On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review)
By Armond White – February 18, 2015 5:00 AM
Why the smug critics of D. W. Grffith’s epic are doomed to repeat its faults.
One hundred years ago on this date, February 18, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation — the first movie epic — was shown at the White House. That screening occasioned President Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “It’s like writing history with lightning” — an accurate description of a problematic movie that is, upsettingly, full of hysterical historical fabrications. Wilson’s response to Griffith’s still-amazing innovations of cinematic storytelling was also an ideological endorsement of then-commonplace racial attitudes.Today, Wilson’s endorsement (not the darkest part of his own regrettable legacy) is scoffed at because of modern distaste for the film’s Civil War and Reconstruction drama — for its scurrilous depiction of black slaves while it lionizes the creation of the white-supremacist mob known as the Ku Klux Klan. The two myths, double-barreled offenses, have lived in the American consciousness partly through Griffith’s film — an indelible work of art and so an ongoing test.
But in the decades since The Birth premiered, we should have learned more than that we are superior to it. That self-serving attitude has been the point of several recent articles recognizing the film’s centenary, as if the shameful or honorable social events (lynchings, legal reforms, and incremental civil-rights developments) that followed The Birth force single-minded dismissal of the film for its embarrassing and enraging faults.To approach this as a political as well as a cultural problem: Any attempt to erase The Birth —and rewrite movie history — also threatens our own presumably enlightened social standards. The trouble is, present-day smugness loses sight of The Birth’s aesthetic brilliance, which is the basis of its powerful challenge to our moral sense — not simply the necessary rejection of racist attitudes but the too-easy disavowal of the prejudiced reflexes and bigoted ideology still embedded in our national institutions and social habits.
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Watching The Birth in 2015 (as on last week’s helpful C-SPAN broadcast) makes the movie more real than recent “not-me” renunciations allow; more real, in some ways, than current movies and TV dramas that boast “progressive” attitudes on race and American history. The Birth’s iconographic representation of timeless human experience is overwhelming for its glories and its insufficiencies: Griffith’s powerfully homiletic subtitle “War’s Peace” before a shot of dead bodies; the Little Colonel’s movingly discreet homecoming; the sexual frankness of Lillian Gish’s bedpost-stroking frustration (and the Altmanlike moment of a Union soldier eyeing her at a hospital); the startling battle scenes emulating Mathew Brady’s photographic realism but adding clouds of white and black smoke rolling kinetically across the battlefields; the combining of actual black bit players with white actors in blackface, following and flipping minstrel tradition; the intense expression of fear in the women’s barricade sequence; and, yes, the unsettling yet undeniably vibrant ride to the rescue by the Klan — a moment that sweeps you up in its fervor as all mob-related hysteria does even to this day. Think of it all as an epic — and dangerous — metaphor.
“As a film it’s astonishing, as a social history it’s still astonishing but in a different way,” Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress told C-SPAN. The Birth offers that unique quality vintage photography has of engaging your awe and fear, of past lives being made vivid alongside the simultaneous specter of mortality. But the film’s second half (its Reconstruction falsehoods, with lynch-mob scenes and Klan mythologizing) starts to pull away from you, offending basic sensitivities the same way as the caricature of criminal blacks in Liberty Heights (1999), or as Halle Berry’s degraded black mother in Monster’s Ball (2002), or as Precious and her mother’s being made into ghetto monsters in Precious (2007), or as the patronizing ghetto clichés in HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), among other post-Griffith examples of Hollywood defamation.
It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media, to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous — a way to fend off honest self-examination.
Few Birth detractors (call them anti-Birthers?) concede any validity to Griffith’s presentation of white American personality or admit that it’s more insightful than his neurotic caricature of blacks. Griffith includes an inadvertent (easily ignored) truth in the character of the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall); the “gallant” Southerner shown as inventing the Klan parallels the likable “good people” who harbor racist thoughts and actions. Almost Dickensian in sentiment as well as psychological and social ramification, Griffith is more authentic than the strictly moralizing, largely partisan ideas of good/bad behavior found in today’s “enlightened” media work, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, or The Help.
That self-flattering mainstream-media perspective was typified when The New Yorker claimed: “The worst thing about [The Birth] is how good it is.” That’s all wrong, an example of liberal sophistry wrought to distance and patronize white racism. The fact is: The best thing about The Birth is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea Intolerance (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist. To say otherwise is intellectual censorship. But as Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, advised C-SPAN: “We should not ban this film. We should not be afraid of this discourse.”
Black Americans, well familiar with the calumnies the media use against them, are sometimes bemused even while recognizing the vile intent. For instance, one high point of The Birth’s racist hysteria has a young white girl (Mae Marsh) escape submitting to a lecherous black villain by jumping off a cliff. A subtitle proclaims: “We should not grieve that she found sweet the opal gates of death.” In my experience, both Black Panther and Columbia Graduate Film School colleagues found such absurdly racist sentimentality — including ludicrous scenes of free blacks’ buffoonery in the Reconstruction legislature — offensive and laughable, equally. It’s part of the process of getting accustomed to white racism and defying it — armoring oneself against it wherever and whenever possible.During film school, classmates and I laughed at a documentary where Lillian Gish insisted “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro.” At that time, I had a dream of being kidnapped by Griffith and forced to watch new footage he had recently filmed. Orson Welles burst into the dream to rescue me, but I resisted his tug, pointed at the screen, and urged him: ”Look! Look how beautiful it is!” Welles sat down and enjoyed the show.
I have always felt it essential to reckon with the paradox of Griffith’s genius and his racism, just as a critic must reckon with the racism of lesser present-day filmmakers and do-gooder hypocrites, as when the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name from its annual awards in 2000, a misguided act of politically correct self-righteousness.
The beauty and ugliness, the truth and lies of The Birth of a Nation haunt all Americans. How it haunts us is valuable and should never be forgotten.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.
IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.
Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.
Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.
January 2, 1915
David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.
Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.
Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.
The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.
Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.
Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”
It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.
Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.
By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”
Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.
That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.
The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.
The Curtain Falls
William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.
Hollywood’s colorful treatment of the most tragic period in American history is traced in fascinating detail in The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays. From D, W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation to Clark Gable’s picaresque Captain Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of dozens of Civil War movies. He explores the many screen impersonations of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and other figures of history, including the infamous guerrilla chiefs Quantrill and Morgan. An entertaining look at the espionage drama, crinoline love stories, lighthearted comedies (Buster Keaton’s The General), and authentic battle epics is en-livened with many personality sketches of the captivating stars of the silents and talkies. There is a penetrating analysis of the social influences of the racist film and the historical inaccuracies of most Civil War motion pictures. The originality and freshness of this intelligent study will delight every film fan and Civil War student.
Milestone and Masterpiece: The Birth of a Nation
One of the screen’s lost films is Kinemacolor’s The Clansman (1912), which was never completed. No fragments of this picture are known to exist. Presumably, the few scenes that were shot have been destroyed, or have long since crumbled into dust with the deterioration of its nitrate film stock. The only significance of The Clansman is that a portion of its story later formed the basis for the last half of D. W. Griffith’s milestone of motion-picture history, The Birth of a Nation. Kinemacolor was a subsidiary of the British company of the same name that spent several years in developing a pioneer process of color motion-picture photography using a color wheel. Its films of The Royal Visit to India and the colorful The Durbar at Delhi in 1911 were a sensation, and the company moved to establish the process in the United States. After a series of frustrating differences with the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, which did not want color films marketed in America, Kinemacolor was forced to set up its own studios—first at Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then at Whitestone Landing, New York. A California studio with three production units was established in Hollywood in 1912, using a crude building at the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards previously occupied by the Revier Film Processing Company. Kinemacolor sold this studio the following year to the Aitken interests, and it was here that Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and other pictures. During the early part of 1912, Kinemacolor contracted with a stage impresario named George H. Brennan to film The Clansman, a lurid novel of the Reconstruction era by Thomas W. Dixon, a Southern clergyman. Several years earlier, in 1906, Brennan had produced a dramatization of the work (also by Dixon) on Broadway with Holbrook Blinn, Sydney Ayres, and DeWitt Jennings in the leads. Although this heavy-handed play was roundly panned by reviewers after its premiere at the Liberty Theatre, it became a popular vehicle for traveling stock companies, particularly those touring in the South and West. Brennan sold Kinemacolor officials on the unique idea of using the performers of such a company—the Campbell MacCullough Players—to repeat their roles in a film version of The Clansman. As the troupe moved through the South, scenes would be shot in authentic locales—plantations, antebellum homes, battlefields, and historical sites—using period furnishings and costumes, and utilizing local citizens as extras. William Haddock, who had directed for Edison, Méliés, and I.M.P. (and also for Kinemacolor at its Whitestone Landing studio) was assigned to direct. He found it difficult to do any shooting with the company jumping from town to town in a series of one-night stands. Finally, he persuaded MacCuilough to lay off for two weeks in Natchez, Mississippi, where some scenes were photographed. The picture was far from complete when Mac- Cullough insisted upon resuming the tour. Only a little more than a reel of film had been obtained when production on the ambitious project was abruptly halted. Reportedly, $25,000 was lost on the project. Haddock offered to take over The Clansman, but he could not find financial backing to complete it. Finally, he went to court to secure $1,155 due him in unpaid wages. Haddock later insisted The Clansman was made in an early sound process? (In 1907, he had directed several films for the Cameraphone Company, in which the actors mouthed words to records; the device was not successful and was demonstrated in only a few theaters.) There are conflicting accounts for the reasons for the abandonment of The Clansman. One story is that the color photography by inexperienced technicians was so poor that a usable print could not be obtained. However, the cameraman, Gerald MacKenzie, was known as a competent craftsman and had photographed several pictures in the Kinemacolor process. Another report says that Haddock’s direction was inept, and the acting by the stock company performers so exaggerated and amateurish as to be ludicrous. Yet another account blamed the script, which underwent several re-visions, including a complete rewrite while the picture was actually before the cameras. The original idea of using Dixon’s play-script verbatim was dropped after Kinemacolor executives perceived that it was too static for motion pictures. Another account of the ill-fated The Clansman says that all scenes were completed, which is unlikely, but that the film was never edited because of its mediocre quality. To compound the confusion, it has also been reported that the film was made without Dixon’s knowledge, and alleges that he stopped its release by threatening a lawsuit for violation of copyright. (A contrasting story has it that Dixon was actually a partner with Brennan in the project.) Perhaps the most believable explanation is that the backers, already stuck with $25,000 worth of unusable film, simply decided to suspend shooting and take their losses. One of the several writers on The Clansman was Frank E. Woods, who was paid $200 for his efforts. Originally a pioneer film critic for The Dramatic Mirror, he wrote titles and many scripts for D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Woods left the company in 1912, but soon rejoined Griffith’s unit after brief and frustrating associations with Universal and Kinemacolor. He followed Griffith to Reliance-Majestic, nominally as scenario editor but functioning increasingly as a production executive. He was largely responsible for the inexpensive program pictures turned out while Griffith was busy with more important features. An imposing but kindly man, Woods was for a considerable time the most influential of Griffith’s associates. D. W. Griffith did not make an auspicious beginning at Reliance-Majestic. The company was beset by financial problems and squabbling among its executives. To raise ready cash, Griffith hurriedly directed two undistinguished pictures for release in 1914, The Battle of the Sexes (made in only four days) and The Escape, as well as producing eight cheap potboilers directed by others.
