Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, George Beranger
Written by: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods, based on a play and novels by Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
Directed by: D.W. Griffith
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 192
Date: 02/08/1915

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Klan Fried

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is as much a part of film history as the Civil War is a part of American history. But it presents a problem for film critics. It's important, and the effects of it were huge, but is it a good movie? Should people see it?

Even after working as a film critic for 14 years and watching as many films from all countries and eras as I could get my hands on, I avoided this essential item. Now that Kino has released a newly remastered Blu-Ray edition, I finally relented. The experience was powerful, overwhelming actually, and also excruciating -- infuriating.

I confess that, despite warnings, I was unaware of just how deeply racist the film is, or at least how racist its images are. The film's first half covers the Civil War, and some of the battlefield sequences are highly impressive. Then the second half is about the black-controlled legislature in the south, and the general anarchy it creates. The shots of blacks drinking and taking off their shoes while in session are particularly unsettling, but not more so than the scenes depicting the "heroic" origins of the Ku Klux Klan. These were reportedly so effective in 1915 that some fans of the movie decided to restart that notorious organization. What's more is that most of the actors playing black characters in this movie are white actors in blackface, which -- at the time -- was merely a casting and costume choice, but today it has strong social ramifications.

Yet it's a well-made movie. It was one of a handful of productions of the time that, alongside the Italian film Cabiria (1914), experimented with long-form storytelling. After directing dozens of two-reelers, and perfecting much of the basic language of film, Griffith was remarkably suited to this new, long format. He balances his subplots clearly and edits with grace. He builds rhythms, with peaks and valleys, and carries the viewer through with effective dramatic momentum.

Could Griffith have known the sheer power of his film, though? Did he know that Woodrow Wilson would declare, "It is like writing history with lightning"? Did he know that it would be such a huge success, and that it would be continuously revived? Did he know that it would eventually cause riots? More importantly, did he believe in his film's message, or was he simply the messenger, passing along stories of America's racist history? The movie's titles state it to be an anti-war movie, but it doesn't say anything about intolerance.

Immediately following this, Griffith made Intolerance (1916), which I have seen and which I consider a masterpiece. Among other things, that film seems to be a plea for tolerance, or perhaps a way for Griffith to set the record straight. Whether it worked is a matter of opinion. Intolerance was a flop, though Griffith made other hits, like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), both simple, superb romantic melodramas. He never seemed to touch the incendiary subject matter of The Birth of a Nation ever again (though he did make a biopic of Abraham Lincoln in 1930).

On a business side, The Birth of a Nation catapulted the business of making movies into an industry that concentrated on spectacle. It made a lot of money for a lot of people, but we can only imagine what might have happened if some other kind of movie had done it first.

And so, The Birth of a Nation remains an immovable and extremely heavy monument in cinema. Should you see it? Perhaps, but at your own risk.

Kino's new three-disc edition comes with a newly remastered high-def transfer of the film, with a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Only the first disc is a Blu-Ray. The second and third discs are DVDs, exactly the same as Kino's two-disc set released in 2002. There's an introduction by Griffith and actor Walter Huston, a making-of featurette, and some of Griffith's Civil War shorts.

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