The Birth of a Nation (1915), as alternately fantastic and morally repellent an accomplishment as it is, sits atop the resumé of its director/co-producer/co-writer D.W. Griffith, but this benchmark motion picture epic is also a credit in the storied show-business careers of other indelible artists, as the revered critic/documentarian/historian Richard Schickel notes in passages generously excerpted from his fine 1984 biography D.W. Griffith: An American Life:
“More prominently on view in the vignettes, which Griffith based on true historical incidents, were Joseph Henabery, who played [President Abraham] Lincoln, Raoul Walsh, who played John Wilkes Booth, and Donald Crisp, who impersonated Ulysses S. Grant. Henabery was a movie-struck youth, adept at makeup and much interested in historical research – both qualities that aided him, a young extra, in obtaining his role in Birth and in making it meaningful through careful detailing. He would go on to become a very prolific silent picture director. Walsh had, oddly enough, made his theatrical debut in a touring company of The Clansman, replacing an injured horseman, galloping his steed across a treadmill in the piece’s climactic ride to the rescue. An expert rider, he had drifted into the Biograph orbit a little late as a rider and bit player, moving up to assistant director. A darkly handsome young man…, Walsh got the role of John Wilkes Booth because Griffith happened to glance up one day to see Walsh, as usual, surrounded by admiring girl extras. Obviously, he had the magnetism to impersonate a man who, if he was not a matinee idol, surely aspired to be. Walsh, who would, of course, go on to become one of Hollywood’s finest directors of action films, was one of several performers invalided by his work on the film. When it came time for his big scene, Lincoln’s assassination, hundreds of extras were assembled in the L-shaped set, which included the full stage and the entire side of the auditorium in which the presidential box was situated, but was open to the sky above and on the left side of the house, which there was no reason for Griffith to shoot. Everything went well, until Walsh, having shot Lincoln, was required to leap from box to stage. Unlike the historic Booth, he did not catch a spur in the bunting that draped the box, breaking his leg, but a hard landing on stage jarred a bad knee Walsh had acquired during his roustabout youth, and sprained an ankle. So when he limped off stage, it was a very convincing imitation of Booth’s exit after his dreadful act.”
“Finally, there was Crisp, who also worked as an assistant on the picture, and who would establish himself in a later Griffith film, Broken Blossoms, as a character man of distinctive force. He would himself become a director and would also be a familiar figure to a later generation of moviegoers as a kindly, fatherly type in films like How Green Was My Valley and Lassie, Come Home, among many others. [Future “B” helmer] Christy Cabanne also took a hand when needed; so did Erich von Stroheim, whose introduction to the movies this was. His arrogance, if not his genius, was already apparent. And useful in the big scenes. He quickly rose from extra work to stunting to the ranks of the A.D.s.” And the following crops up in Schickel’s recounting of the climactic and perilous-to-film Ride of the Klan sequence. “America almost lost one of its great directors, before his career behind the camera began. John Ford was one of the extras who rode with the Klan, and his bedsheet too twisted and blinded him as he pounded along. He failed to see an overhanging tree branch, which swept him from the saddle and plunged him, unconscious, to the ground. He came to with no less than Griffith kneeling over him, offering a brandy flask. The director insisted that he retire from the field for the day, and Ford would remember stretching out comfortably under a tree to watch the rest of the day’s shooting on a sequence that he would have come to duplicate (and surpass) during his great career.”
More fine work involving Messrs. Crisp, Ford and Walsh will populate the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray calendar in the months ahead. Meanwhile, TT’s two-disc The Birth of a Nation coming on May 22 presents the meticulously researched 2015 Photoplay Productions restoration by Photoplay co-founder Patrick Stanbury with the original color-tinting scheme and the Joseph Carl Briel score (in both 5.1 and 2.0 stereo) conducted by John Lanchbery. Among the extraordinary New and Archival Extras are: 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 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 tomorrow, Wednesday May 9.