In February 1914, he moved his unit from New York to the new studio in Hollywood, where he immediately turned out Home, Sweet, Home—an episodic film based in part upon incidents in the life of composer John Howard Payne—and The Avenging Conscience. The latter, a psychological drama constructed from two stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee”) , had many arty touches foreshadowing the innovations of the German cinema of the twenties. With the financial tension easing, Griffith set Frank E. Woods to searching for a property that could be made into an important feature.
Woods showed him the script he had written for Kinemacolor’s The Clansman and proposed a new version of Dixon’s play. With its background of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the story had enormous appeal for Griffith. He was soon engrossed in the monumental film that became The Birth of a Nation. The first step was to buy the rights to the play and novel from Reverend Dixon, for which the clergyman demanded a whopping $25,000 (the figure is sometimes reported as $10,000). Eventually, Dixon settled for $2,500 cash and a share of the profits, which were to bring him a fortune. With some assistance from Woods, Griffith fleshed out a dramatic outline of the plot, but at no time was there a written script or continuity—it was all in Griffith’s head. He preferred to work this way, feeling it gave a greater flexibility and freshness to his work, and associates marveled at his mental ability to keep track of all the scenes. The extent of Woods’s contribution is not known, but it was sufficient for Griffith to give him screen credit. Much of Griffith’s time went into a detailed research to assure historical accuracy, and at one time he employed four persons to check on the minutest details of period dress, settings, and military and social customs. He often came to the studio with an armload of books and his pockets bulging with notes.
The cast of The Birth of a Nation was largely drawn from the Griffith stock company, performers whom he had discovered and developed at Biograph, and with whom he felt comfortable. There were auditions and try-outs for some parts. Blanche Sweet, his reigning star, was expected to be cast as the heroine, Elsie Stoneman, but Griffith felt a more petite and less full-bodied actress was needed. Mae Marsh was considered, but the role finally went to the fragile Lillian Gish, with Miss Marsh being wisely switched to the key role of the little sister. The thirty-six-year old Henry B. Walthall was an ideal choice for the Southern hero, Ben Cameron, combining striking good looks with an intelligent and usually restrained style of acting. Others cast by Griffith included Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Howard Gaye, Spottiswoode Aitken, and Raoul Walsh (as John Wilkes Booth). In an unusual departure from custom, Griffith put his players through six weeks of intensive rehearsals before shooting began. The Birth of a Nation went into production on July 4, 1914 and was completed on October 31. In the interim it weathered a series of acute financial crises that promised to (and at one bad point actually did) suspend filming altogether. Griffith persuaded Harry Aitken to allocate a record budget of $40,000 for the picture, but this sum was expended on the panoramic battle scenes alone, which were completed first. Most of it went for uniforms and hundreds of horses and extras. When Reliance-Majestic’s Board of Directors refused further financing, Griffith and Aitken personally took over the project. Their own funds were soon exhausted, and they raised money in small amounts here and there. Several of the cast and crew, including Lillian Gish and cameraman G. W. Bitzer, loaned their savings and went without salary. Griffith was unwilling to make any compromises to reduce the cost, and eventually $110,000 was spent on The Birth of a Nation, at the time a staggering investment for a single motion picture. (His four preceding films had cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.) In its final version after last-minute cuts following the premiere, the picture ran twelve reels, an unheard-of length, and many exhibitors and industry leaders predicted that it could not be profitably shown.
Whatever reservations Griffith’s competitors may have had about it, The Birth of a Nation was a sensation when it opened on February 8, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles (where it ran for seven months). The critics were ecstatic after its New York premiere at the Liberty Theatre a month later, and it was shown in key cities on a reserved-seat basis for $2 per admission. Griffith’s ambitious picture, executed with superb artistry, was an enormous hit with audiences everywhere. Its drama and spectacle were deeply moving, and unlike anything yet seen on the screen. Following a showing at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” (Later, after The Birth of a Nation came under attack for its racist bigotry, a Wilson aide denied that the President had made any comments of approbation.) The financial success of The Birth of a Nation made Griffith a millionaire, although he lost much of his fortune on the ill-fated Intolerance of the following year. Miss Gish, Bitzer (who had loaned $7,000) , and other investors also reaped astronomical returns. Aitken and Griffith were both naive in motion-picture economics and failed to realize what a valuable property they had. After its road-show engagements, they foolishly sold regional distribution rights to various independent exchanges for relative pittances.
One of the lucky purchasers was Louis B. Mayer, a Massachusetts exhibitor and distributor, who bought the New England franchise for $50,000 against ten percent of the net profits. This investment brought his company a return of a million dollars, enabling Mayer to branch into production and provide the stepping stone to the gigantic Loew’s Incorporated and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer combine. Aitken later alleged privately that Mayer cheated him of substantial sums by understating the box-office receipts. Griffith originally planned to center the plot of The Birth of a Nation on Reconstruction and its effects upon a proud Southern family devastated by the Civil War. As his enthusiasm grew, he added a long section of battle scenes and historical incidents, including Sherman’s march through Georgia, the burning of Atlanta, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The essential story concerns two families —the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North—whose friendship is ruptured by the Civil War. They are eventually reconciled after many hardships and personal tragedies.
Although Griffith was careful to show the war wreaked its havoc on both North and South alike—sons of both families die on the battlefields—the sympathies of the film are clearly with its Southern protagonists, who are portrayed as decent and God-fearing people in spite of being slave owners. Villainy is symbolized by the character of Austin Stoneman, the crippled leader of the United States House of Representatives, who keeps a black mistress and vows “to crush the White South under the heel of the Black South,” as a title puts it. (Stoneman is based upon Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War Congressional power known as “The Great Commoner.’’) The Griffith concept of Stoneman’s final punishment is when a mulatto carpetbagger, whom he had made Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina, asks for the hand of his daughter in marriage, and, failing to obtain it from the horrified father, attempts to rape her. In a parallel climax, the young sister of the Southern hero throws herself from a cliff rather than submit to a black renegade. These outrages are viciously avenged by the militant Ku Klux Klan, which is made to appear as a savior force. Inevitably, The Birth of a Nation was bitterly attacked as a racist picture, and its showing was accompanied by numerous demonstrations and incidents, and by editorial protests in newspapers and magazines. Griffith seemed surprised at the furor his film created, and insisted that he bore no ill-will toward blacks, and that he had only shown conditions in the South as they actually existed during and after the Civil War. In all probability, he did not set out to make a bigoted picture—his friends consistently denied that he had race prejudice—but nonetheless it remains viciously racist in tone with blacks shown as objects of contempt and depravity. Those who were favorably portrayed— the family servants who came to the rescue of their former master—were caricatures from the Uncle Tom school, and were injected largely for comic relief.
