The first reviews of “The Birth of a Nation” 1915

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.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Download “The Birth of a Nation” Kino Lorber restauration – NTSC Std low bitrate

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1o5um_rE8qYhEz6pgC_Czf1bLDewRcSYn/view?usp=sharing

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

FIFTY FAMOUS FILMS – BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE (Birth of a Nation)

  •     NATIONAL FILM THEATRE
  •     FIFTY FAMOUS FILMS
  •     1915—1945
  •     BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE
  •     NATIONAL FILM ARCHIVE
  •     Printed by Cox & Sharland Ltd.
  •     London and Southampton

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.
  • Harold Lloyd.
  • 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.
  • John Huntley

(PROGRAMME CONTROLLER NATIONAL FILM THEATRE)

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

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
  • Dixon, Jnr.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY G. W. Bitzer

CAST

  • 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
D.W. Griffith, internationally known movie director and producer, greets the press in this 1922 photo before sailing for Europe. (AP Photo)

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.

Griffith Early Biograph career

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.’

DW Griffith and Robert Harron on set

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 Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

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.

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

HEARTS OF THE WORLD – Iris Barry (1965)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Hearts of The World

HEARTS OF THE WORLD

Opened at the 44th Street Theatre, New York, April 4, 1918. 12 reels.

Directed by D. W. Griffith; scenario by M. Gaston de Tolignac, translated into English by Capt. Victor Marier (both pseudonyms for D. W. Griffith); photographed by G. W. Bitzer; technical supervision by Erich Von Stroheim; music arranged by Carli Elinor and Griffith.

Cast:

  • The Grandfather – Adolphe Lestina
  • The Mother – Josephine Crowell
  • The Girl, Marie Stephenson – Lillian Gish
  • The Boy, Douglas Gordon Hamilton – Robert Harron
  • The Father of the Boy – Jack Cosgrave
  • The Mother of the Boy – Kate Bruce
  • The Littlest Brother – Ben Alexander
  • The Boy’s Other Brothers – M. Emmons, F. Marion
  • The Little Disturber – Dorothy Gish
  • Monsieur Cuckoo – Robert Anderson
  • The Village Carpenter – George Fawcett
  • Von Strohm – George Siegmann
  • The Innkeeper – Fay Holderness
  • A Deaf and Blind Musician – L. Lowy
  • A Poilu – Eugene Pouyet
  • A French Peasant Girl – Anna Mae Walthall
  • A Refugee Mile. – Yvette Duvoisin of the Comedie Frangaise, Paris
  • A French Major – Herbert Sutch
  • A Poilu – Alphonse Dufort
  • A Poilu – Jean Dumercier
  • Stretcher Bearers – Gaston Riviere, Jules Lemontier
  • A Poilu – Georges Loyer
  • A German Sergeant – George Nicholls
  • A Refugee Mother – Mrs. Mary Gish
  • Woman with Daughter – Mrs. Harron
  • Wounded Girl – Mary Harron
  • Refugee – Jessie Harron
  • Boy with Barrel – Johnny Harron
  • Dancer – Mary Hay

Not credited on the original programs: Erich Von Stroheim as a Hun in several scenes, and Noel Coward as the Man with the Wheelbarrow and as a Villager in the Streets.

Griffith introduced to Queen Alexandra 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

On March 17, 1917, Griffith sailed for London to attend the opening of intolerance and to discuss a British offer to make a propaganda film for the war effort. On the same date he announced his Triangle severance and the signing of a contract with Artcraft, Adolph Zukor’s company that produced for Famous Players-Lasky (or Paramount, as it was to become known) . Zukor, whose firm had already swallowed most of Triangle’s directors and stars, put up some of the money for Hearts of the World in exchange for eventual distribution rights as well as a guarantee of future Griffith films. Thus began a long relationship between Griffith and Zukor.

