Before “The Birth of a Nation,” motion pictures were a medium with the potential to be an art. This movie, more than any before, realized that promise. It’s one of the most important film ever made, and Director D.W. Griffith knew that. In the beginning he says this film takes part in a great tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and the Bible. This film is also, alas, racist propaganda.
The conventional wisdom about “The Birth of a Nation” is that it represents an impressive and innovative display of cinematic skill that was unfortunately wasted on a story that promotes a bizarre and disturbing point of view. While that is certainly true in a general way, it might also be something of an oversimplification.
It really is almost like two different movies. The first part, which takes place in the era before and during the Civil War, contains little objectionable material, and it deserves praise both technically and for the acting. The second part, set in the reconstruction era, contains almost all of the disturbing material, and it also is really not all that great in terms of cinematic quality.
Then also, the degree to which “The Birth of a Nation” may have influenced the development of cinema has very likely been overstated . The controversy that it generated may very well have helped it to remain better known than other films of the era that were equally innovative and/or lavish, or nearly so.
If the movie had ended shortly after the memorable and well-crafted Ford’s Theater scene, the anti-war sentiment and similar themes would remain the main focus, since the effects of war on families and individuals is depicted convincingly and thoughtfully. In that case, its occasional lapses would possibly at the worst be called “dated”, given the quality of the rest of this part of the movie.
The second half, though, is completely unfortunate in almost every respect. Not only does it promote a distorted viewpoint, but the story becomes labored, and the characters lose their depth and become more one-dimensional. The purely technical side, such as the photography and the use of cross-cutting, might still be good, but much of the rest of it loses its effectiveness.
Perhaps more importantly, it really seems rather difficult to justify the credit that this one film gets in the development of cinema. There had already been numerous feature-length movies, and most of the techniques that Griffith used were also in use by others. He may well have been ahead of the pack in terms of appreciating their possibilities, but that does not mean that cinema would not have developed as it did without this particular movie.
Just as one example, the Italian epic “Cabiria”, from the previous year, has the same kind of lavish scale, is quite resourceful in its techniques, and is quite entertaining, without causing so much controversy.
Other early feature-length films also include some creative efforts to adapt film-making techniques to longer running times and more complex stories. Finally, many short features from the pre-Griffith era experimented with the same kinds of techniques that he later would use systematically. There’s no denying Griffith’s considerable technical skill, but others of the era also deserve some credit, even if they and their works were less controversial, and are now largely forgotten as a result.
Apparently, director D.W. Griffith was ignorant of his own racism; the controversy surrounding the film is said to have dumfounded the naïve Griffith. The son of a Confederate soldier, his prepossession for an antebellum South wasn’t, if not still, unusual. Histories of the day, including those by would-be US President Woodrow Wilson, supported his perverted depiction of the Ku Klux Klan saving a South pillaged by carpetbaggers, scalawags and encouraged Negroes. The film quotes Wilson’s “History of the American People.” Thomas Dixon Jr. himself solicited the White House screening where the President famously responded, “It is like writing history with lightening, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Dixon’s racist book trilogy and the subsequent play were Griffith’s inspiration for ‘The Birth of a Nation.’
The Klan rescue is by far the most offensive and concurrently most exciting sequence in the film. Griffith and his editors, headed by James and Rose Smith, crosscut between multiple actions, climaxing with the rescue of Elsie Stoneman from the threat of being raped, the Aryans and faithful souls under siege and the whole of Piedmont (their town) under the heel of a black mob. To that date, it’s the most advanced, amazing montage and remains impressive to this day. Before, Griffith had found how exciting well-edited suspense could be, with ‘The Battle at Elderbush Gulch’ and his last-minute rescue flicks, such as ‘The Girl and Her Trust.’ Moreover, a variation of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” greatly intensifies the crescendo.
The silhouette of Klansmen riding upon a hill, with the sunrise behind; the moving camera shot of the approach; the angled camera positions: Bitzer and Griffith photograph it brilliantly, too. That is, besides the indoor shooting. Theatricality is the film’s major cinematic weakness. This is most evident in the missing walls. The narrative structure is also traditional. The film is innovative in its beautiful outdoor photography, with camera movement and positioning, emotive tinting, nighttime photography and good use of split-screens and of masking the camera lens.
‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a troublingly racist picture, which is said to have revived the KKK. Nevertheless, its importance in film history and its cinematic merits are immense. There are other impressive works from this time: films by Bauer, Chaplin, Christensen, DeMille, Tourneur and Starewicz. Yet, to say the least about ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ as far as I’ve seen, nothing before matches its scale with such filmic innovation.