The controversy over The Birth of Nation raged for years, and the bitterness that it caused has never been erased. Even today, it is seldom shown publicly, and then mostly to film scholars. Except for the glossy battle sequences done with great emphasis upon heroism and glory, The Birth of a Nation provides only a sketchy glimpse of the Civil War itself. The Birth of a Nation is filled with a succession of moving scenes, all marked in one way or an-other with Griffith’s perceptive talent. The impressive battle sequences and the stirring ride of the Klans cannot be discounted, but the meat of the drama lies in the more intimate passages. These include Lillian Gish’s brave good-bye to her brothers as they leave for war (only to collapse in tears in the lap of her black mammy), Mother Cameron’s appeal to Abraham Lincoln for her son’s life, the parting of Miss Gish and Walthall at the hospital door (with its mooning sentry) , the electrically charged confrontations in Stoneman’s quarters, and the heartbreaking death of the little sister.
Most of all, there is the famous return of Walthall to his war-scarred home, in which he is received by a grown-up little sister in a worn dress adorned with raw cotton; the final scene of this episode, with the mother’s arms reaching out from the doorway, is of classic proportion. Of the action sequences, the guerrilla raid on Piedmont has a documentary quality that gives it a pulsating life and naturalness unmarred by theatrical heroics. Only occasionally does Griffith fail, as in the archaic epilogue in which a shot of the symbolical god of war dissolves into a vision of Jesus Christ (played by Wallace Reid). It is a scene that dramatically does not age well. The restrained acting in The Birth of a Nation set new standards of perfection, and few films have been so perfectly cast.
Henry B. Walthall gave admirable substance to his portrait of Ben Cameron, “the Little Colonel,” delineating the traditional qualities of Southern manhood that were somehow lacking in Leslie Howard’s faltering interpretation of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Lillian Gish brought her sturdy fragility to Elsie Stoneman, but she is overshadowed by Mae Marsh as the little sister for whom war’s privations cannot diminish the exuberance of youth.
Ralph Lewis, an actor little appreciated, was powerful as the emotionally and physically crippled Stoneman. George Siegmann was on the whole just right as the fawning Silas Lynch, the mulatto carpetbagger, although his performance is blighted by overacting in the final rape scene. Joseph E. Henabery as Abraham Lincoln, Howard Gaye as Robert E. Lee, Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant, Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth—all are as pages from a book of Civil War daguerreotypes by Brady. Perhaps the most ideally cast are Spottiswoode Aitken as the gentle Dr. Cameron and Josephine Crowell as his wife. Her performance as the bewildered mother is a masterpiece of quiet heartbreak as she weathers the long series of tragedies that strike her family. It is difficult to believe that she is the same actress who is so incredibly bad as Catherine de Medici in Griffith’s Intolerance of the following year. It is an obvious piece of serious miscasting for which Griffith must be blamed. Later in her career, Mrs. Crowell became typed as the curmudgeon battle-axe of numerous slapstick comedies of the twenties—her role as Harold Lloyd’s bossy mother-in-law in Hot Water (1924) is typical—and her superb work in The Birth of a Nation was by then all but forgotten. In later years, fan magazines would refer to The Birth of a Nation, not without considerable truth, as a jinx picture for its talented cast. Many of the players subsequently had disappointing and un-productive careers, while ill health and poor judgment led others into personal tragedy, obscurity, and death.
Henry B. Walthall’s sensitive performance should have been the springboard of a long and distinguished professional life, but inexplicably it was rather a high-water mark of success from which he steadily declined. Only momentarily did Walthall, with his striking good looks, challenge such contemporary screen matinee idols as Francis X. Bushman and Harold Lockwood. He left Griffith soon after the release of The Birth of a Nation; characteristically, the great director did nothing to encourage him to remain. Walthall made the mistake of signing with the Essanay Company, a penurious and unimaginative studio lacking creative ; a leadership, which wasted his talent on a series Of cheap mediocre melodramas in 1917. A stint with ill-fated Paralta Plays, Inc. the following year (His Robe of Honor, Humdrum Brown) was even more un-productive. Walthall had his own unit, but Paralta’s unorthodox method of merchandising films netted only a fraction of the profits he was led to expect. By the 1920s, he was reduced to playing supporting and character roles, and work was less plentiful. He aged badly due to personal problems, and while still in his forties acquired a drawn and elderly appearance. Walthall was blessed with a good speaking voice, and talking pictures brought a greater demand for his services in bit parts. He died in 1936, a few months after participating in the emotionally charged ceremonies at which D. W. Griffith received a citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his contributions to the screen.
Mae Marsh, the delightful but tragic little sister of The Birth of a Nation was cursed with much the same fate. The following year she gave a stunning performance in the modern sequences of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) as the bewildered young mother beset by a series of incredible adversities. Griffith then teamed her with Robert Harron, her co-star in Intolerance, in several light program pictures designed to capitalize upon the popularity of the two players. When an offer came from Samuel Goldwyn, Griffith urged Miss Marsh to accept it, saying that the lucrative contract would bring her riches that he could never pay. Her Goldwyn films of 1917-19 (Polly of the Circus, Hidden Fires) were disappointing, although her vivacious work in The Cinderella Man was widely praised. The actress proved difficult to work with, and she quarreled with Goldwyn and her directors, and made unreasonable demands. Her professional reputation suffered, and for a time few roles came her way. Miss Marsh returned to Griffith in 1923 for The White Rose, filmed in the bayou country of Louisiana. Although she gave a fine performance, it did nothing for her faltering career. After a few pictures made abroad, she quietly left the screen to raise a family. She endured a trying marriage and saw her fortune swallowed up by poor investments and the 1929 stock market crash. A few years later, Miss Marsh filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $5,250 and a 1931 model automobile worth $25 as her only asset. In 1932, Mae Marsh returned to films as the mother in Fox’s tired remake of the classic tear-jerker, Over the Hill. Only thirty-seven at the time (playing the mother of twenty-seven-year-old James Dunn), she looked twenty years older and was unrecognizable as the pert Flora Cameron of The Birth of a Nation. She needed little makeup for the part, and fans were shocked by her haggard and dowdy appearance. Over the Hill was too old-fashioned and downbeat for depression audiences, and her work went unnoticed. It was her last major role. In later years she supported herself with bits in numerous films (including many directed by old friend John Ford) before her death in 1968 at the age of seventy-three.
Robert Harron started with Griffith as an eleven-year-old property boy at Biograph. He had a small part as the youngest Stoneman son in The Birth of a Nation. His work in Intolerance made him a star, and his performance as the war-weary artist-hero of Griffith’s propaganda film, Hearts of the World (1918), was the best of his career. Harron reportedly began to brood when Griffith gave young Richard Barthelmess choice roles in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He felt that he had lost favor with his mentor, whom he idolized, although Griffith had agreed to supervise films for Harron’s own company. In New York on September 1, 1920, Harron was dressing for dinner when a revolver (which he had bought from a hungry actor) fell from his pocket and discharged. The bullet pierced Harron’s lung, and he died five days later. There were peristent reports that he attempted suicide, although he denied it to a priest before his death. Harron’s friends are convinced that it was an accident.
Handsome Wallace Reid had been in films since 1910, and was the star of many program pictures produced by Griffith’s unit for Reliance-Majestic in 1914-15 (The City Beautiful; Her Awakening; The Craven). He was seen briefly in The Birth of a Nation as a muscular young blacksmith killed in a brutal fight in the gin mill of ‘““White-Arm Joe.” Soon afterward, Reid moved to Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) , where he won acclaim as leading man to opera star Geraldine Farrar in several spectacular films directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1915-17 (Carmen; Maria Rosa; Joan the Woman; The Devil Stone; The Woman God For-got). By the 1920s, his popularity was enormous, stemming from his familiar role as a brash young American of the Jazz Age who uses Yankee pluck to reach his goals and win the girl of his heart (usually Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, or Wanda Hawley). Following an injury on the set of The Valley of the Giants (1919), Reid was left with blinding headaches and pain from a damaged spine. At his doctor’s instructions, he began to take morphine in order to continue acting, and was soon addicted. Reid’s condition was further complicated by heavy drinking. In an effort to overcome the drug addiction, he entered a sanitarium, and on January 18, 1923, died of complications of influenza and renal disease. His death led to reams of sensational publicity in news-papers and magazines, and Reid’s addiction did much to damage Hollywood’s reputation (already tarnished by the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal and the unexplained murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which involved two top stars, Mary Miles Normand) .
Elmer Clifton, who portrayed Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation, turned to directing soon afterward and in 1918-19 was responsible for a series of delightful comedies starring Dorothy Gish (Boots; Peppy Polly; ’ll Get Him Yet) and produced by the Griffith company. In 1922, he did Down to the Sea in Ships, a highly praised drama of New Bedford whalers that had a documentary quality. (It is more remembered as the film in which sexpot Clara Bow had her first important role.) Two years later, Clifton directed a creditable remake of the old Civil War spy melodrama, The Warrens of Virginia (1924), which was his last important assignment. Jobs became scarce, and, after the advent of talking pictures, Clifton was reduced to directing Westerns, serials, and sexploitation pictures made on miniscule budgets. He never realized the promise shown earlier, and seemed to have profited little by his association with D. W. Griffith.
