A Tribute To “The Birth Of A Nation”
By Rupert Hughes
United Artists Pressbook, 1915
When a great achievement of human genius is put before us, we can become partners in it, in a way, by applauding it with something of the enthusiasm that went into its making. It is that sort of collaboration that I am impelled to attempt in what follows.
When I saw “The Birth of a Nation” the first time, I was so overwhelmed by the immensity of it that I said:
“It makes the most spectacular production of drama look like the work of village amateurs. It reduces to childishness the biggest things the theatre can do.”
For here were hundreds of scenes in place of four or five; thousands of actors in place of a score; armies in landscape instead of squads of supers jostling on a platform among canvas screens. Here was the evolution of a people, the living chronicle of a conflict of statesmen, a civil war, a racial problem rising gradually to a puzzle yet unsolved. Here were social pictures without number, short stories, adventures, romance, tragedies, farces, domestic comedies. Here was a whole art gallery of scenery, of humanity, of still life and life in wildest career. Here were portraits of things, of furniture, of streets, homes, wildernesses; pictures of conventions, cabinets, senates, mobs, armies; pictures of family lif e, of festivals and funerals, ballrooms and battlefields, hospitals and flower-gardens, hypocrisy and passion, ecstasy and pathos, pride and humiliation, rapture and jealousy, flirtation and anguish, devotion and treachery, self-sacrifice and tyranny. Here were the Southrons in their wealth, with their luxury at home, their wind-swept cotton fields; here was the ballroom with the seethe of dancers, here were the soldiers riding away to war, and the soldiers trudging home defeated with poverty ahead of them and new and ghastly difficulties arising on every hand. Here was the epic of a proud, brave people beaten into the dust and refusing to stay there.
The pictures shifted with unending variety from huge canvasses to exquisite miniatures. Now it was a little group of refugees cowering in the ruins of a home. A shift of the camera and we were looking past them into a great valley with an army fighting its way through.
One moment we saw Abraham Lincoln brooding over his Emancipation Proclamation ; another, and he was yielding to a mother’s tears; later we were in the crowded theatre watching the assassin making his way to and from his awful deed. The leagues of film uncoiled and poured forth beauty of scene, and face and expression, beauty of fabric and attitude and motion.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a choral symphony of light, light in all its magic ; the sun flashing through a bit of blown black lace and giving immortal beauty to its pattern; or quivering in a pair of eyes, or on a snow-drift of bridal veil, or on a moonlit brook or a mountain side. Superb horses were shown plunging and rearing or galloping with a heart-quickening glory of speed down road and lane and through flying waters. Now came the thrill of a charge, or of a plunging steed caught back on its haunches in a sudden arrest. Now followed the terror of a bestial mob, the hurrah of a rescue, streets filled with panic and with carnival. Life is motion and here was the beautiful moving monument of motion.
“What could the stage give to rival all this?” I thought. “What could the novel give? or the epic poem?” The stage can publish the voice and the actual flesh ; yet from the film these faces were eloquent enough without speech. And after all when we see people we are merely receiving in our eyes the light that beats back from their surfaces; we are seeing merely photographs and moving pictures. I had witnessed numberless photoplays unrolled, pictures of every sort and condition of interest and value. I had seen elaborate “feature-films” occupying much time and covering many scenes. But none of them approached the unbroken fascination of “The Birth of a Nation.”
The realism of this work is amazing; merely sit at a window and actuality rolls by. The grandeur of mass and the minuteness of detail are unequalled in my experience. And so the first impression of my first view of this was that it was something new and wonderful in dramatic composition and in artistic achievement.
In his novel “The Clansman,” the Rev. Thomas Dixon had made a fervid defence of his people from the harsh judgments and condemnations of unsympathetic historians: With this book as a foundation, David W. Griffith built up a structure of national scope and of heroic proportions.
