Since this article turned out to be longer than I expected, I’ve organized it with a handy-dandy table of contents:
Slowly but surely, 2015 is beginning to draw to a close. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, and for people interested in film history, it’s been a year with a certain significance. And no, I’m not talking about the new Star Wars movie (not this time, that is).
February 8, 2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s towering epic The Birth of a Nation. A century ago that one film solidified the idea of “moving pictures” as a bona fide art form and set the standards for blockbusters to come. For some blindingly obvious reasons, this anniversary hasn’t exactly been greeted with cake and balloons, but there has been some renewed attention paid to the film. A number of articles earlier this year swirled around the anniversaries of its premiere and release, and it’s been the focus of quite a few online discussions in the silent film community. (Yes, there’s a silent film community. Yes, we’re into the kind of obscurity that hipsters with tiny scarves can only dream of.)
So I think it’s worth stepping back, examining the film in depth, studying its history, comparing analyses from past decades and today, and trying to wrap our head around The Birth of a Nation.
In earlier decades, discussions of the film centered largely around its technical achievements. There was some discussion of its racism, but not as much as we’ve come to expect. In some cases a few overly-fervent writers even went out of their way to defend Griffith’s choices. Writer William K. Everson, for instance, argued that Griffith had “displayed considerable restraint” in his depiction of black people–when you compared it to the hysterical Thomas Dixon novel that inspired the film, that is. Which is rather like saying massive second degree burns are at least not third degree burns.
But in recent times the pendulum has swung to the opposite direction. Brief mentions of The Birth‘s technical achievements are a distant second to the discussion of its racism, which today can shock us to the point where even film history classes hesitate to screen the film. (And with the rise of overly-sensitive college students wanting “trigger warnings” just in the past few years, this…probably isn’t going to change much.)
It’s also become the one film that many modern writers are obviously uncomfortable discussing. Even though The Birth of a Nation has practically been nominated for the dictionary definition of “racism,” I often get the sense that writers feel they need to mention it as often as possible, lest one mention too few might offend someone. Even the smallest, most matter-of-fact references to the film will squeeze in a mention–sometimes to an awkward effect. Take a look at this sentence from the book Working-Class Hollywood: “Griffith left [Biograph] and went on to produce such epic and racist productions as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.” Never mind that Intolerance has nothing to do with racism!
Even some silent film fans aren’t wild about discussing it. When Roger Ebert wrote his review, he admitted something that I’m sure many people could sympathize with: “It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith’s Broken Blossom in the first Great Movies collection, but have only now arrived at Birth of a Nation. I was avoiding it.”
So with all the controversy, why do we keep discussing this Edwardian blockbuster? Yes, it was very big back in the day, and yes, it did influence a lot of other directors…but of all the decidedly non-PC films that were made back then (and they are Legion), why does this one keep getting stubbornly lauded as a masterpiece?
Here’s the deal: if you are a film fan–and I’m talking a film fan familiar with a wide variety of genres from a variety of eras, especially one who’s watched a good chunk of silent films–when you sit down to watch The Birth of a Nation something happens. Depending on what your mindset is going into it, you get either the surprising or the uncomfortable feeling that, huh…this is a well-made film. This really looks like the Civil War period. And that splendid battle scene is amazingly epic for its time. And that big rescue at the end is ideologically horrific…and exciting. Good heavens, this ancient film is exciting!…Crud.
And thus, we continue to discuss it, because a 100-year-old film that has the power to excite us in this day and age when anything is possible through the grace of CGI is a film that’s going to stick around. As one critic wrote, it’s “a towering achievement that may be denounced but will never be ignored.”
Since you can hardly discuss The Birth of a Nation effectively without examining its historic context, I say taking a look is 100% essential. Now, let me be clear: there are a few people out there who would claim that “knowing the context” will scrub away the film’s objectionable nature. This is not what we’re going to do here. We’re going to study this film’s context so we can put aside our 21st century goggles and gain some insight into history, for better and for worse. If you’d like to start with a synopsis of the film, here’s a nice one at Wikipedia.
The ideology of The Birth of a Nation was not unique to Griffith–not by a long shot. It was based on the idea of the “Lost Cause,” which upheld an idealized portrait of the “Old South.” This portrait dates from before the Civil War, and evolved even more during the last decades of the 19th century as Southern writers tried to come to terms with the conflict. White society was portrayed as cultured and genteel, while slaves were said to be well-treated and content. According to the “Lost Cause,” the Southerners had fought bravely to preserve their beloved homeland even though the odds were stacked against them. The Reconstruction era was largely frowned upon, and the horrors of slavery were glossed over.