Others in the cast of The Birth of a Nation had disappointing careers. Elmo Lincoln, who was “White-Arm Joe” (as well as playing several un-credited bits) , was a sensation as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero in the first version of Tarzan of the. Apes (1918). Despite his beefy appearance and a ridiculous fright-wig, Lincoln had great appeal as Tarzan, but unfortunately the public did not like him in other roles. After Romance of Tarzan (1918) and a fifteen-episode serial, Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and several serials at Universal in 1919-20 (Elmo the Mighty, Elmo the Fearless, The Flaming Disc), Lincoln got only occasional work as a bit player or stuntman, and eventually as an extra. He died in 1952, virtually penniless. George Seigmann, a gentle man who played such brutal roles as Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation, the sadistic Hun officer von Strohm in Hearts of the World, and Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), had only moderate success as an actor until his early death in 1928. He aspired to be a director, but his few attempts at directing (mostly program pictures for Griffith’s unit) went unnoticed. Ralph Lewis, Walter Long, Mary Alden, and Sam de Grasse were others appearing in Griffith’s masterpiece who played character roles in Hollywood for years without achieving more than casual recognition. Erich von Stroheim can scarcely be said to have been in the cast of The Birth of a Nation—in the raid on Piedmont he is the man who falls from the roof of a house—but did serve Griffith as a third assistant director. Stroheim went on to become one of the immortals of the screen with his silent classics of directorial genius—Foolish Wives (1922) ; Greed (1924) ; The Wedding March (1928) —only to have his career vanish after a series of bitter controversies with studio moguls. In later years, he made a precarious living as an actor, writing scripts that seldom sold, and planning a comeback that never materialized. There were a few significant exceptions to the jinx of The Birth of a Nation.
Lillian Gish was to have a long and notable career on both screen and stage. She was washed up in Hollywood by the time talking pictures arrived—many felt that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had deliberately mishandled her in a series of dreary films—but for many years she was one of Broadway’s brightest stars. She periodically returned to Hollywood to play character roles in such films as Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Unforgiven (1960), never failing to give an intelligent and often memorable performance. Miriam Cooper, the older Cameron sister, was a successful albeit lesser star for ten years, mostly in pictures directed by her husband, Raoul Walsh (The Honor System, 1916; Evangeline, 1919) . Her career abruptly declined, and she faded into obscurity after her divorce. Raoul Walsh, the superb John Wilkes Booth of The Birth of a Nation, became one of the screen’s best-known directors and was responsible for a long series of commercially successful films (What Price Glory?, 1926; In Old Arizona, 1929; The Roaring Twenties, 1939). Always done with a sense of craftmanship, they were frequently tough, punchy dramas best suited to the talents of such stars as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.
Donald Crisp, who was General Grant in The Birth of a Nation, had a lasting career as both actor and director, and was widely known for his many roles in both silent and talking pictures. (In later years Crisp would assert that he, and not Griffith, had actually directed the stunning battle scenes of The Birth of a Nation, an unfortunate allegation that was widely reprinted in Crisp’s obituaries in 1974. At most, he served as one of Griffith’s several assistants on the battle sequences.) He won an Academy Award for his role in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) , although film buffs remember him for his portrayal of the sadistic Battling Burrows of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). Crisp became a wealthy man through his association with the Bank of America as an advisor on motion-picture industry loans. He lived to the age of ninety-three.
Joseph E, Henabery, who was a realistic Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, had some early success as director of several of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s pictures, including The Man From Painted Post (1917) and Say Young Fellow (1918). Later, he worked at Paramount and for Cecil B. DeMille’s unit at Pathé. After talkies came in, Henabery directed some early sound shorts in New York for Warner Brothers, but soon found his career at an end. Bessie Love, glimpsed briefly in The Birth of a Nation, went on to stardom in many silent hits and in the pioneer screen musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). After she was no longer suitable for ingenue roles, she worked as a character actress, mostly in British studios, up into her seventies. The real significance of The Birth of a Nation Was not in its recreation of the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but in its contribution to the art of the motion picture, Griffith’s creative technique made The Birth of a Nation an uncommon work of art in itself, blending the elements of cinema into a masterpiece of film construction. His superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations in irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director. The influence of The Birth of a Nation was tremendous, and its impact was reflected in the best work of imaginative filmmakers around the world (particularly Eisenstein and the Russian school of the 1920s) . Griffith also gave new dimensions to the spectacle film, and with Europe poised on the brink of war, The Birth of a Nation forecast the frightening potentials of the motion picture as a weapon of propaganda. The film revolutionized distribution and exhibition with fresh concepts of merchandising that brought enormous financial returns to the motion-picture industry. With The Birth of a Nation, cinema became of age.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 1985
Illustrated with photographs from the Film Stills Archives of The Museum of Modern Art, Bedside Hollywood adds up to an in-depth portrait of life in the movies. As new screen memoirs appear—nearly a dozen every year—perhaps the time has come for the film industry to establish a new category at the Academy Awards Ceremony: the Oscar for Best Autobiography. Until Oscar catches up, settle down with the cast of Bedside Hollywood and mingle with what would have been the previous winners.
Lillian Gish: The Birth of “The Birth of a Nation”
One afternoon during the spring of 1914, while we were still working in California, Mr. Griffith took me aside on the set and said in an undertone, “After the others leave tonight, would you please stay.”
Later, as some of the company drifted out, I realized that a simillar message had been given to a few others. This procedure was typical of Mr. Griffith when he was planning a new film. He observed us with a smile, amused perhaps by our curiosity over the mystery that he had created.
I suspected what the meeting was about. A few days before, we had been having lunch at The White Kitchen, and I had noticed that his pockets were crammed with papers and pamphlets. My curiosity was aroused, but it would have been presumptuous of me to ask about them. With Mr. Griffith one did not ask; one only answered. Besides, I had learned that if I waited long enough he would tell me.
“I’ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I’m going to use it to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.” He paused, watching the cluster of actors: Henry Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, George Siegmann, Walter Long, and me.
“The story concerns two families—the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South.” He added significantly, “I know I can trust you.”
He swore us to secrecy, and to us his caution was understandable. Should his competitors learn of his new project, they would have films on the same subject completed before his work was released. He discussed his story plots freely only over lunch or dinner, often testing them out on me because I was close-mouthed and never repeated what anyone told me.
I heard later that “Daddy” Woods [Griffith’s scenario department head] had called Mr. Griffith’s attention to The Clansman. It had done well as a book and even better as a play, touring the country for five years. Mr. Griffith also drew on The Leopard’s Spots for additional material for the new movie. Thomas Dixon, the author of both works, was a southerner who had been a college classmate of Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Griffith paid a $2,500 option for The Clansman, and it was agreed that Dixon was to receive $10,000 in all for the story, but when it came time to pay him no more money was available. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to accept instead of cash a 25 per cent interest in the picture, which resulted in the largest sum any author ever received for a motion-picture story. Dixon earned several million dollars as his share.
Mr. Griffith didn’t need the Dixon book. His intention was to tell his version of the War between the States. But he evidently lacked the confidence to start production on a twelve-reel film without an established book as a basis for his story. After the film was completed and he had shown it to the so-called author, Dixon said: “This isn’t my book at all.” But Mr. Griffith was glad to use Dixon’s name on the film as author, for, as he told me, “The public hates you if it thinks you wrote, directed, and produced the entire film yourself. It’s the quickest way to make enemies.”
After the first rehearsal, the pace increased. Mr. Griffith worked, as usual, without a script. But this time his pockets bulged with books, maps, and pamphlets, which he read during meals and the rare breaks in his hectic schedule. I rehearsed whatever part Mr. Griffith wanted to see at the moment. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed that the major assignments would go to the older members of the group. For a while, it looked as if I would be no more than an extra. But during one rehearsal Blanche Sweet, who we suspected would play the romantic part of Elsie Stoneman, was missing. Mr. Griffith pointed to me.
“Come on, Miss Damnyankee, let’s see what you can do with Elsie.”
My thin figure was quite a contrast to Blanche’s ripe, full form. Mr. Griffith had us rehearse the near-rape scene between Elsie and Silas Lynch, the power-drunk mulatto in the film. George Siegmann was playing Lynch in blackface. In this scene Lynch proposes to Elsie and, when she rebuffs him, forces his attentions on her. During the hysterical chase around the room, the hairpins flew out of my hair, which tumbled below my waist as Lynch held my fainting body in his arms. I was very blonde and fragile-looking. The contrast with the dark man evidently pleased Mr. Griffith, for he said in front of everyone, “Maybe she would be more effective than the more mature figure I had in mind.”
He didn’t tell us then, but I think the role was mine from that moment. . . .
During his six years with Biograph, Mr. Griffith had taken strides toward his ultimate goal: filming his version of the Civil War. He had made a number of early pictures that touched on the War between the States. But it was soon obvious to everyone that this film was to be his most important statement yet. Billy Bitzer [Griffith’s master cameraman] wrote of that time: ‘The Birth of a Nation changed D. W Griffith’s personality entirely. Where heretofore he was wont to refer in starting on a new picture to ‘grinding out another sausage’ and go at it lightly, his attitude in beginning on this one was all eagerness. He acted like here we have something worthwhile.”
