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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

by Glenn Erickson Jun 09, 2018

 

It’s a CineSavant guest reviewer debut for journalist Sergio Alejandro Mims. In its first ever 2-disc set Twilight Time makes a bold statement with a domestic release of an important U.K. restoration. It’s without question extremely influential as filmmaking — techniques used in The Avengers: Infinity War can be traced back to D.W. Griffith’s classic. But this controversial picture is also one of the most vile, racist movies ever made. It has a lot of answer for, yet still makes an impact today. What other film released over a century ago can make that statement?


The Birth of a Nation
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1915 / Color tinted / 1:33 flat full frame / 191 min. / Street Date May 22, 2018 /Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store /
Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Ralph Lewis, George Siegman Walter Long, Joseph Henabery Jennie Lee, Mary Alden.
Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Film Editors: D.W. Griffith, Joseph Henabery, James Smith, Rose Smith, Raoul Walsh
Original Music: John Lanchbery based on Joseph Carl Breil original 1915 score for the film
Written by Thomas Dixon Jr., D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods
Produced and Directed by
D.W. Griffith

 

Reviewed by Sergio Alejandro Mims

 

“Classic or not, Birth of a Nation has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It’s can’t be ignored…and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.”  —  Andrew Sarris

“Three miles of filth.” —  The NAACP

Before we get into the film allow me to relate a personal experience regarding The The Birth of a Nation. Several years ago I taught a film history class at a major arts college and when I was offered the position I was told that I could pick any subject a wanted to. I decided the subject would be ‘The Image of the African-American Male in American Cinema from the silent era to the present.’

Of course I was secretly hoping that the course would be controversial, but I admit that I was rather naive as to what a fuss it would create. I selected Birth of a Nation as the first film to be shown, and because of its epic 191- minute running time I decided to show its two parts over two weeks. A condition for the class was that all screenings were also open to the public as well as the students who were taking the class.

After some difficulty trying to find a print of the original silent film (not the 1930 sound version reissue) the school managed to obtain a near pristine 35MM print from the George Eastman House. But what I did not expect was the outcry from some people once word got out about the screening. Twitter hadn’t really caught on yet, but I got angry letters. One particularly idiotic letter suggested that perhaps I had never seen the film, or else why would I plan to show it and perhaps I could just talk about the picture and not screen it instead. The school even hired security guards for the screenings just in case things got out of hand. But it was all for naught. As you can guess, there were no protests or demonstrations, not even one picket sign. And needless to say the screenings were completely packed with every seat taken.

However I did not take into account that most of the people attending the showings had actually never seen the film, though most of them knew that it was controversial for some reason or another. To say that they were stunned after seeing it is an understatement — they were speechless, shocked beyond words. Well, that is except for one older white women I recall who couldn’t understand what all the fuss with the film was about. The audience’s quite upset reaction with her statement caused her to take a quick disappearance from the theater.

Based on the book and the play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, the film is set before, during and after the Civil War. It mainly revolves around the old established family of the Camerons of South Carolina. Before the war the close-knit family is happy and prosperous, with siblings Ben (Henry B. Walthall) and Flora (Mae Marsh) being favored. And naturally this being a film by Griffith, a Southerner and son of a Confederate soldier, there are the devoted, happy slaves. Servile and content with their lot in life, their only focus is the well-being of their white masters. And the slaves always give the evil eye to any ‘uppity’ slave from up North. To quote the film, “Where life runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more.” Along comes the Civil War and the family is faced with tragedy, poverty and deprivation.

In the meantime, spurred on by the well-meaning (but in Griffith’s eyes foolish and easily manipulated) abolitionist Northern Senator Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), black people are taking control of their lives and the political system. To the horror of Southern whites, they’re advocating “Equality. Equal Rights. Equal Politics. Equal Marriage!” It’s the end of civilization as we know it.

And in keeping with the tradition, though there are several real African-Americans in the film as extras and background filler, all the significant black roles are played white actors in blackface, from bronzed to heavy burnt cork makeup.

The North/South politics cause a split between the Camerons and Senator Stoneman whose families were once friends. Stoneman is the father of Elise (Lillian Gish), young Ben Cameron’s sweetheart.