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Although the latter did not function as Griffith’s boss, his suggestions had the force of coming from the man most interested in the financial success of the film. Nevertheless, Griffith retained ownership of hearts of the world, raising money for it on his own reputation. After it was completed, he supervised its presentation, distribution and the sale of rights in conjunction with Zukor. The financing of HEARTS as even more complicated than Griffith’s previous big films; nevertheless Griffith handled it personally. Hearts of the World has long been neglected as a major Griffith film. A shortage of good prints has probably contributed more to its disappearance than its immediate propagandist purpose and a nearly complete version now made should help to restore admiration for it. Griffith had several motives in making it. He was enormously impressed by the welcome he received in England (he became a confirmed Anglophile and a lifelong friend of Lord Beaverbrook) , and he needed money badly to recover from the debts of the Wark Corporation. But when he had toured the battlefields, slogged through muddy trenches and observed the suffering of soldiers and civilians alike, he was genuinely determined to recreate the scene for the benefit of Americans.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

Publicity men created myths about the production of Hearts of the World, claiming that it consisted largely of on-the-spot recording of events. For the most part, Griffith recreated scenes which he witnessed or learned about first hand—Lillian Gish trying to guide her confused grandfather to safety as the village is bombarded; the orphaned children burying their mother’s body in the cellar. The only Americans who joined Griffith for filming in France and England were the two Gish girls and their mother, Robert Harron, George Fawcett, George Seigmann, Ben Alexander and his mother, and Bitzer with several assistants; even Von Stroheim was not hired until the company returned to California. The scenes in which other members of the Griffith company appeared must have been shot on the West Coast, and, though Griffith and Bitzer toured the front lines photographing action scenes, Griffith added stock footage later. When the war began a Captain Kleinschmidt, who had been lecturing here on his explorations and travels, filmed the German armies on the battlefield and showed them in New York. After the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies, Captain Kleinschmidt (an Austrian) was arrested as a spy, and Griffith paid him $16,000 for his films. An exchange of telegrams between Griffith in California and his New York office reveals Griffith’s use of the Kleinschmidt battle footage in hearts of the world. The question of how much of hearts of the world was shot by Griffith on the battlefields of France may never be solved. The audited accounts report that the Los Angeles charges against negative costs were more than twice those incurred abroad. The original purpose of the film was to convince Americans to enter the war, but before Griffith could begin work, America had entered. The S.S. Baltic, on which Bitzer, Robert Harron and Dorothy Gish sailed for England on May 28, 1917, carried as another passenger General Pershing.

Griffith 50 yards from German trenches – The war, the West, and the wilderness

America was unprepared, however, and it was almost a year before her armies were well enough organized to help turn the tide. The propaganda aim became our transformation into an angry, fighting people. It was a short war for America, and Hearts of the World had not been released long before the Armistice was in sight. The picture made a lot of money quickly—its profit by the end of 1918 was more than $500,000 —before being drastically cut and altered to fit the peace. Zukor wanted a shorter film for Artcraft distribution, and while Griffith fought him for the major showings under his own supervision, wiring his New York office … if picture is big enough twelve reels is short enough . . .,” he consented to a shorter version for general distribution. The peacetime alterations naturally included eliminating scenes that would arouse hatred of the Germans. The film which had begun in twelve reels ended up in eight. Fortunately for archivists, complete shot lists exist for the original and subsequent versions, made up for the use of Griffith’s cutters when the heavy demand for prints prevented Griffith from supervising all of them.

Griffith – gas alarm 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

“Viewed as drama,” Griffith said, “the war is disappointing.” Wisely, he chose to portray the awesome holocaust in terms of a few individuals in a small village that changes hands as the fortunes of war sweep over it. The organization of his film was discursive in the manner of the rambling nineteenth-century novels on which he grew up. In the abbreviated versions it was incredibly jumpy, but in the restored film there is time to elaborate the elements of the story.

Griffith discarded forever the brilliant pyrotechnics of Intolerance, settling down to an assured style in which technical means do riot often call attention to themselves. The spectator is moved by, though scarcely aware of, the beautiful slow camera movement that discloses Lillian Gish to the eyes of Robert Harron as he falls in love with her. The next few years might be called the “Gish period” in Griffith’s career, with Lillian Gish playing the lead in one film after another, continually growing in stature as an actress. But Dorothy Gish all but steals this film away from her. Without any really funny material to work with except her own elastic face and jaunty movements, she used her role to launch a magnificent career as star of a long series of comedies.

Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1918) Griffith and the Great War 4

Griffith used long explanatory titles to avoid interrupting the flow of action with dialogue titles, the more popular method with other film-makers. As time went on he was much criticized for his titles even by critics who admired his films. Titling was a problem never completely solved in the silent period, and certainly not by Griffith.

