sure its techniques spread further than appears). The whole thing reminded me of the overbaked Hollywood ‘epics’ which are designed for Oscar season. The first half in particular reminded me a lot of Cold Mountain (due to the period and romantic driving narrative), a film which has a couple of nicely staged moments but is really just glossy melodramatic trash which holds little interest to me at all. And that pretty much sums up my experience with The Birth of a Nation. I can’t deny its place in history and a handful of scenes show Griffith’s skill as a director, but it’s all so workmanlike, it’s film as bombastic construction rather than art and on top of this it’s over-long, tedious and deeply offensive. Maybe this is a film that doesn’t ‘need to be watched’ anymore.
The Birth of a Nation is out now in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection. The sound and picture quality is incredible as per usual, especially given the age of the film. Some minor scratches can be seen, but all things considered, it’s hard to imagine the film looking any better. Griffith’s use of different tints of monochrome in appropriately different scenes is in place too, so calling it a ‘black and white’ film would not be entirely accurate.
There is an extensive amount of supplemental material included. An introduction from the 1930 re-release of the film featuring Griffiths and Walter Huston is vaguely interesting although some child actors that open the piece are painfully wooden. You also get the title cards from that version which make the most of the film’s success and importance. More interesting is a 24 minute ‘making of’. It has a terribly clunky, poorly read out voice over, but content-wise it’s full of facts about the process of making the film, including rare outtakes and behind the scenes footage.
What makes up the bulk of the extra features though are almost two hours worth of Civil War short films directed by Griffith. I must admit I didn’t watch them as I didn’t have time and the film put me off to such a degree I struggled to justify giving up 2 hours of my time to trawl through them. Fans of the film and Griffith’s work in general will be thrilled with the inclusion though I imagine.
Also included in the package is the customary Masters of Cinema booklet. I didn’t get chance to view this either as I’m writing this review on my holidays without my latop. These booklets are usually outstanding though so I doubt this is any different, especially given the controversial nature of the film.