The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Yeah. THAT film. Today marks the centenary of its public debut. The Birth is film history’s version of the elephant in the room in many ways. If you consider yourself a serious film student, you have to watch it at some point, it is unavoidable whether you like it or not, but no one would blame you for being reluctant to do so (and not just because of the considerable time investment). It still raises a stink whenever someone tries to show it, and no wonder. Even Roger Ebert hesitated over it when it came to naming it one of his “great films”, so far lesser lights like myself can probably be excused for doing the same thing.

But it is a film that needs to be recognised for its position within American cinema history, even if you feel like you need to apologise for doing so; it was an attempt to commemorate the Civil War—which had ended not quite 50 years earlier when the film was released and so was a thing still reasonably within living memory, at least for older people at the time of the film—and to rather consciously elevate the feature film to some new level of artistic prestige. It would be unfair to deny that Griffith did a more than fair job of that.

Of course, it’s not always easy to appreciate the Birth for its historical importance; it’s one of those films where you need to have some context. And that was pretty much what I got when I last saw it back in 1999, as part of David Stratton’s Continuing Education course in film history… in that class we spent the first four classes looking at the earliest films, one-reelers and even shorter films up to 1914 (if I recall rightly, the third class was given over to a selection of Griffith’s Biograph shorts), and then the fifth one was devoted entirely to the Birth. It was staggering. For probably the first time—and I had seen it a few times before that—I kind of understood what an impact it must’ve had in 1915; imagine being an American filmgoer at that time, used mainly to the shorter films and early features of the period up to 1915, then WHAM here comes three hours of war epic and paranoid racist fantasy. Must’ve felt like a bomb going off in the industry especially.

Of course, that paranoid racist fantasy is the other stumbling block to appreciating the Birth these days. Even more so, I dare say, than the context issue. And even at the time it appalled people—not just the NAACP, too—for being a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, a long-since dead in the water mob when the film came out but whose fortunes were revived by the Birth. Griffith did himself no favours, either, by not really getting why people were upset by it, and the filmed preview he shot for a 1930 reissue in which he claimed the Klan had been a necessary force post-war didn’t help either. Even Thomas Dixon, the racist moonbat whose novel The Clansman and the play derived therefrom were turned into the film’s second half, had enough sense to repudiate the revived Klan in the 1920s when Griffith was delighted to exhibit the thing in Klan-heavy territories.

The Birth is a big film; apart from its three-hour running time, it’s just so determined to be the ultimate example of the sort of thing it is. Griffith had ambitions for this film and made no bones about them, those ambitions are all there on the screen. Indeed, rewatching it tonight and actually looking at the depth of some of the images, the actual amount of space the battle scenes contain within the frame, made me realise just how much is going on in the film at those times (when you can see it through the often unfortunately strong red tint applied to the Kino DVD print in these scenes); Griffith covers a lot of ground quite literally. The whole film is a grand gesture and monument. I think it’s fair to consider it a great film, and certainly the first half of the film—i.e. the character establishing and the actual Civil War action—offers few issues other than a few outbursts of Griffithian sentiment (“the opal gates of death”, anyone?). It’s so nicely played, and Griffith’s performers are eminently charming, and however heavy-handed some of the emotion is, some of it (like Henry B. Walthall’s homecoming after the war) is really quite powerful.

It’s just… the second half.

Being a southerner himself, and therefore from the losing side in the war, Griffith’s sympathies were obviously going to lie that way, and the film’s heroic presentation of the Klan can obviously be seen as a kind of revenge fantasy (“think y’all Yankees can take our niggers away from us? We’ll show YOU! Git off ma lawn now, I got a cross to burn there…”); the fact that most of the black characters in the film are actually whites in blackface of a kind that occasionally makes Al Jolson look understated is just icing on the cake (topped only by the scene near the end where a couple of blacks actually turn out to be whites in black “disguise”). But even in my much less racially sensitive youth when I first saw the film, I still knew there was something weird and nasty going on there. Given how much of part one is based on the detailed historical research—right down to Joe Henabery recreating the rather particular way Lincoln sat in a chair—that the intertitles sometimes cite outright, this bizarre fantasia of the darkies getting out of hand and forcing the eminently superior white man to put on a hood and robe to bring them back into line is just… I don’t know. It’s like the negrophobe Andrew Johnson wasn’t actually the president or something. And part two is as well made as part one—the climactic Klan ride to the rescue is kind of awe-inspiring—it’s a perfectly good piece of filmmaking… if only the content didn’t overshadow whatever other merits it has. And if only it didn’t overshadow the whole first half of the film.

Ultimately that’s the film’s dilemma. Ever since 1915, it’s been the second half of the film that’s really caused the stink. It makes me wonder, had the film never included the Clansman material, had it just been the war drama of the first part, how would it have been received then? How would we receive it now? I mean, there’s dubious bits in the first part, but nothing like the second half. Would the film have got people so worked up back then without the “KKK ra ra ra” stuff? Would we care about it now? Would the film even exist now? Plenty of big hits of that period have fallen by the nitrate wayside over the decades… The converse question, of course: would we care about the racism were the film not as well made as it is? If it were, say, on the order of a bad anti-communist propaganda film a la Ron Ormond, we could probably just dismiss it as an unpleasant curiosity at best, too shoddy to actually get worked up about.

The fact that we still do suggests something about the film we may not like to admit, i.e. that it actually must be a great film if its perniciousness still rouses fervour in us, and that we can’t just dismiss it as easily as we might like. To quote Ebert, “it is a great film that argues for evil”, which is an awfully hard thing to swallow; on rewatching tonight, I feel about as far away from resolving that contradiction as ever. Still, I’m sure it’ll outlast me, and though people may get worked up about things like American Sniper (which seems to be the stink du jour) now, I doubt anyone will really care about that in a hundred years time in the way people still care a hundred years after the Birth‘s first release. Or the way I suspect they will still care about it in 2115…

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