Movies in America
By William Kuhns – 1972
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
In reprimand for his secretive making of Judith of Bethulia, Biograph took Griffith off directing and gave him a job supervising other productions. Griffith balked, checked out some other film companies, then quit He joined a younger outfit, Mutual (Majestic-Reliance). The work there was unexciting, but the money ($1,000 per week) was necessary for what Griffith saw as his major picture. During 1913 and early 1914, he began organizing the project. It would be based, somewhat loosely, around Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. It would be long, longer than any previous film ever made. It would be an epic, a romance, a historical drama of sweeping scale and momentum. Griffith took many of his original Biograph company with him. He began active production in 1914. His cast and technicians were astounded that he used no shooting script. War shortages made production difficult—Griffith had a hard time getting the horses he needed for some of the battle scenes—but eventually he completed production. The film came in at a cost of about $100,000, an unheard-of figure for making a movie. More staggering was the length of the film: 12 reels. Distributors refused to handle a movie of such awkward size, and Griffith was forced to establish his own distribution outlets.
In February, 1915, The Birth of a Nation was released. Although the admission was a seemingly outrageous two dollars, crowds gathered to see the movie that critics and newspapers were hailing throughout the country as the greatest movie ever made. President Woodrow Wilson saw the film and described it as “like writing history in lightning.” The skeptical movie industry watched aghast as Griffith’s monumental film not only made a fortune, but made history.
In technique and in narrative, The Birth of a Nation was advanced far beyond anything yet to appear on the screens of movie theaters. The story centered around two families, the Stonemans from Pennsylvania and the Camerons from South Carolina. The boys from the families all enlist to fight in the Civil War, and several are killed. Captain Phil Stoneman, of the Union Army, takes over the Cameron estate and holds Ben Cameron prisoner. Meanwhile, Captain Stoneman’s father, Austin, an influential Congressman, fights for punishment of the South. After Lincoln’s assassination, Congressman Stoneman comes South with his mulatto protege, Silas Lynch, a man whom he has ordained a leader in South Carolina. The Camerons are astounded and horrified, and through their activities we see the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story leads to a climax in which the Klansmen come in the nick of time to save the Cameron family from Negro militiamen. The Birth of a Nation was a double-edged sword. On one hand, its technique, its narrative drive, its epic sweep, it brilliant use of the film medium, clearly made it one of the greatest of all films. At the same time, Griffith had made a film which presented the black man as little more than a stupid savage, which depicted the Civil War as the North’s vendetta against the South, and which justified—even extolled—the Ku Klux Klan. The controversy aroused by the film was no doubt partly responsible for its incredible commercial success. In many ways, the film made an appeal, and a passionate one, for recognition of the inferiority of the black man and his total segregation from white society. In a number of Northern cities, important figures denounced the film, and it became a major issue in a number of political clashes. Generally the attacks were made on Griffith, and Griffith responded. He published articles and pamphlets upholding the right to “freedom of the screen.”
Despite the undercurrent of prejudice in The Birth of a Nation, the film remains an exemplary and brilliant example of the art of the medium. There is about it not even a lingering remnant of that sense of the filmed stage play which dominated filmmaking to this time. The shots and editing coexist in a fluid relationship, and the film—for all its length—moves with a pulsating rhythm that rarely flags. Griffith seemed to be experimenting with temporal-spatial relationships in a way he never had before. During the Civil War battle scenes, for example, he opens one scene with a long shot of a field strewn with bodies. For a moment, he holds the camera, suggesting a geography of horror that only a long shot could create. Then he closes in on single figures: a man draped over a cannon, a boy whose empty eyes face the sun. Very long shots often are juxtaposed to very tight close-ups: suggesting the awful relationship between the macrocosm of war and the microcosm of the soldier.
The editing is unquestionably superior to anything that went before it, and to much of what would come after it. In the scene depicting the assassination of Lincoln, for example, Griffith builds the tension by a complex crosscutting from Lincoln, to the stage, to the assassin planning his entry into Lincoln’s box. The pace increases, and everything seems to build to that moment of which no one is aware except the assassin. The use of cinematography reached new artistic heights with The Birth of a Nation. In depicting General Sherman’s march to the sea, Griffith opens with a small iris shot of a woman weeping beside her children. The iris expands; the camera reveals a long line of soldiers marching through a land of burning and gutted houses.
A long, extended panning shot shows the length of that army, and a group of medium shots depict the pillage of specific houses, and the suffering of distinct people. Finally, the entire sequence closes with the woman and her child again, suggesting that this—and this alone—is what Sherman’s march was all about. Perhaps the most extraordinary section of the film is the climax of the Reconstruction episode, when Lynch (the mulatto) wants to marry Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), while the Ku Klux Klan is organizing and preparing its ride. Griffith builds the suspense here with incredible skill, depicting the fierce mulatto in the room with Elsie while showing the Klan members gathering far away. As the tension among Lynch, Elsie, and Elsie’s father rises, so do the numbers of the Klan riders who are preparing to attack the town. The events are complex, and yet not difficult to follow. More important, the way in which Griffith handles them shows to what extent careful and ingenious editing can give a motion picture momentum and emotional force.