In addition, from the 1890s onward many regarded the Reconstruction from the viewpoint of William Archibald Dunning. His books claimed that the era had been a time of injustice toward the South, when newly-freed blacks, carpetbaggers and “scalawags” spread corruption willy-nilly before finally being defeated by the genteel whites. (Starting to sound familiar after reading that Wikipedia synopsis?)
By the early 20th century, the “gallant South” was a part of popular culture. As you can imagine, while the “Lost Cause” appealed to Southerners and stirred the sympathies of the Northerners, it was hardly helpful to black Americans.
1915 was a big deal since it marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil War–which Griffith was obviously strongly aware of. Civil War films had been very popular in general–Griffith had made a number of them during his Biograph days, such as In the Border States (1910) and The House With Closed Shutters (1910). He had always been inspired by his childhood memories of his father, Confederate colonel “Roaring Jake” Griffith, who had told many stories of his wartime exploits. He was also passionate about the idea of using film to “see” history.
When he was introduced to the Thomas Dixon novel The Clansman (a novel literally written to defend white supremacy), Griffith was taken by its images of Ku Klux Klan members riding to the rescue “with their white robes flying.” While today the idea of a heroic Klan riding to the rescue of suffering whites is too ludicrously offensive for even The Onion to satirize, Griffith apparently felt the image was powerful enough for him to twist the dark history of the then-mostly defunct Klan and turn them into the “good guys.” (I can only explain this by assuming that the original Klan must not have had the exact same stigma that it does today.) Not only would this provide his film with an exciting climax, but I would argue that it provided a way to have the South seem to “triumph” after all. This tied in nicely with the dominant ideas of the Lost Cause and Reconstruction and ended the film on a reassuring high note. “Instead of saving one poor little Nell of the Plains,” Griffith once said, “this ride would be to save a nation.”
So when we watch his The Birth of a Nation, what we’re seeing is an idea of history that was widespread at the time. We’re also seeing a dash of romanticism (even noted by a couple critics back then) common in those days. And yes, all of this is underscored by confident, ingenious filmmaking.
Some silent film fans argue that the technical achievements of The Birth of a Nation should be given more focus nowadays, rather than just the ongoing debate on its racism. I agree to a point, but I think that’s easier said than done. Griffith’s direction was, after all, in service of the story, and especially in service of stirring sympathy/anger toward various characters. Still, studying The Birth’s technical aspects is key to wrapping our heads around its importance…and truthfully, it’s hard not to see the beauty of its cinematography.
Griffith took great care to set up his story and introduce his characters in the first half of the film–the smoothest and most engaging of the two halves. In the beginning we have the genteel Camerons, dressed to the nines, living in an inviting plantation home. The camera lingers on puppies and kittens snoozing next to father Cameron’s feet. Flowers and lush foliage fill in the compositions of the early shots of Piedmont, where the sun shines down on women strolling with parasols and contented slaves tipping their hats. The Stonemans’ Northern home is equally idyllic (there’s even another kitten). These characters are fleshed out in various little vignettes, such as the eldest Cameron son teasing his little sister and the younger sons of both families getting in a good-natured scuffle.
When war breaks out, the families are torn apart by death and hardship, summed up in both epic images (the lurid red burning of Atlanta) and subtle ones (the Cameron women shown wearing plain dresses handmade from cheap cloth).
The showpiece is certainly the vast battle of Petersburg, jawdropping even today–more jawdropping, actually, since it’s all done with real extras, real horses, and real pyrotechnics on a massive scale. The flow of the action, from extreme long shots lingering over the battle to medium shots of the Little Colonel to long shots of the battle charge are done so smoothly that even the most jaded viewer will become glued to the screen. In a sense, the Petersburg scenes have never aged.
Equally engrossing is the impressively long climax of the film, where the Klan races to “save” Piedmont and the Cameron family. Griffith milks these scenes for every drop of drama and excitement they’re worth, crosscutting furiously between the Klan on their galloping horses, the black militias, Piedmont, and the endangered Cameron family. That these scenes are still exciting today when the point is to root for the Ku Klux Klan really shows the surprising power of film editing.
It’s no surprise that audiences in 1915 went wild for The Birth of a Nation. While films of various genres and levels of excitement were familiar to many people (usually in the form of one- to three-reelers), having that amount of drama, excitement, and romance on such a huge canvas was mindblowing. One critic for the New York Evening Journal proclaimed, “It is not only worth riding miles to see, but it is worth walking miles to see.”