As for hearts of the world’s effectiveness as propaganda, the young Kenneth MacGowan, writing in The New Republic of July 1918, while deploring the lack of restraint in bloody scenes of violence, said:

“Here we have an art of pure emotion which can go beneath thought, beneath belief, beneath ideals, down to the brute fact of emotional psychology, and make a man or a woman who has hated war, all war, even this war, feel the surge of group emotion, group loyalty and group hate.”

Griffith made several contributions to the war effort along with other Hollywood notables. He made personal appear ances to sell war bonds, and produced a one-reel film for the Liberty Loan Appeal starring Lillian Gish, and with Carol Dempster and Kate Bruce. The film was completed in September 1918. In it, Lillian’s mother urges her to buy bonds but she prefers to buy clothes until she has a dream of German atrocities which stirs her to patriotism when she awakes. No prints are known to exist today. Long before hearts of the world was ready for release Griffith set in motion a number of programmers for his Artcraft contract, and in December 1917 leased his old Fine Arts studio from Triangle. His first such Artcraft project, The Hun Within, was one with which his name was not formally associated. He wrote the script (with assistance from S. E. V. Taylor) under his old pseudonym Granville Warwick, and the film was directed by Chet Withey. Griffith probably made use in it of footage left over from Hearts of the World (which was to supply scenes for several of his next pictures) and he cast it with Dorothy Gish, George Fawcett, Erich Von Stroheim and other members of the stock company. He invested his own money in The Hun Within, and once again a separate organization, the F-4 Company, was formed to finance it. The completed film was later sold to Famous Players-Lasky at a profit of over $25,000.

Griffith Studios – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

When Griffith returned to Los Angeles from the opening of hearts of the world he began directing his own Artcraft films. While he retained ownership of Hearts, the other films he made went to Paramount under the separation agreement at the end of the contract with Zukor. Because of the deterioration of the original negatives that were placed in Paramount’s vaults, only two of these films are known to exist today. At the same time that Griffith directed the Artcraft films he contracted with Artcraft to produce a series of comedies starring Dorothy Gish (wearing the same black wig she had worn in Hearts of the World) and work was begun on the series after the star completed a sensational personal-appearance tour with hearts of the world. Griffith spent more money on these comedies than he did on the films he was directing, but he declined to have his name attached to the series. The directors included Elmer Clifton, Chet Withey, F. Richard Jones, and Dorothy Gish’s sister Lillian, who directed remodeling her husband all by herself at the half-completed Mamaroneck studios while Griffith was off getting lost in southern waters. The co-star in the later films of the series was James Rennie, who became Dorothy Gish’s husband. Zukor advanced production costs in exchange for distribution rights, and the comedies provided a steady income for Griffith.

Hearts of the World (Paramount, 1918) – Herald

The results of fame : HEARTS OF THE WORLD and the films made for Artcraft Pictures

By now Griffith was at the height of his fame, and it is interesting to speculate on the effect the acclaim that greeted him everywhere may have had on his personality. Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright . Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew he had poured his heart into the birth of a nation and intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. He was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism.

The financial failure of intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was. No amount of success quite gave him full confidence in his powers, and failure, when it did arrive, was what he had been half-expecting all the time. His written and spoken words at times became pompous, at times cynical. As the failures grew more frequent toward the end of his career, the cynicism predominated. (Iris Barry)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A Short History of the Movies (The Birth of a Nation) – Gerald Mast 1971

  •     A short history of the movies
  •     Gerald Mast, Formerly of the University of Chicago
  •     © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  •     FIFTH EDITION REVISED BY Bruce F. Kawin
  •     University of Colorado at Boulder
  •     1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  •     Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The Birth of a Nation

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.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

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.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

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 Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

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.

Henry B Walthall – The Little Colonel

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.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

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.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

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.

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer – (face hidden behind the reel casing of the camera)

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.

Lillian Gish – Ford’s Theatre

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.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

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).