Stoneman has problems of his own. First there’s Lydia (Mary Alden) his ‘mulatto wench’ housekeeper and eventually mistress, who seems to have erotic fantasies of power and being equal to whites. But Stoneman’s bigger problem is his psychotic, biracial protege Silas Lynch (George Siegman) who has grandiose plans to become the emperor of an all-black South, one that will “crush the white South under the heel of the black South.”

 

Upon his return from the war, Ben comes face to face with a new South he does not recognize: Black people no longer know their place as it were. They’re rude and arrogant and show contempt for whites. Strutting black Union soldiers push white people off sidewalks, not only voting but committing voting fraud, lustfully eyeballing white women and openly whipping or killing obedient loyal black slaves that refuse to go along with them. And the newly freed and elected black representatives are turning the state senate houses into dens of iniquity. They’re openly drinking, gambling, eating fried chicken, and taking off their shoes to expose their smelly feet. And if that is not enough the first bill they pass makes interracial marriage legal. Black men will be allowed to marry white women.

At a loss as what to do about the current situation, the answer comes to Ben like a lightning bolt. He see a group of white kids scaring off a group of black children by hiding under a bed sheet and pretending to be ghosts. That gives Ben the answer he been searching for, or as Griffith calls it, “The inspiration…that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule” – the Ku Klux Klan!

But that’s just for starters. Things take an even fouler turn when Flora finds herself running for her life through the woods from Gus (Walter Long), a crazed ‘renegade Negro’ ex- soldier with rape on his mind. It comes to a shocking end when Flora, trapped at the edge of the cliff, throws herself off rather than to submit to the vile Gus.

The film’s last eighty minutes follow Ben and the KKK as they right wrongs by terrorizing and killing black people, including Gus of course. They prevent black people from voting and in the climatic final section actually come to the rescue to save Elise and a group of white people trapped in a cabin by a violent gang of black soldiers out to kill them all. At the end the world has been put right: white man is once again triumphant, black people are back in their place and America is great again.

Griffith makes no bones throughout the film about just who is responsible for America’s ills – Black people. In the very first scene of the movie he depicts the arrival of African slaves accompanied by the title card “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” Furthermore, in a staged conversation with actor Walter Huston for the prologue to the film’s 1930 ‘talkie’ reissue, Griffith says, “the Klan at that time was needed. It served a purpose.”

 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Birth of a Nation provoked numerous protests around the country, from the NAACP and other organizations. Demonstrations against the film even resulted in violent incidents. In addition it was banned in several cities. Griffith was supposedly ‘shocked’ and pretended to be taken aback by the negative reaction, but of course he loved it. Being the showman and promoter that he was, he knew that nothing gets people more interested than controversy, even if it meant splitting the country apart. (Sort of rings familiar, doesn’t it?)

In spite of all this, in terms of filmmaking technique Nation still retains its status as one of the most significant films ever made. It gets credit for being the first feature-length film, and being the first film to use such as techniques as the close-up, the dolly shot and inter-cutting, but none of that is true. Many filmmakers had used those very filmmaking techniques previously, even Griffith himself in his 1914 feature Judith of Bethulia. The difference was how Griffith masterfully used all those techniques for maximum dramatic impact. The overly theatrical acting by the players which was common for films during that period actually adds to the impact of the film.

For a film running over three hours Nation is remarkably fast-paced. Griffith expertly juxtaposes dramatic family conflicts with sweeping, amazingly intricate battle sequences. There are scenes of low comedy and a suspenseful last-minute reprieve from a hanging by President Lincoln. The film never once lets up. It’s no surprise that the film took audiences by storm. Nothing of this magnitude and scale had ever been accomplished before.

An oft-published quote claimed that President Woodrow Wilson, himself also a Southerner and certainly no progressive on civil rights, saw the film at a White House screening and exclaimed “It’s like history written by lightning and my only regret is that it’s also true.” But it’s been shown that the quote was actually a fabrication, either by Griffith or Dixon. Though Nation was the first film to be screened at the White House, there is no evidence that Wilson actually said those words. Even Wilson’s personal secretary remarked that he never said them.

But the damage was done. Although by 1915 the KKK was dying out, the film’s success brought it back to life. People to this day believe the distortations and lies that Griffith made up; damaging this country’s progress on civil rights for over a century. The Klan and other alt- right white nationalist groups still exist today. Even considering the very scary times we live in, Nation seems just as scary-relevant today as it did when it premiered 103 years ago. It’s frightening.