Although fact and legend were familiar to him, he did meticulous research for The Birth. The first half of The Birth, about the war itself, reflects his own point of view. I know that he also relied greatly on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Mathew Brady’s Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans—Eyewitnesses on Location; the Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History; and The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict 1861—1865. For the second half, about Reconstruction, he consulted Thomas Dixon, and A History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson had taught history before going into politics, and Mr. Griffith had great respect for his erudition. For Klan material, he drew on a book called Ku Klux Klan—Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by John C. Lester and D. L. Wilson. But he did not use the uniform that is worn by Klan members today. Instead he used the costumes that, according to Thomas Dixon, were worn by the earlier Klans—white and scarlet flowing robes with hood and mask to hide the features of rider and horse.
Bradys photographs were constantly consulted, and Mr. Griffith restaged many moments of history with complete fidelity to them. The photographs were used as guides for such scenes as Lees surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Shermans march to the sea. He telegraphed a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, for photographs of the interior of the state capitol, which held a majority of Negro representatives after the war, and constructed the legislative chamber according to the photographs.
The largest interior was Fords Theater, the setting of the assassination scene, which was done in one day on the lot. So great was Mr. Griffiths obsession with authenticity that he unearthed a copy of Our American Cousin, which had been performed at Fords Theater on the night of the assassination, and restaged parts of it. In the actual filming, as Raoul Walsh, gun ready, steals into the Presidential box, the lines being spoken on the replica of the stage are precisely those spoken at the fateful moment on the night of April 14, 1865. This fidelity to facts was an innovation in films.
Mr. Griffith knew the terrain of the battle fields, and he hired several Civil War veterans to scout locations similar to the original ones. After exploring the southern California country, they chose what later became the Universal lot for the countryside around Petersburg, Virginia, site of the last prolonged siege and final battle of the war.
He had studied maps of the major battles of the Civil War and, with the help of the veterans, laid out the battle fields. Trenches, breastworks, roads, brooks, and buildings were constructed to duplicate those of the actual battle fields. Troop movements were planned with the advice of the veterans and two men from Vest Point Military Academy. Civil War artillery was obtained from West Point and the Smithsonian Institution, for use when the camera was close.
Mr. Griffith also sent to the Smithsonian for historical records and then went over the documents with his advisers. But in the end he came to his own conclusions about historical facts. He would never take the opinion of only one man as final.
The street in Piedmont on which the Cameron house was located was complete with brick walls and hitching and lamp posts. A small set, it achieved scope from violated perspective—an old stage technique in which each successive house and street lamp is a little shorter, so that the setting seems to “recede” without actually taking up much space or requiring the use of expensive lumber.
We had no stage designer, only the modest genius of a carpenter, Frank Wortman, known as “Huck.” Huck, a short, rather heavyset man in his forties, with friendly blue eyes and a weakness for chewing tobacco, didn’t talk much, but listened intently to Mr. Griffith. Even before rehearsals started Mr. Griffith explained to him what he wanted in the way of sets. He would show Huck a photograph that he wanted copied, or point out changes to be made in the reproduction. They would decide how the sun would hit a particular building three, four, even five weeks from then.
Men during the Civil War era were rather small in stature (it was before the age of proper nutrition), so genuine uniforms could not be used by the later generation. Uniforms for The Birth were therefore made by a small struggling company, which has since become the famous Western Costume Company.
The Brady photographs also served as models for the soldiers’ hair styles.
To absorb the spirit of the film, we came down with a case of history nearly as intense as Mr. Griffith’s. At first, between making other films during the day and rehearsing The Birth at night, we had scant time for reading. But Mr. Griffith’s interest was contagious, and we began to read about the period. Soon it was the only subject we talked about. Mr. Griffith didn’t ask us to do this; it stemmed out of our own interest. We pored over photographs of the Civil War and Godeys Ladies’ Book, a periodical of the nineteenth century, for costumes, hair styles, and postures. We had to rehearse how to sit and how to move in the hoop skirts of the day.
My costumes were specially made. One of them had a tiny derby with a high plume. When I saw it, I rebelled.
But Mr. Griffith insisted that I wear it. He wanted the audience to be amused. “It’s a darb!” he said, smiling.
In filming the battles, Mr. Griffith organized the action like a general. He stood at the top of a forty-foot tower, the commander-in-chief of both armies, his powerful voice, like Roarin Jake’s, thundering commands through a megaphone to his staff of assistants. Meetings were called before each major filmed sequence and a chain of command was developed from Mr. Griffith through his directors and their assistants. The last-in-command might have only four or five extras under him. These men, wearing uniforms and taking their places among the extras, also played parts in the film.
Griffith s camera was high on the platform looking down on the battle field, so that he could obtain a grand sweep of the action. This camera took the long shots. Hidden under bushes or in back of trees were cameras for closeups.
When the din of cannons, galloping horses, and charging men grew too great, no human voice, not even Mr. Griffiths, was powerful enough to be heard. Some of the extras were stationed as far as two miles from the camera. So a series of magnifying mirrors was used to flash signals to those actors working a great distance away. Each group of men had its number—one flash of the mirror for the first group, two for the second group, and so on. As group one started action, the mirror would flash a go- ahead to group two.
Care was taken to place the authentic old guns and the best horsemen in the first ranks. Other weapons, as well as poorer horsemen, were relegated to the background. Extras were painstakingly drilled in their parts until they knew when to charge, when to push cannons forward, when to fall.
Some of the artillery was loaded with real shells, and elaborate warnings were broadcast about their range of fire. Mr. GriflBth’s sense of order and control made it possible for the cast and extras to survive the broiling heat, pounding hoofs, naked bayonets, and exploding shells without a single injury. He was too thoughtful to the welfare of others to permit accidents.
In most war films it is difficult to distinguish between the enemies unless the film is in color and the two sides are wearing different-colored uniforms. But not in a Griffith movie. Mr. Griffith had the rare technical skill to keep each side distinct and clear cut. In The Birth, the Confederate army always entered from the left of the camera, the Union army from the right.
One day he said to Billy, “I want to show a whole army moving.”
“What do you mean, a whole army?” Bitzer asked.
“Everyone we can muster.”
“I’ll have to move them back to get them all in view,” Billy said. “They won’t look much bigger than jackrabbits.”
“That’s all right. The audience will supply the details. Let’s move up on this hill, Billy. Then we can shoot the whole valley and all the troops at once.”
They never talked much, but they always seemed to understand each other. People around Mr. Griffith didn’t bother him with idle talk.
When daylight disappeared, Mr. Griffith would order bonfires lit and film some amazing night scenes. Billy was pessimistic about the results; he kept insisting that they would be unsuccessful. But Mr. Griffith persisted. One big battle scene was filmed at night. The sub-title was to read, “It went on into the night.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Those of us who had time were there—the women to watch, the men to help.
Although everything was carefully organized, whenever he saw a spontaneous gesture that looked good—like the soldier’s leaning on his gun and looking at me during the hospital scene—he would call Billy over to film it.
In that scene, the wards were filled with wounded soldiers, and in the background nurses and orderlies attended their patients. In the doorway of the ward stood a Union sentry. As Elsie Stoneman, I was helping to entertain the wounded, singing and playing the banjo. The sentry watehed me lovingly as I sang and then, after I had finished and was passing him, raised his hang-dog head and heaved a deep, love sick sigh. The scene lasted only a minute, but it drew the biggest laugh of the film and became one of its best-remembered moments.
The scene came about in typical Griffith fashion. We players had no one to help us with our costumes. We had to carry our various changes to the set, as we could not afford the time to run back to our dressing rooms. Those period dresses, with their full skirts over hoops, were heavy. A kind young man who liked me helped me with my props and costumes. The young man, William Freeman, was playing the sentry, and he simply stood there, listening, as I sang. Seeing his expression, Mr. Griffith said to Bitzer, “Billy, get that picture on film right away.” He knew that it would bring a laugh, which was needed to break the dramatic tension.
Since the release of The Birth of a Nation, I have often been asked by fans what happened to the sentry in the hospital. After The Birth was finished, I didn’t see William Freeman again until the first World’s Fair in New York. It was the day of the Fair’s closing. I happened to be riding on a float for charity, and there, walking toward the float, was William Freeman. I recognized him immediately.
“My son is here,” he said after we had greeted each other. “I would like you to meet him.”
He disappeared into the crowd and returned shortly with a bright four-year-old, whom he proudly introduced to me. Then we said goodbye, and I haven’t seen him since. . . .
In going through Mr. Griffith’s papers recently, I came across some “facts” about The Birth of a Nation that read like most press releases of that day. Robert Edgar Long, in his soft-cover book David Wark Griffith: A Brief Sketch of His Career, published in 1920, suggests that professors of history from at least a half-dozen universities were called upon for facts and figures, so that no errors would mar the film’s authenticity. He says that Mr. Griffith had plans to shoot some 5,000 scenes; to use 18,000 men as soldiers; to make 18,000 Union and Confederate uniforms for these men; to hire 3,000 horses; to build entire cities and destroy them by fire; to buy real shells that cost $10 apiece in order to re-enact the greatest battle of the Civil War; and to select fragments from about 500 separate musical compositions to synchronize perfectly with various scenes. Many scenes, he says, were photographed from fifteen to twenty times before Mr. Griffith was pleased with the results. He adds that the scene of Lincoln’s assassination was rehearsed at least twenty times before it was actually filmed.