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

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.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“The Greatest Thing In Life” – Wid’s Daily (1919)

  • Wid’s Daily – Thursday, January 2, 1919
  • The Recognized Authority

Griffith Puts Over Winner in His Latest Film. It’s Human

D. W. Griffith Presents

“The Greatest Thing In Life.” – Artcraft

Producer/Director D.W. Griffith, AUTHOR Captain Victor Marrier, CAMERAMAN G W Bitzer, SCENARIO BY Captain Victor Marrier

  • AS A WHOLE.. . . ..Splendid production with strong human interest element; war scenes presented in masterly fashion.
  • STORY Has a real theme apart from war, developed with keen comprehension of feminine nature in search of “the greatest thing in life.”
  • DIRECTION Reveals the flawless technique expected of Griffith: always avoids the superfluous and makes much of seeming trifles that spell reality.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY Always superior
  • LIGHTINGS Excellent in getting beautiful modulations of light and shadow; never permit monotony.
  • CAMERA WORK Notable for the introduction of a new and artistic close-up suggestive of an impressionistic photograph. Effects gained by what may be termed “a soft focus”
  • PLAYERS Lillian Gish vivacious and charming ; Bobby Harron registers fine characterization; David Butler and others add to story.
  • EXTERIORS Delightful to look at; largely because of excellent photography.
  • INTERIORS Richly furnished when situations demand it; always look like real thing.
  • DETAIL Includes significant incidents; subtitles give natural expression to the mood of the
  • CHARACTER OF STORY Shows Germans as “the enemy”, but doesn’t harp on atrocities.
  • LENGTH OF PRODUCTION About 6,500 ft.

Griffith remains pre-eminent on account of what he doesn’t do as well as what he does. When a scene has reached the “punch” point he uses the scissors, and the audience isn’t bothered by the loose ends of dramatic action. He doesn’t work with stereotyped characters because they are convenient; he doesn’t show a German officer assaulting a woman because it has become the custom to present brutality in war films; he doesn’t use a sledge hammer to pound home his meaning and he doesn’t hesitate to tackle a delicate situation because there is danger of its not getting over.

Get “The Greatest Thing in Life” and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see the difference between the output of a creative artist and the work of a conscientious craftsman who learns to do well something which others have done before him. There’s a big difference and it is the difference that makes this a distinctly superior production.

Griffith took a story of character good enough to have been developed irrespective of the war angle, yet so devised that it appears to have its natural outcome in the world conflict. Lillian Gish is a French girl, vivacious to the point of seeming triviality. Living with her father, who runs a shop in New York, she seeks, under a cloak of laughter, the perfect man, the ideal love, the “greatest thing in life.”

The Greatest Thing in Life (Lillian Gish and David Butler)

Bobby Harron is the incarnation of snobbery. He detests commonness in all forms, but incongruous as he feels it is, he is fascinated by the merry Lillian, who might love him if only he were more human. David Butler, a great stupid French boy, is all human, he is everything that Bobby is not, but he has no poetry in his soul. Lillian tests him with merry talk about Rostand’s “Chantecler” and the Golden Bird. But to the French youth, a chicken is only a chicken and can never be anything else.

France calls them all—father, daughter and the dissimilar suitors—the France of shell-torn villages. Characters are tested in the crucible. The French materialist dies a valiant soldier, still declaring that a chicken is only a chicken; the snob, reborn a human being in the trenches, heads the American soldiers into the French village, occupied by the Germans to save the girl and her wounded parent. This sketchy outline of the plot may suggest nothing new. It is the wealth of incident and characterization that make it throb with feeling. At first there is contagious animation in following the flirtatious Lillian through her days at the little shop. The performance of Miss Gish is a delight, while Harron supplies a striking portrayal of the snob.

There is humor here, and humor mingled with pathos when the scene moves to France. The war phases of the production, having suspense and thrills galore, are finely harmonized with the personal elements of the story. Be it noted to Griffith’s credit that he defies precedent by not showing any assaults on defenseless women.

A high spot in the picture, one that gets over superbly despite its dangerous character, brings out the transformation of the snob, when, lying in a dugout with a dying negro soldier, he listens to the pathetic appeal of the hysterical man for one kiss from his mammy. Bobby brings happiness to the negro in his last moments by impersonating the mammy and kissing him.

Lillian Gish – The Greatest Thing in Life

Be Sure to Let Folks Know What You Have. They’ll Come to See it

Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor.

Some pictures are just artistic, some just business-getting, some are both, and I should say most decidedly that this is one of them. I don’t care what kind of a house you are running; this Griffith offering is bound to please your patrons. Don’t worry about whether or not folks are getting their fill of war films. “The Greatest Thing In Life” isn’t really a war picture; it’s a picture with a mighty interesting group of human beings who happen to get mixed up in the war. There’s a distinction here, and it’s the kind of distinction that’s going to make some productions live while others die. The name of Griffith is enough in itself to assure interest, and in addition to that you have the two Griffith celebrities, Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron, to attract the crowd that remembers “The Birth of a Nation” and “Hearts of the World,” not to mention numerous other pictures.