Add to that the offensive black stereotypes, which always existed but were given a new potency by the film. The troubling stereotypes can be still seen in various forms: the oversexed angry buck, the black slut, the devoted loyal mammy, etc.

 

Though box office statistics for Nation stopped being compiled around the the 1970s, it was still being reissued in theaters every few years. In fact it opened in Chicago in 1971, the same day Melvin Van Peebles’ opened his controversial black radical film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Audiences had to make up their minds which one they wanted to see! By 1972 Nation was still the second most successful film at the domestic box office domestically, after The Sound of the Music. Of course this was long before Star Wars, the Marvel films and everything else that’s come since then. When adjusted for inflation, Birth of a Nation is still in the top twenty most successful films in the U.S..

And to add to your trivia list, perhaps no other film boasts such a list of future directors in its credits, working behind the camera or acting: Raoul Walsh (White Heat) plays John Wilkes Booth and was also one of the film’s editors. Among the film’s many assistant director are Jack Conway (Villa Villa!, Boom Town), Erich Von Stroheim (Foolish Wives, Greed) and W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man). In front of the camera in small roles are future directors John Ford (reportedly one of Klan riders in the big climax), David Butler (Road to Morocco; and Warners’ second- tier Michael Curtiz in the 1950s) and not least Jules White, who later made a name for himself by directing most of the Three Stooges short subjects.


 

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of The Birth of a Nation is an improvement on Kino Classics’ 2011 three- disc release, a partial restoration from an archival 35MM element that was the best the film had looked so far. To its credit it restored Griffith’s original tinting scheme for the film. Some daylight and interior sequences are in sepia tint, the battle scenes are in red and the nighttime scenes in blue.

TT’s new Blu-ray release of the 2015 Photoplay Productions restoration is quite a step up. It is a tad sharper and brighter with more pronounced contrast and deeper blacks; just a few scenes are slightly less sharp. It retains the color tinting and has practically no scratches. Excellent sound quality enhances the original 1915 Joseph Carl Breil music score, conducted and arranged by John Lanchbery. The score incorporates period military tunes, folk tunes and popular songs of the time, with classical music by Von Weber, Verdi, and Von Suppe. Most obviously, Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries is heard during the KKK’s ride to the rescue.

Both the Twilight Time and Kino sets feature Griffith’s ‘talkie’ prologue and intermission from the 1930 sound reissue. The Kino release featured seven Civil War- themed shorts that Griffith directed in 1910 and 1911, while TT has Griffith’s 1911 The Rose of Kentucky, with three other shorts directed by Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett.

New to TT’s disc are a long-form docu, a great many outtakes, camera tests and music score recording sessions. A full list is below.

Twilight Time deserves accolades for bringing such a controversial but important film to our attention once again, looking better than it has ever looked before. It’s no doubt one of the year’s major Blu-ray releases. We are hopefully in an age where The Birth of a Nation can be discussed, analyzed and yes, even appreciated — for its technical filmmaking and storytelling advances, that is. But it also needs to be understood that this film indelibly hurt this country with ugly consequences that we are still grappling with to this day.

Reviewed by Sergio Alejandro Mims

Sergio does regular podcasts with Erik Childress on the ‘Now Playing Network.’ Episode 97: Going Solo, A Star Wars Discussion is self-explanatory; Episode 98: You’d Do It for 4K is a round-up of action films available on 4K disc.


The Birth of a Nation
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent (but with reservations be forewarned)
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Disc 1: The Birth of a Nation movie Centennial 2015 Photoplay productions Restoration by Patrick Stanbury; 1930 Sound Reissue Prologue; 1930 Sound release Intermission and Introduction to Act 2. Disc 2: The Making of Birth of a Nation: A visual essay about the film’s production. Includes rare costume tests and other behind-the-scenes footage. D.W. Griffith’s Civil War Films and Civil War films by other directors: The Coward, The Rose of Kentucky, Stolen Glory and The Drummer of the 8th (in two versions); The Clansman: From Stage to Screen; The Birth of a Nation; The Legacy by John McCarty; Outtakes and Original Camera tests; The Birth of a Nation score recording sessions conducted by John Lanchbery; Posters, Ads, Stills and Souvenir Programs Gallery; D.W. Griffith on the Lux Radio Theater with Cecil B. DeMille; Text essays by Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and Ashley Clark.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; English inter-titles
Packaging: Two Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: June 6, 2018
(5740mimsbirth)
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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.