Astonishing, Repulsive, Too Important to Miss

Astonishing, Repulsive, Too Important to Miss

Posted by Mike Finnegan on May 7th 2018

Certain movies require viewer preparation and context, none more so than D.W. Griffith’s monumental Civil War and Reconstruction-era classic The Birth of a Nation (1915), an epic-sized “roadshow event” adaptation of a rather romanticized 1905 novel and stage play titled The Clansman about the hardships suffered by the Southern U.S. in that nation-roiling conflict by Southern Baptist minister Thomas F. Dixon Jr. Herein, particular aspects of filmmaking craft and storytelling technique were marshaled in service of a historical “chronicle” that a century later still fascinates in its ambitious aims and yet morally offends in the ideological emphases and behavioral tendencies, particularly in the second half of its grandiose three-hour length that portrays the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as homeland defenders against a manipulated, newly-emancipated black citizenry. If it is “historic” in its stance on the waste of war, then its interludes of glory are shamefully interwoven with the horrid taint of the period-prevalent condescension of racism. What was first unveiled as dazzling and enlivening a century ago is now at best uneasily revisited. Still, it’s an inextricable part of our cinematic DNA. 

It was initially unveiled on February 8, 1915 in Los Angeles using the title of Dixon’s novel; the The Birth of a Nation appellation would come shortly after, at Dixon’s insistence according to legend. Critic/historian Richard Schickel wrote in his acclaimed 1984 D.W. Griffith: An American Life: “The Clansman was in almost every respect a miraculous production: miraculous in its length, in its combination of spectacle and intimacy, in its complexity of structure, in its cost. In time, all these miracles would be equaled and surpassed by other films. Three miracles, however, would retain even to this day their capacity to astonish: the amount of money it grossed, which can only be estimated, but which has been exceeded with any consistency only in recent times, when admission prices are much higher; the fact that a film could attain such tremendous popularity – however great its artistic and technical novelty – despite a morality actually offensive to perhaps half its worldwide audience and profoundly disquieting to everyone not a rabid racist; the fact that a movie as long and as difficult as this one was made without a detailed shooting script. But Griffith naïvely supposed that his film was uncontroversial and incontrovertible, an exercise in historical truth-telling – and not merely truth, but the truth. It could, of course, be argued that all this was shrewd calculation on Griffith’s part, a supremely clever attempt to make audiences lower their guard so he could get across his repellent beliefs. But that gives him too much credit for intellectualization. Griffith was a man – in his work, anyway – who followed and trusted his feelings more than he did reason; and besides, all the available evidence suggests that he did not for a minute believe he was making a ‘controversial’ film. Very simply, he thought everyone thought as he did about the matters he was taking up. So Griffith retained the core of Thomas Dixon’s novel, in which the Camerons are friends of a Northern family, the Stonemans, the patriarch of which, Austin Stoneman [Ralph Lewis], is a radical Republican who keeps a mulatto mistress [Mary Alden] and has as a henchman another mulatto, a lustful politician named Silas Lynch [George Siegmann]. The latter aspires to political leadership in South Carolina but also, in time, to marriage with Stoneman’s blond and virginal daughter [Lillian Gish as Elsie] as well. The families, of course, are separated by the war (though there is a very touching scene of lads from the two families finding each other and dying together on the battlefield at Petersburg, during the campaign that concluded the war); become enemies during the days of Reconstruction; are reconciled – those who survive these events, anyway – when the “Little Colonel” (the eldest Cameron Son, played by Henry B. Walthall) in the end marries Elsie Stoneman, while her brother [Elmer Clifton] marries the Camerons’ surviving daughter [Miriam Cooper].” 

It might have been a typical melodrama of the time but for its deep dive into U.S. politics of a bitterly divisive era, battle scenes of remarkable scale for a 1915 yarn that cost an estimated $110,000, a keen sense of narrative drive generated by new explorations of the growing art of film editing, and an orchestral score by Joseph Carl Briel played live at packed auditorium screenings where attendees received elaborate programs. With these components, as well as the requisite ballyhoo and sense of occasion generated, The Birth of a Nation marked “a turning point in the evolution of the capitalist enterprise and the modern storytelling known as movies” (David Thomson, Have You Seen…?). Shot by the director’s recurring cinematographer of choice, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, “D.W. Griffith’s controversial landmark film will astonish you with its visuals and repulse you with its content. It’s too important to miss, if only to see what once passed as history” (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic). Twilight Time’s enhanced two-disc hi-def Blu-ray presents the meticulously researched 2015 Photoplay Productions restoration by Photoplay co-founder Patrick Stanbury with the original color-tinting scheme and the Briel score (in both 5.1 and 2.0 stereo) conducted by John Lanchbery. Additional components of this ambitious package include: the 1930 Sound Reissue Prologue and Sound Reissue Intermission/Introduction to Act 2, both featuring the filmmaker and actor Walter Huston; Outtakes and Original Camera Tests from the Library of Congress Archives; a Stills and Collections Gallery; Score Recording Sessions Footage; a 1936 D.W. Griffith/Cecil B. DeMille Radio Conversation; two Featurettes about the film’s development and legacy by documentarians Daniel Griffith and John McCarty; informative Essays by Stanbury, his award-winning Photoplay colleague Kevin Brownlow and film historian Ashley Clark; and four additional Civil War-themed Silent Films, all newly restored by Stanbury: The Coward (1915, produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Reginald Barker), The Rose of Kentucky (1911, directed by Griffith), Stolen Glory (1912, directed by Mack Sennett) and The Drummer of the 8th (1913, produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Jay Hunt). Preorders open this Wednesday May 9 for a May 22 arrival. 

In his 2014 study The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, Boston University journalism professor Dick Lehr offers a revealing observation that here serves as a postscript: “Following its release Griffith remained defensive about the attacks made against The Birth of a Nation, resentful of the charges of racism and historical manipulations. He always insisted he had gotten his facts right and that the story did no harm to Negroes. But in at least one interview conducted when he had reached his midsixties, a 1941 session with a would-be biographer, Griffith expressed regrets for the intense discord his movie had caused. Most surprisingly, he said he now thought the film should be kept from the general public. Not through government restriction – nothing like that, he being a vocal proponent of free speech and expression – but through self-censorship, or the voluntary withholding of the movie from public consumption. ‘It should not be shown to general audiences,’ he said. ‘It should be seen solely by film people and film students. The Negro race has had enough trouble, more than enough of its share of injustice, oppression, tragedy, suffering and sorrow. And because of the social progress which Negroes achieved in the face of these handicaps, it is best that The Birth of a Nation in its present form be withheld from public exhibition.” In short, and in context, TT provides this beautifully restored, legendary achievement for personal home collections.