The Birth Of A Nation (1915)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.  

USA, 1915.  , .  Screenplay by , , based on the play and novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by D.W. Griffith.  Music by , D.W. Griffith.  Production Design by .  Costume Design by , .  Film Editing by D.W. Griffith, , , , .

The film industry’s ongoing contradictions can be traced back to the film that is credited with getting the whole thing started, one that is both an exciting, rousing melodrama as well as a ridiculously offensive interpretation of history.   D.W. Griffith was, reportedly, shocked that his seminal blockbuster was viewed as racist by many of its initial audiences, following it with his box-office bomb Intolerance as an attempt to pacify his critics, while star went to her grave denying the film was in any way prejudiced.  The main narrative focuses on two sets of brothers on opposite sides of the Civil War, one of the southern boys madly in love with his friend’s sister Gish, while her brother falls in love with his buddy’s southern belle sibling.  Their families are split up by the war, which in this film we learn is the fault of the abolitionists and their impractical slave friends, and after the battle we move to the second half where the post-war reconstruction period is portrayed as a madhouse of vengeful, uneducated slaves who, at best, can’t govern themselves because of their natural inferiority, at worst are out to get revenge on the white man by taking away his rights and marrying his women.  The heroes, according to the movie, are the Ku Klux Klan, who throw on their white robes and save the country from terrors on the level of the French Revolution, and this theory would be pure comedy if it weren’t for the scary fact that the film’s popularity is credited with having revived the, at the time, long dormant activity of the Klan.  The disclaimer that pops up in the film’s opening, that it does not intend to make a comment about race in a contemporary fashion, is as ludicrous as the interview footage with Griffith included on the re-released version, in which he doubles down on his interpretation of post-Civil War history by citing Woodrow Wilson’s eyewitness account as his undeniable proof (Wilson, in turn, made the now legendary comment that the film was “history written with lightning,” a beautiful use of metaphor that we all wish had been applied to something else).  This is also the film that gave birth to the film industry as we know it, its success (despite being banned in more than one city and vehemently protested by the NAACP) making narrative feature-length films the standard entertainment that studios would put their weight behind.  It’s worthwhile to see it and witness all the many ways that Griffith invented and/or popularized methods of film storytelling, and it’s of some twisted interest to know how the film works from its own point of view, but there are limitations in this regard as well:  unlike Gone With The Wind, another cornerstone film that also perverts history by romantically treating the Confederacy like America’s misunderstood underdog, Birth Of A Nation hasn’t aged as well, its pacing is choppy and the quality of its dramatic presentation hasn’t stayed as compelling as David O. Selznick’s historic production has.  Its significance as the rotten basis from which the current movie business, rife as it continues to be with its compromises and conundrums, sprang makes it necessary viewing for anyone who considers themselves a serious student of film.

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