There are more reasons why the film had such great appeal at that time. It drew upon familiar “Old South” stock characters, such as courtly Southerners, loyal black servants, and shameless carpetbaggers, thus appealing to general audiences raised on melodrama. It had fine acting and claimed to be showing well-researched “history,” appealing to the intellectual crowd. It managed to reflect on contemporary matters with its one-sided treatment of interracial marriage. And a lot of today’s writers still note the power of scenes such as the Little Colonel being drawn inside his home by his mother and sister’s welcoming arms. And I’d say there’s one more key element that isn’t always widely discussed: the talent of Griffith’s familiar stock company.
Being a huge fan of Biograph and its wonderful actors like Lillian, Mae and Wally (that is, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Henry B. Walthall), for me it’s strange to think of all the people who watch this film today without really “knowing” them, seeing them only as remote faces from a distant era. These actors would’ve been familiar friends to many moviegoers, and their onscreen charisma is still strong if you’re willing to see it (especially the charisma of Walthall, Gish, Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper). They help us connect to the Camerons and Stonemans as real people, and the film would be far less effective without them.
Of course, as appealing as The Birth of a Nation was, even in 1915 its depiction of blacks did indeed arouse a lot of controversy–among the black community and discerning whites alike. I’ve seen one film magazine with two reviews side by side–one lauding the film for its artistry, the other conceding its artistry but still wondering if it could “incite race prejudice.”
Newspapers and trade magazines often reported on attempts to censor or ban the film. While there was success in some areas, much of the time it probably served only to give the film more publicity.
Today, you often hear of riots that broke out around the film in the Teens. There were indeed a couple out-of-control protests in Boston and Philadelphia (in one instance a rock was thrown through a window, leading to chaos). However, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that many protests involved cordial letter campaigns and peaceful mass meetings in churches and other public places, where these communities solidly stayed the course even in the face of a losing battle.
I’m hoping that by this point one thing is clear: the amount we can learn from The Birth of a Nation is astounding. It not only a huge achievement of filmmaking but a time capsule of a pre-PC era. To better understand it means we need to study a wealth of Civil War history, pseudo-history, multiple aspects of American culture, early 20th century social issues and of course a great deal of film history…for starters. (The amount of info I had to wade through for this article alone…!) Its controversial images are a powerful tool for studying the early 20th century and how we can learn from past wrongs. You could teach entire college courses revolving around this film…if any students are willing to let themselves learn from it, that is. (Nowadays, that’s an “if” in letters thirty stories tall.)
As Melvyn Stokes wrote in his book on Griffith’s epic: “the film has not changed; what has changed is the world around it.” The disturbing aspects of The Birth of a Nation are always going to be discussed, probably always at the expense of its artistry, but maybe we should take these endless debates as a good sign. We can only hope that in the future this film will continue to be seen, continue to be debated…and continue to be controversial.
- Prior to The Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman had been a popular–and very controversial–play, which Griffith was probably familiar with.
- The Birth was a roadshow attraction, meaning that it toured with its own orchestra much like a play.
- Despite many rumors to the contrary, this was not the first film screened at the White House. Cabiria was shown there months earlier, and even that was preceded by several other films.
- In the Lincoln assassination scene, the theater was replicated in as much detail as possible, including the exact play that Lincoln saw that night with the actors quoting the very lines he would’ve heard before being shot.
- Walter Long, who played the black man Gus, is the same Walter who would go on to play several “tough guy” characters in Laurel and Hardy shorts.
- Audiences adored the scenes where the sentry sighs longingly after the beautiful Lillian. No one could remember the name of the bit player until Lillian met him years later; his name was apparently William Freeman.
- Henry B. Walthall suggested the scene where the little sister decorates her humble dress with strips of cotton.
- The original Klan was a dark vigilante organization that tried to restore white supremacy by targeting blacks and Republicans. It was mostly defunct by the 1910s although it started to revive in 1915. The second Klan was a fraternal organization that was made up of Protestant whites and was against immigrants, Catholics, blacks, and Jewish people. While The Birth of a Nation was not the only factor in the new Klan’s rise, leader William J. Simmons would obviously take advantage of its popularity.
- Contrary to many articles on The Birth of a Nation, Griffith did not “invent” various innovations like the iris shot, cross-cutting, etc. single-handedly. The evolution of film art was a collective effort by dozens of directors across the world, and film became sophisticated remarkably early on. However, I would argue that he still utilized them for The Birth wonderfully well, and that this doesn’t take away from its effectiveness as a whole.
- Historian John Bengtson has a mindblowing piece of trivia for you: several of the huge oak trees visible in the mighty battlefield scenes still stand in the Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills cemetery today.
Brown, Karl. Adventures with D.W. Griffith, ed. Kevin Brownlow. London: Secker and Warburg, 1973.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Ross, Stephen K. Working-Class Hollywood: Sielnt Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
And most importantly,
Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007.