Of course, size has little to do with art. A perfect statuette like one of the exquisite figurines of Tanagra is as great in a sense as the cathedral of Rheims. A flawless sonnet of Milton’s need not yield place to his “Paradise Lost.” A short story of Poe’s has nothing to fear from a cycle of Dumas novels, nor has “The Suwannee River” anything to fear from the Wagnerian tetralogy. And yet we cannot but feel that a higher power has created the larger work, since the larger work includes the problems of the smaller : and countless others. The larger work compels and tests the tremendous gifts of organization, co-ordination, selection, discipline, climax.
One comes from this film saying: “I have done the South a cruel injustice, they are all dead, these cruelly tried people, but I feel now that I know them as they were: not as they ought to have been or might have been, but as they were: as I should probably have been in their place. I have seen them in their homes, in their pride and their glory and I have seen what they went back to. I understand them better.” And after all what more vital mission has narrative and dramatic art than to make us under stand ‘one another ‘better ?
Hardly anybody can be found today who is not glad that Slavery was wrenched out of our national life, but it is not well to forget how and why it was defended, and by whom: what it cost to tear it loose: or what suffering and bewilderment were left with the bleeding wounds. The North was not altogether blameless for the existence of slavery, nor was the South altogether blameworthy for it or for its aftermath. “The Birth of a Nation” is a peculiarly human presentation of a vast racial tragedy. There has been some hostility to the picture on account of an alleged injustice to the negroes. I have not felt it: and I am one who cherishes a great affection and a profound admiration for the negro. He is enveloped in one of the most cruel and insoluble riddles of history. His position is the more difficult since those who ardently endeavor to relieve him of his burdens are peculiarly apt to increase them.
“The Birth of a Nation” presents many lovable negroes who win hearty applause from the audiences. It presents also some exceedingly hateful negroes. But American history has the same fault and there are bad whites also in this film as well as virtuous. It is hard to see how such a drama could be composed without the struggle of evil against good. Furthermore, it is to the advantage of the negro of today to know how some of his ancestors misbehaved and why the prejudices in his path have grown there. Surely no friend of his is to be turned into an enemy by this film, and no enemy more deeply embittered.
“The Birth of” a Nation” is a chronicle of human passion. It is true to fact and thoroughly documented. It is in no sense an appeal to lynch-law. The suppression of it would be a dangerous precedent in American dramatic art. If the authors are never to make use of plots which might off end certain sects, sections, professions, trades, races or political parties, then creative art is indeed in a sad plight.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has had a long and influential career. Perhaps no book ever written exerted such an effect on history. It was denounced with fury by the South as a viciously unfair picture. It certainly stirred up feeling, and did more than perhaps any other document to create and set in motion the invasion and destruction of the southern aristocracy. Yet it was not suppressed because of its riot-provoking tendencies. And it is well that it was not suppressed.
“The Birth of a Nation” has no such purpose. It is a picture of a former time. All its phases are over and done, and most of the people of its time are in their graves. But it is a brilliant, vivid, thrilling masterpiece of historical fiction. Thwarting its prosperity would be a crime against creative art and a menace to its freedom. The suppression of such fictional works has always been one of the chief instruments of tyranny and one of the chief dangers of equality.
I saw the play first in a small projecting room with only half a dozen spectators present. We sat mute and spellbound for three hours. When I learned that it had to be materially condensed it seemed a pity to destroy one moment of it. The next time I saw it was in a crowded theatre and it was accompanied by an almost incessant murmur of approval and comment, roars of laughter, gasps of anxiety and outbursts of applause. It was not silent drama so far as the audience was concerned. The scene changed with the velocity of lightning, of thought. One moment we saw a vast battlefield with the enemies like midgets in the big world, the next we saw some small group filling the whole space with its personal drama : then just one of two faces big with emotion. And always a story was being told with every device of suspense, preparation, relief, development, and crisis. I cannot imagine a human emotion that is not included somewhere in this story, from the biggest national psychology to the littlest whim of a petulant girl; from the lowest depths of ruthless villainy to the utmost grandeur of patriotic ideal.
All of the seven wonders of the world were big things. I feel that David W. Griffith has done a big thing and he has a right to the garlands as well as the other emoluments. “The Birth of a Nation” is a work of epochal importance in a large and fruitful field of social endeavor. In paying it this tribute of profound homage, I feel that I am doing only my duty by American art, merely rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
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