Review No. 558
The greatest American movie ever made.
NOTE: I can understand why the length (190 mins.) of this movie would offend. It kept me from watching it for quite a while. But please don’t resort to searching for any cut versions; some run 165 minutes, others run 187 minutes, but this is a required viewing–every minute of it. Fret not. The 190-minute version is reeled at 16 frames per second. There’s an alternate 126-minute version that doesn’t cut anything out, but instead reels the film at 24 frames per second. This being a silent film, all that means is that some music choices are removed from the 190-minute edition.
DIRECTED BY D. W. GRIFFITH. PRODUCED BY GRIFFITH AND HARRY AITKEN. WRITTEN BY GRIFFITH AND FRANK E. WOODS. ADAPTED FROM THE WORKS OF THOMAS F. DIXON JR. – HIS NOVEL, “THE CLANSMAN: AN HISTORICAL ROMANCE OF THE KU KLUX KLAN”; HIS PLAY, “THE CLANSMAN”; AND HIS NOVEL, “THE LEOPARD’S SPOTS”. STARRING LILLIAN GISH (ELSIE STONEMAN), MAE MARSH (FLORA CAMERON), HENRY B. WALTHALL (COLONEL BEN CAMERON), MIRIAM COOPER (MARGARET CAMERON), RALPH LEWIS (AUSTIN STONEMAN), AND GEORGE SIEGMANN (SILAS LYNCH). ALSO STARRRING WALTER LONG, ROBERT HARRON, WALLACE REID, JOSEPH HENABERY, ELMER CLIFTON, JOSEPHINE CROWELL, SPOTTISWOODE AITKEN, GEORGE BERANGER, MAXFIELD STANLEY, JENNIE LEE, DONALD CRISP, AND HOWARD GAYE. DISTRIBUTED BY EPOCH PRODUCING CO. ON FEBRUARY 8, 1915. SILENT FILM PRODUCED IN ENGLISH INTERTITLES BY THE UNITED STATES. RUNS 3 HOURS, 10 MINUTES (at 16 fps). INTENDED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES, DUE TO SUBJECT MATTER.
Director — D. W. Griffith
Producer — Mr. Griffith & Harry Aitken
Screenplay — Mr. Griffith & Frank E. Woods
Based on — the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the play The Clansman, and the novel The Leopard’s Spots, all by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.
Lillian Gish — Elsie Stoneman
Mae Marsh — Flora Cameron
Henry B. Walthall — Colonel Ben Cameron
Miriam Cooper — Margaret Cameron
Ralph Lewis — Austin Stoneman
George Siegmann — Silas Lynch
Distributor — Epoch Producing Co.
Release Date — February 8, 1915
Intertitles — English
Country — USA
Running Time — 190 minutes at 16 fps (also available: 126 minutes at 24 fps; cut version: 165 minutes at 16 fps)
THE BIRTH OF A NATION WAS WATCHED ON AUGUST 3, 2013.
The Birth of a Nation achieves beauty with a representation of pure evil. You know the adage, A picture’s worth a thousand words? Well, this one’s worth almost 219,000, since that’s how many are recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary as either obsolete or currently used. Basically, what I’m saying is you can describe this film as succinctly as me, or you can use the whole OED, plus a whole lot of “very”s to compensate for weak adjectives. The paradox that surrounds it, is that while it’s completely anti-American, D. W. Griffith pitches it as a successful (not to mention, brave) home-run and a half for the “Greatest American Movie” title.
The deception director D. W. Griffith presents in the title cards that preface The Birth of a Nation is a sign of his genius that doesn’t become clear until the end of the film. After the audience’s reaction at the film’s roadshow premiere, Griffin significantly extended his opening disclaimer, adding that the intent is to “illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Which is true: this is based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., and the film opens up by crediting that work. What isn’t credited is two others: Dixon’s novel The Leopard’s Spots, but more importantly, his play that is elaborately known as The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
Not knowing this leads us to believe that we’re about to watch is a movie about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that takes creative license into account to make it seem real. That’s true too, but the “what if”s are what make it seem real. And these are disturbing “what if”s to think of–for example, after signing African-American slaves into freedom, Abraham Lincoln is shown waiting until everybody has left the room, and then weeping in regret. There’s no telling whether it happened, but if it did, there’s no audience that wants to see it happen.
This is one, cohesive movie, and yet two movies. Do respect the intermission, if not for the subject matter, then to allow D. W. Griffith’s message to soak in. Part 1 is introduced as “Pre-Civil War America”, where the Southerners are shown as victims to the much-despised Northerners. Both from a Southern and Northern standpoint (see, the words still exist today), it’s undecidedly poignant or infuriating; it’s a war, prior to that which is known in history books as a war, and it’s based solely on prejudice.
Part 2 is introduced as “Reconstruction”. The music performed live in the cinema was introduced as the film’s sound track in 1928 (the beginning of the “sound era”), and this is where it really takes effect. It’s possible I wouldn’t have watched the film for a decade more [SEE FOOTNOTE], if it weren’t for Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, which I felt would compliment the film. Had I known it would only enhance the absolutely horrifying depiction of white supremacy (seemingly, it’s no less than endorsed) near the last fifteen minutes, I couldn’t have cared less whether Wagner was used to an effect.
I intend not to criticize, so much as I intend to praise The Birth of a Nation as aesthetic exploitation. To pair those words doesn’t make as much sense as for any other movie as for this one. I’m led to believe that if the MPAA were to screen the film (this preceded the Hays Code by fifteen years), it’d earn at least an R; that’s given that there wasn’t enough technology to produce onscreen graphic violence. But that’s because D. W. Griffith has only succeeded in making this a timelessly poignant product. The “sound era” was full of experiment, but this is a rare, quixotic innovation. Because he’s so in love with the elaborate story, D. W. Griffith is in love with every single frame that’s put to celluloid here, regardless of how much it costs him, or how much controversy he has to deal with. He forces your attention and makes it an intriguing subject (which, for one who appreciates history, it should be). The movie was shunned 98 years ago and still is. It should be shunned, but it also should be watched and appreciated, because we may not have had cinema nowadays without a film as important as this in 1915.
The controversy is bipolar, perhaps even by medical diagnosis (if that’s applicable to films). Within the first five decades of screening, The Birth of a Nation was spat upon by everyone. Only six years after their foundation, the NAACP protested, and although their pleas failed, they didn’t die: Oscar Micheaux, a strongly opposed African-American filmmaker, responded with 1919′s Within Our Gates, perhaps equally controversial for reversing the entire meaning of The Birth of a Nation. Then you have the defenses such as the 1916 sequel The Fall of a Nation, from appreciating source writer Dixon, who also directed; John W. Noble’s lost film The Birth of a Race; and Griffith’s own response–a 1916 follow called Intolerance. Let’s not forget its influence on later movies. Maybe it won’t make sense to those who have not seen the beauty here (it’s pure evil, but it’s remarkable and utterly revolutionary), but this is both the most anti-American movie ever made, and that which gets my instant vote for the greatest American movie. The Birth of a Nation must be seen for a statement so radical to be believed, though to put it ever so lightly, it’s a time capsule that keeps opening and closing, gradually becoming more and more socially relevant.
FOOTNOTE: It’s more than three hours long. It’s closer to 99 than it is to 98. And all you hear is music. But it’s gripping–every minute.
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