I know that in later years Mr. Griffith himself was prone to exaggerations that were a press agent’s dream. Perhaps he too believed that these gross overstatements and inaccuracies would enhance the film’s prestige.
It seems to me, however, that the truth is a much finer tribute to Mr. Griffith’s skill. In the battle scenes there were never more than 300 to 500 extras. By starting with a close-up and then moving the camera back from the scene, which gave the illusion of depth and distance, and by having the same soldiers run around quickly to make a second entrance, Mr. Griffith created the impression of big armies. In the battles, clouds of smoke rising from the thickets gave the illusion of many soldiers camouflaged by the woods, although in actuality there were only a few.
The scene of Sherman s march to the sea opened with an iris shot—a small area in the upper left-hand corner of a black screen—of a mother holding her weeping children amid the ruins of a burned-out house. Slowly the iris opened wider to reveal a great panorama troops, wagons, fires, apd beyond, in the distance, Atlanta burning. Atlanta was actually a model, superimposed on the film.
The entire industry, always intensely curious about Mr. Griffith, was speculating about this new film. What was that crazy man Griffith up to? He was using the full repertoire of his earlier experiments and adding new ones. He tinted film to achieve dramatic results and to create mood. In the battle scene at Petersburg, the shots of Union and Confederate troops rushing in to replace the dead and wounded are tinted red, and the subtitle reads “In the red lane of death others take their places.” And, at the climax of the film, there were the thrilling rides of the Klan. These riders were beautifully handled—first, the signal riders galloping to give warning; then, one by one and two by two, the galloping hordes merging into a white hooded mass, their peaked helmets and fiery crosses making them resemble knights of a crusade.
Before the filming of this scene Mr. Griffith decided to try a new kind of shot. He had a hole dug in the road directly in the path of the horsemen. There he placed Billy and the camera, and obtained shots of the horses approaching and galloping right over the camera, so that the audience could see the pounding hoofs. This shot has since become standard, but then it was the first time it had been done, and the effect was spectacular. Billy came through safely, and so did his precious camera, as Mr. Griffith must have known it would. He would never have taken a chance with a camera; it was far too costly.
Among the obstacles that cropped up during the filming was a lack of muslin needed for Klan uniforms. There was also a shortage of horses for battle scenes. Both were war scarcities. When the war in Europe broke out, the Allies were rounding up horses and shipping them to France. Mr. Griffith found himself in competition with French, English, Russian, and Italian agents, all in search of horses. Acting as his own agent, he was obliged to rent horses at higher prices from a dealer in the West.
We had outstanding riders like the Bums Brothers, who led the Klan riders and supervised any scene involving horses. Henry Walthall was a superb horseman, as were some of the other actors. The cowboy and circus riders beneath the Ku Klux sheets did a superb job. In the mob scenes they reared their horses until clouds mushroomed, but not one of them was hurt.
What I liked most about working on The Birth was the horses. I could always borrow a horse from the set, and during my lunch hour I would canter off alone to the hills.
I saw everything that Mr. Griffith put on film. My role in The Birth required about three weeks’ work, but I was on call during the whole time that it was being filmed. I was in the studio every day—working on other films, being available for the next scene if needed, making myself useful in any way that was required.
My dressing room was just across the hall from the darkroom, where Jimmy Smith and Joe Aller worked. Whenever I had a few minutes I would join them, watching them develop the film and cut it. I would view the day’s rushes and tell Jimmy my reactions to them. I saw the effects that Mr. Griffith obtained with his views of marching men, the ride of the Klan, the horrors of war. Watching these snatches of film was like trying to read a book whose pages had been shuffled. There was neither order nor continuity. Here was a touching bit from a scene with Mae; there was a long shot of a battle. It made me realize the job that Mr. Griffith had ahead of him after the filming was done.
The shooting was completed in nine weeks, but Mr. Griffith spent more than three months on cutting, editing and working on the musical score. I still remember how hard he worked on other films during the day and then at night on The Birth. Of all his pictures up to that time, none was more beset with difficulties. Without his spirit and faith, it might never have been completed.
The first reviews of “The Birth of a Nation” or “The Clansman” as it was then known ever published following its first screening to the public in Riverside, California on January 1, 1915.
Riverside Enterprise Sunday January 2 1915
“The Clansman” Receives Enthusiastic Approval
Crowded Houses Audibly Express Approbation of Spectacular and Gripping Photoplay Depicting Strong Story
The biggest thing in the way of a thrill producer that has ever been seen in Riverside, or probably anywhere, is now showing in the Loring Theater – D.W. Griffith’s “The Clansman,” a picturized version of the book and play of the same name by Thomas Dixon Jr. It would be difficult to imagine more exquisite photography than has been achieved in this production. Of marvelous beauty are the settings against which the swift action of the story is thrown. Whatever may be the attitude of the audience toward the pro-southern ideas of the play, there is no denying that it grips the attention from the start and that it works up into a tremendous climax.
Below are presented the articles in their entirety, including the original newspaper pages of that time.
This booklet is the work of many people who have been associated with the National Film Theatre during the past eight years. Apart from the contributions which are credited in the text, there are critical assessments by Lotte Eisner (Cinematheque Francaise), Penelope Houston (editor of “Sight and Sound”), Gavin Lambert (lately editor of “Sight and Sound”), Ernest Lindgren (Curator of the National Film Archive), Rachael Low (film historian and author), Liam O’Laoghaire (Film Acquisitions Officer of the National Film Archive), and Karel Reisz (film director). We take this opportunity of thanking them for their work which has helped so much to bring this present series of National Film Archive programmes into existence. In addition, these programmes could also not exist without the active co-operation of the entire film industry. Particular assistance has been given for the present series by:
Associated British Picture Corporation Ltd.
Avon Distributors Ltd.
British Broadcasting Corporation.
Contemporary Films Limited.
Mrs. Frances Flaherty.
Paramount Film Service Ltd.
Rank Film Distributors Limited.
Robin International (London) Limited.
Twentieth-Century Fox Film Co. Limited.
United Artists Corporation Limited.
Warner Bros. Pictures Limited.
(PROGRAMME CONTROLLER NATIONAL FILM THEATRE)
BIRTH OF A NATION
U.S.A., 1915 12 reels
Production company I Epoch Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith)
Direction D. W. Griffith
Script: D. W. Griffith and Frank Woods, from the
novel “The Clansman” by the Rev. Thomas
PHOTOGRAPHY G. W. Bitzer
Elsie Stoneman – Lillian Gish
Flora Cameron – Mae Marsh
Col. Ben Cameron – Henry B. Walthall
Margaret Cameron – Mirian Cooper
Lydia, Stoneman’s Housekeeper – Mary Alden
Hon. Austin Stoneman – Ralph Lewis
Silas Lynch – George Seigmann
Gus – Walter Long
Tod Stoneman – Robert Harron
Jeff, the blacksmith – Wallace Reid
Abraham Lincoln – Joseph Henaberry
Phil Stoneman – Elmer Clifton
Mrs. Cameron – Josephine Crowell
Dr. Cameron – Spottiswoode Aiken
Wade Cameron – J. A. Beringer
Duke Cameron – Maxfield Stanley
Mammy – Jennie Lee
General V. S. Grant – Donald Crisp
General Robert E. Lee – Howard Gaye
Born in Kentucky, U.S.A., in 1875, Griffith had to start earning his living at an early age. Soon tiring of clerks’ and salesmen’s jobs, he decided he wanted to be a writer and attached himself to the “Louisville Courier”. He had several short stories and poems published, and a drama staged in Washington. This last success, though a minor one, was sufficient to rouse his interest in the stage, and at 27, after some experience as a stage actor, he became employed by the Biograph Company where he played his first film part in Edwin S. Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. Finding he could make as much as five dollars a day acting in the movies, and even more by writing for them, he stayed with the Biograph Company although his ambition to write—particularly for the stage—remained.
In 1908, owing to the illness of one of the directors of the Company, he began his own directing career when he took over the making of The Adventures of Dolly. For the next four years, until he left Biograph and began producing films on the epic scale, he directed films at an average rate of one a week. It was during this period that he explored and developed the use of film editing, and transformed the film from a primitive method of pictorial storytelling into an expressive medium of immense possibilities which were subsequently to be explored by later directors. Griffith’s methods sprang from a comparatively simple idea, namely that of moving the camera nearer to the actors to obtain a more detailed view of their reactions. This had, of course, been done before; he did not, as is sometimes claimed, “invent” the close-up. Unlike his predecessors, however, he instinctively realised that the close-up was something more than an insert, an interruption to the smooth flow of the dramatic action ; it was the key to a new technique of film-making. The close shot gives us a single detail of a scene, the rest being excluded ; but the rest can be supplied by other close shots of other details. In other words, instead of showing a dramatic scene in a single full shot, which is the method of the theatre, it can be built up, both in the director’s imagination and in fact, by a succession of shots of detail (technically made possible, of course, by the fact that it is quite easy both to cut cinematograph film, and to join separate strips together).
