Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe (1959)
The Birth of a Nation 1915
Writing a few paragraphs on The Birth of a Nation and hoping to do it some kind of justice is like trying to condense the Bible, or all the plays of Shakespeare, into a short synopsis. The film warrants a complete volume, and one day possibly it will get one. Undoubtedly, The Birth of a Nation is the most important single film in the evolution of the screen, although not necessarily the greatest. But it is the film from which all movie grammar derives, and most important of all, it is the film which overnight won worldwide respect for the motion picture medium, and raised it from a mere novelty entertainment to the status of an art.
The first American film of any real size and scope, and certainly, at three hours, the longest up to that time (1915), The Birth of a Nation dramatizes the events leading up to, and following, the Civil War of 1861-65. Part One includes a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the seventeenth century, and the rise of the abolitionist movement. From there it goes into the outbreak of the Civil War, and finishes with Lee’s surrender and the assassination of Lincoln.
The second part of the film—the half that has always aroused so much controversy over its alleged anti-Negro bias—concerns the effects on the South of Lincoln’s death, the exploitation of the newly freed Negroes by unscrupulous Northern politicians and industrialists, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to save the old South from anarchy. It is essential to point out that the Klan of that period was vastly different, both in conception and activities, from the sheeted bigots of today. Whether or not the Klan of the post-Civil War period was justified is something that we’ll leave to the historians, but it was essentially a patriotic and not a terrorist force.
Griffith told of this tremendous, turbulent and unhappy period with a mixture of documentary and romanticist styles. It would be possible to eliminate the personal stories entirely, and be left with a vivid and accurate reconstruction of the times—the huge battle scenes, superlatively staged and photographed, like William Brady stills come to life, the scenes in Lincoln’s cabinet and field hospitals, the guerilla raid on Piedmont, the sacking of Atlanta, the surrender of Lee, the death of Lincoln, the reconstruction in the South, the new Southern “Parliament” dominated by Negroes, and the bloody clashes between Negro militia and the Klan.
As Woodrow Wilson stated after seeing the film, “It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film’s alleged anti-Negro bias has provoked controversy ever since the film’s release, and further comment here would certainly solve nothing.
Let me just say that basically the film is historically accurate— but that, naturally, it is an accuracy from a Southern viewpoint, and at times emotionalism may outweigh discretion in certain respects. Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests—ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place! It is certainly easy to see however, why the film excited so much feeling at the time. Audiences were not accustomed to films which manipulated their feelings and worked on their emotions.
The cutting, the dovetailing of sequences, the ideas implanted, all of these things and more had tremendous impact on a film audience which as yet had no inkling of the power of the film for suggesting thought. It was, and still is, political dynamite. It is also a job of film-making of the first magnitude. Since it is still a film to take one’s breath away today, one can imagine the effect it must have had in 1915, and not only for its sheer spectacle. Some of its best moments were quiet and delicately underplayed scenes, with thoughts and motions suggested by the merest trembling of the lips, or sudden look of pain in the eyes.
The subtle performances Griffith achieved in a period when pantomime was more prevalent than genuine acting were not lost on movie audiences, and most of the players in The Birth of a Nation soon become top-ranking “names”— especially, of course, the leads, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh (a particularly fine performance as the tragic “Little Sister”) and Henry B. Walthall as “The Little Colonel” and leader of the Klan—perhaps the most moving of his many fine screen performances. There were other notable performances too, from Wallace Reid as an athletic young blacksmith, Walter Long as a renegade Negro, George Siegman, one of Griffith’s favorite villains, Ralph Lewis, playing the counterpart of the real-life Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Henaberry (as Lincoln), Raoul Walsh (as John Wilkes Booth), Donald Crisp as General Grant.