This method not only brings the spectator nearer to the dramatic action, indeed into the midst of it, and thus makes it more vivid. It also gives the director a far greater control over his material. It enables him to select only the most significant details of a scene, to show them from a wide variety of viewpoints (a small change of camera viewpoint in a long shot is hardly noticeable; in a close shot it can produce an entirely different picture), and to vary the length of his cutting pieces in order to control the pace and tempo of the scene. It replaces the artificial theatrical view of life seen through a proscenium by a method which corresponds much more to our everyday visual experience. As Lewis Jacobs expressed it, in his “Rise of the American Film”, ‘Griffith suddenly understood (that) in movie making, guiding the camera, even more than directing the actor, is the trick.’
In his two major films, The Birth of a Nation (1914) and Intolerance (1916) D. W. Griffith utilised his new discoveries with a maturity and power which astonished the world at the time, and which have seldom been equalled since, despite the great technical progress made by the cinema in other ways. Parts of The Birth ofa Nation were savagely attacked on the grounds that they showed an anti-Negro bias. Griffith denied this, and considered the attacks unjust. Intolerance, therefore, became in some measure a personal protest against the way he had been treated; at the same time, of course, it is very much more. For the purposes of generalisation it may be said that the cinema received its final recognition as a new artistic force on the occasion of the premiere of Birth of a Nation at the Liberty Theatre, on 3rd March, 1915. True, it had a previous showing in Los Angeles under its original title of The Clansman, but the New York run brought the film into the limelight of world opinion and the result was nothing short of revolutionary.
The film enshrined all that Griffith had learned about the visual presentation of a story during his apprenticeship as director of some hundreds of shorter films and less ambitious subjects. With one grand leap into the saddle Griffith took command of the film industry as its leading creative artist and led it to a position which it has never lost in the affection of cinema audiences. Not merely did Griffith establish the claims of the cinema to be an art but he challenged the supremacy of the theatre and presented it with a serious rival. From now on the cinema was regarded as a powerful artistic and social manifestation of the age.
In taking the novel “The Clansman” Griffith was committed to the depiction of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Period in the Old South in terms of Southern bias and anti-negro prejudice which, in effect, comes through pretty strongly in the film. The glorification of the by then notorious Ku Klux Klan and the scurvy delineation of the coloured race in the film are blemishes which no plea of historical accuracy can minimise. The showing of the film has been in many cases the signal for outbreaks of anti-negro feeling. On the other hand, it appears that Griffith, carried away no doubt by his personal allegiances and the creative ambition of his work ignored the implications contained in it and may be quite genuinely sincere when he claims that he was recording history and had no intention of defaming a race he had the warmest regard for. This is old controversy now and, as if to atone for misunderstandings, his next work was a passionate plea for tolerance. A charitable view may imply indiscretion rather than malice.
The vast scale of the film called for production in a way never before visualised in movies. The finance was provided by private backers and the film was really made completely outside the scope of the existing industry. Griffith’s company, Epoch Producing Corporation, expended 110,000 dollars on the film. This, a trifling sum today, was considered at the time to be a monstrous outlay. After six weeks of rehearsal, shooting commenced on the 4th July, 1914, and the first shots covered were those of the Civil War. Locations were mainly situated in the hills and valleys of Southern California. Interiors were shot at the Fine Arts Studio in the outskirts of Hollywood, then little more than a village. The total filming period ran from July to October. The tremendous organisation of personnel and shooting schedules, and the planning of photography were carried through by the indomitable will of Griffith. And when the three and a half months’ editing was complete the problem of distribution had to be tackled since the Hollywood producers refused to handle the picture.
The presentation of the film in New York for a consecutive run of forty four weeks inaugurated what has come to be accepted as modern de-luxe film presentation. The film which contained 1,375 individual shots totalled twelve reels with a footage of about 12,500 feet. Griffith’s players had been familiar figures in his earlier films and many such as Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Joseph Henaberry and Erich von Stroheim (who appears in a tiny coloured role) were to become important film directors in their subsequent careers.
Gilbert Seldes in his appreciation of the film wrote: “To this picture Griffith gave the fundamental brainwork which a work of art, however inspired, must have; it has structure, proportion, coherence and integrity. It can be separated into a dozen different themes or stories, but it obstinately remains one film, into which all the parts are woven . . . The rhythms are delicately felt ; the whole picture has pace and sweep.”
The correct use of technical devices subordinated to artistic effect distinguishes the film in many ways. The carefully chosen viewpoints, the camera flexibility, the use of natural scenes, the realism especially of the battle scenes and the emotionally expressive editing treatment were to set headlines for future film directors in both America and Europe.
Lillian Gish in – Birth of a Nation – Photo Gallery
For his own independent project for 1914, Griffith chose a novel by Thomas Dixon, The Clansman. The book appealed to Griffith for several reasons. It was a vast story, covering the final years in the graceful life of the old South before the Civil War; the turbulent, violent years of war; and the painful, political years of Reconstruction, during which the Ku KIux Klan arose to defend the rights of the whites. Griffith also used material from the stage version of The Clansman and from another Dixon novel, The Leopard’s Spots, all of which were extremely racist. Griffith, a Southerner whose father served in the Confederate Army, was attracted by Dixon’s slant. Dixon, also a Southerner, saw the Reconstruction era as a period of chaos in which the “civilized” white South, presented as the gallant underdog, struggled but survived. It was this film, with dangerous social and political implications, that Griffith set out to make. Shooting began on the Fourth of July, 1914.
No one on the set knew exactly what Griffith’s film was all about. Griffith used no shooting script, creating all details of the vast cinema pageant out of his head as he went along. The players only knew that the project was vast: It took six weeks to rehearse and nine weeks to shoot, an incredible amount of time in an era when most films were cranked out in a week. It required thousands of men and animals and countless huge and detailed indoor sets. Its cost, $110,000, was the most ever invested in a motion picture. At the film’s official premiere in Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, audiences finally saw how huge Griffith’s plan and project were. The thirteen-reel film was still called The Clansman at that opening. When the author of the novel finally saw the film, however, Dixon told Griffith, in his enthusiasm, that the original title was too tame. Griffith should call his film The Birth of a Nation. His point was that the nation was truly born only when the whites of the North and South united “in defense of their Aryan birthright.”
The retitled version opened in New York on March 3, 1915, still thirteen reels long. But in response to social protests, Griffith deleted about nine minutes from the film (footage that has never been recovered), leaving it just over twelve reels long.
The Birth of a Nation is as much a document of American social history as of film history. Though President Wilson, a former historian at Princeton, described the film as “like history written with lightning,” its action openly praises the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson may well have offered the simile simply to help his old school chum, Dixon. The film, which contributed significantly to the resurgence of the modern Klan in this century, is a very difficult morsel for today’s liberal or social activist to swallow. It was just as difficult for the liberals of 1915. The NAACP; the president of Harvard, Jane Addams; and liberal politicians all damned the work for its bigoted, racist portrayal of the Negro. The film was suppressed in some cities for fear of race riots; politicians spoke for or against it according to their dependence on the black vote. At a revival of the film some ten years after its original opening, mobs poured into Chicago to see it as well as to attend a Ku Klux Klan convention. With all of the contro¬ versy over the film, it might be wise to look at Griffith’s handling of the black man and woman a bit more closely before moving on to the cinematic qualities of the film.
First, a close examination of the film reveals that two of the three villains—Lynch (the false reformer) and Sarah (Stoneman’s mistress)— are not pure Negroes but mulattoes. Both possess qualities that Griffith had already damned in whites—hypocrisy, selfishness, social reforming, and sexual license. That they were mulattoes indicates that Griffith’s main target was not the blacks but miscegenation—an objective of the third villain, a black soldier named Gus, when he forces his attentions on a southern white girl. (His marriage proposal—a rape in the novel—causes Flora, “the little pet sister,” to throw herself off a cliff to her death; in the novel, and perhaps in the censored footage, Gus is castrated by the KKK when they kill him.)
The miscegenation theme flows through the movie like a poisonous river—in the scenes of the lecherous black legislature, in signs at the black-dominated polling place, in Lynch’s attraction to Elsie (Lillian Gish) and Gus’s to Flora (Mae Marsh). The mixing of bloods is the source of evil. Griffith’s stance against miscegenation stems from an assumption about blacks and whites that is perhaps more central to the film’s offensiveness. For Griffith, whites are whites and blacks blacks; the white race is naturally superior; each race has “its own place.”
If Griffith’s view seems outrageous—well, it is. Not every masterpiece is “politically correct,” an surviving conclusion) was to send the blacks back to Africa.
There are good blacks and bad blacks in Griffith’s film. The good ones are the “faithful souls” who work in the fields, “know their place,” and stay with their white family after the war. Gone With the Wind, twenty-four years newer fashioned than The Birth of a Nation and still adored by the public, makes the same distinction between good and bad “darkies.” Perhaps Griffith’s most offensive scene is the one in which the empty state legislature suddenly (with the aid of a dissolve) springs to life, full of black lawmakers with bare feet on desks, swilling booze, and eating—what else?—fried chicken while they eye the white women in the gallery. But Griffith’s treatment of these blacks is not an isolated expression of racial prejudice; it is a part of his lifelong distrust of the “evils” of social change and disruption. And on a purely technical level, this legislature scene is a visual marvel!
The brilliance of The Birth ofa Nation is that it is both strikingly complex and tightly wholed part of dealing with The Birth of a Nation lies in examining, rather than explaining away, how offensive it is. Although Griffith recognized that slavery was the root of America’s racial problems, his solution (proposed in part of the censored footage, an ending originally meant to balance the all-white harmony. It is a film of brilliant parts carefully tied together by the driving line of the film’s narrative. Its hugeness of conception, its acting, its sets, its cinematic devices had not been equalled by any film before it and would not be surpassed by many that followed it. Yet surprisingly, for such an obviously big picture, it is also a highly personal and intimate one. Its small moments are as impressive as its big ones.
Though Griffith summarizes an entire historical era in the evolution of the nation in general and the South in particular, his summary adopts a human focus: two families, one from the North (the Stonemans), one from the South (the Camerons), who, despite the years of death and suffering, survive the Civil War and Reconstruction. The eventual marriage between the two white families becomes a symbol or emblem for Griffith’s view of the united nation. Love, courage, sincerity, and natural affection triumph over social movements and selfish reformers. The close observation of people and their most intimate feelings, the techniques of which Griffith had been developing for five years, propels the film, not its huge battle scenes, its huge dances and political meetings, or its detailed “historical facsimiles” of Ford’s Theater and the Appomattox courthouse. The big scenes serve as the violent social realities with which the gentle, loving people must contend.
Even in the mammoth battle sequences Griffith never deserts his human focus. His rhythmic and energetic editing constantly alternates between distant, extreme long shots of the battles and close concentration on the individual men who are fighting. Griffith takes the time for such touches as his cut from the living, fighting soldiers to a shot of the motionless dead ones who have found “war’s peace,” his cuts from the valiant human effort on the Union side to shots of a similar effort on the Confederate, including Ben Cameron’s heroic charge of the Union lines, ramming the Southern flag down the barrel of a Union cannon.
Griffith increases the power, the violence, the energy of these battle sequences with his sensitivity to cutting on contrary movement across the frame, to cutting in rhythm with the action, and to cutting to different distances and angles that mirror the points of view of the different participants. But in the midst of such violence, Griffith takes time for quiet, tender moments: the moment when the two boys, one Cameron and one Stoneman, die in each other’s arms; the moment in which a weeping mother on a hilltop views the destructiveness of the invading army in the valley.
This shot, one of the most celebrated in the film, shows Griffith’s control of the masking- or irising-effect, another of the innovations he developed in his apprentice years. The iris-shot masks a certain percentage of the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention completely on a circle or rectangle or some other shape of light within the blackened screen rectangle; The iris, analogous to the theatre spotlight or today’s zoom lens, either shrinks the audience’s focus from the whole field to a single point or expands our focus from the single point to the whole field.
In The Birth of a Nation’s famous iris shot, Griffith begins tightly on the weeping mother’s face and then irises out to reveal the awesome army below her, the cause of her sorrow. This use of the mask shot to reveal cause and effect is only one of many in the picture.
Griffith often uses animals as symbols or to define his characters and their emotional states. In the early sequence depicting the gentle, peaceful life of the old South (analogous to the opening sequence of Judith of Bethulia), Griffith shows Doctor Cameron gently stroking two puppies. Significantly, one of the puppies is black and the other white; it is also significant that a kitten soon begins to play with the pups and starts a fight. The dogs become visual metaphors for Griffith’s idealized prewar South, a happy mixture of different races and social classes, able to work out their own problems; the cat is the intrusive outsider who hurts the white pup. Later in the film Griffith crosscuts between the two lovers, Elsie and Ben, gently playing with a dove while the savage Lynch mistreats a dog. The attitudes of the characters toward animals ultimately reveal their attitudes toward people.
Another of Griffith’s artistic devices is his use of the main street in the town of Piedmont as a barometer of the film’s emotional and social tensions. At the film’s opening the street is full of people and carriages: active, sociable, friendly. As the Confederate soldiers first march off to war, the street becomes a carnival: fireworks, cheering townspeople, rhythmic columns of men on horses. When “the little Colonel” (Ben Cameron) returns home after the war, the street is desolate, ruined, dusty, dead. And finally, when the town is overrun with carpetbaggers and reconstructionists, drunken gangs of black men rove the street; the street has become a very unfriendly, ungentle place. By capturing human emotion in concrete visual images Griffith successfully renders human feeling rather than a parody of feeling, as in Queen Elizabeth.
The Birth of a Nation is part mammoth spectacle and part touching human drama. It is also part melodrama and part allegorical vision. Griffith never deserts the constructional principles of his early melodramatic one-reelers as the means to keep his story moving. The suspense and excitement of Griffith’s cross-cutting create the dramatic tension of many of the sequences: the attack of a band of black renegades (significantly their captain is white) on the defenseless town and the Cameron home (and women); the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre; the rapacious Gus chasing the littlest Cameron girl through the woods until she falls to her death.
The most thrilling sequence of all is, appropriately, the final one in which Griffith gives us not one but two last-minute rescues. Not only does Griffith cross-cut from the victims to the potential agents of their rescue, he cuts between two sets of victims and their common saviors—the Ku Klux Klan—furiously galloping forth to eradicate the forces of rapine and death. Not only is this rescue sequence Griffith’s most complex up to this point, it is also his most sensitive to the kinetic excitement of editing rhythms and the moving camera.
But after the dust from the galloping climax has settled, Griffith celebrates the peaceful union of Elsie Stoneman and Ben Cameron with a superimposed allegorical pageant in the heavens. Elsie and Ben see Christ replacing the military general (Alexander the Great?); Christ cuts the Gordian knot and all humanity rejoices as the City of God replaces the Kingdoms of the Earth. There are several remarkable things about this closing vision: its audacity, its irrelevance, and the passion and sincerity of Griffith’s commitment to it. But exactly how is this City of God to become a reality? Certainly not by the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan alone. It is the evil in the human soul that must be exorcised. And once again Griffith reveals his nearsightedness in probing what he considers evil.
The evil in the film is instigated by three people. They are evil (1) because they are evil, or (2) because they have mixed blood. They succeed in doing evil because they entice the naturally good, but easily tempted, Congressman Stoneman to the abolitionist cause. His temptation stems from his vanity despite his physical deformity (Griffith brilliantly uses a club foot, parallel to the classic deformity of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and an ill-fitting wig to define these traits), and from the “fatal weakness” of being sexually attracted to his mulatto housekeeper. According to the film’s action, the chaos of the Civil War was the direct result of the nation’s Stonemans who became entangled in an evil of which they were totally ignorant or that they unwisely thought they could control. Even granting Griffith this preposterous premise, how is one to be sure the future contains no Stonemans? And how can one abolish slavery without abolition? The Birth of a Nation’s final vision is an innocent and mystical wish rather than the intellectual consequence of what preceded it. The film remains solid as human drama and cinematic excitement, flimsy as abstract social theory.
Right after The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made The Mother and the Law (1915, released 1919), a tightly constructed melodrama starring Mae Marsh (the Dear One), Bobby Harron (the Boy), and Miriam Cooper (the Friendless One); it indicted reformers and big business while telling a powerful story of love, loss, and endurance. Aitken and Griffith, who had set up their own company (Epoch) to finance and distribute The Birth of a Nation, had by now left Mutual for the Triangle Film Corporation, whose big three were Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. But the controversy over The Birth led to Griffith’s pulling The Mother and the Law from Triangle’s release schedule; instead he and Aitken set up another separate company (Wark) to produce Intolerance (1916).
Griffith’s treatment of blacks provoked public condemnation, even riots. The criticism stung Griffith deeply, since he felt he had gone to some trouble to present good and bad blacks and whites, as he had watered down or cut out the novel’s most inflammatory, racist passages. (What he kept of Dixon’s prose included “the opal gates of death”; what he left out sounded like this, and his reasons for deleting it are obvious: “For a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle- shanked negro, exuding his nauseating animal odour, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.” The KKK had permanently disbanded in 1869, and Dixon nostalgically dedicated his 1905 “historical romance,” The Clansman, to the memory of his “Scotch-Irish” uncle, a “Grand Titan Of The Invisible Empire”; unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation used the medium so powerfully that Griffith’s film unexpectedly but indisputably inspired the birth of the twentieth-century Klan in late 1915.) Griffith began defending himself against the charges of bigotry and hatred; he angrily protested the film’s suppression in several cities and wrote The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, a pamphlet that championed the “Freedom of the Screen.” Intolerance was to be his cinematic defense, his pamphlet in film form against intellectual censorship. Fortunately for Griffith, The Birth of a Nation became the first authentic blockbuster in film history, earning untold millions of dollars; he would need his entire share of that money for Intolerance, its cost nearly half a million dollars ($493,800), its release length fourteen reels (his longest film, between 13,500 and 13,700 feet [of 35mm film, which has 16 frames per foot], not all of which survives), its conception so vast that it was to The Birth of a Nation as The Birth of a Nation was to Judith of Bethulia.
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