All that you need to do is to advertise in a big way and figure to hold the film long enough to profit by the word-of-mouth boosting which it is sure to receive. If you spend a little money with your newspapers, it ought not to be difficult to get picture layouts along with more than the usual amount of reading notices dealing with the career of Griffith and the stars he has developed. No doubt you will be supplied with plenty of effective lobby material of an artistic nature suitable to the character of the production. By all means get this if you can and don’t worry about the return on your investment.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (Dec 1918) Greatest Thing in Life advertising – posters

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Great War Films (Hearts of the World 1918) – Lawrence J. Quirk 1994

  • The great war films
  • Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
  • A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group
Hearts of the World (Paramount, 1918) – Herald

Hearts of the World 1918

PARAMOUNT / ARTCRAFT 1918

CAST: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Dorothy Gish, Josephine Crowell, Jack Cosgrove, Adolphe Lestina, Kate Bruce, Ben Alexander, George Fawcett, George Siegmann.

CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith (under an assumed name), screenplay; Billy Bitzer, photographer; James and Rose Smith, editors. Running time: 122 minutes.

Hearts Of The World Press Book – The Bride Gish

Established as master of war movies, D. W. Griffith took on World War I in Hearts of the World. It was made at the request of the British government in 1917-18, and is as much a propaganda film as a drama, with much newsreel footage thrown in for good measure. But its leads (Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish), its villain (George Siegmann), and an adorable child actor, Ben Alexander (who was to become a poignant, vulnerable soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front twelve years later), help greatly to put it over. And it also offers a glimpse of Noel Coward, age eighteen, pushing a wheelbarrow through a French village street.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

As always in Griffith works, the battle and skirmish scenes are handled with consummate depth and force, and Bitzer’s photography and James and Rose Smith’s editing point up the locations—many of them authentic—shot in England and France, with later photography in Hollywood. Griffith’s aptitudes with actors are also on impressive display, as he coaxes a winsome vulnerability from Lillian Gish; a manly, sensitive, but bewildered persona from Robert Harron; and a hoydenish esprit from Dorothy Gish, who plays a minxy type pursuing Harron, and whose title in the film (The “Little Disturber”) was to be her trademark henceforth and largely shape her screen characterizations through the 1920s.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

Siegmann delivers in grand style as the “Bad German”; he is up to no good here—and in spades. Siegmann was to give Erich Von Stroheim a run for his money in “Bad German” parts. Even his name, “Von Strohm,” was a takeoff on Von Stroheim’s.

Griffith never made any bones of the fact the picture was designed to effect America’s entry into the war: The project was conceived early in 1917, before the United States’ engagement in the European fracas, and released in 1918, at the height of the war. The story deals with Harron, the son of an expatriate family living in France, just before the outbreak of war, next to another American family whose daughter is Lillian Gish.

Hearts of The World

A romance develops between these two young people, but Dorothy Gish’s high-spirited singer seeks to win Harron for herself, even though his heart is permanently Lillian’s. (The romantic leads (Lillian Gish and Harron), are known throughout as “the Boy” and “the Girl.”) Just as they are to marry, the war breaks out. Though he is an American, Harron feels he should enlist on principle, and joins the French army. While Harron is off fighting, his family’s village is attacked and devastated by the Germans, and members of both expatriate families are killed. In a famous scene, Lillian, clutching her bridal gown, and deranged by her experiences, comes upon Harron—who lies seriously wounded. She sits beside him, and they spend in silence and terror (on her part) and oblivion (on his) what should have been their wedding night. When in the morning she looks for help, the Red Cross takes the wounded Harron away. She thinks him dead. Back in the village, the Little Disturber (Dorothy) now redeemed, nurses Lillian back to health.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Later, the Germans take over the village and make slave laborers of the inhabitants, including the Girl, while the Boy, who has recovered in a military hospital, becomes a spy behind German lines. He eventually makes his way back to the village in time to rescue the Lillian Gish character from a “fate worse than death” at the hands of a lustful German officer.

Such are the bones of the plot—but all is redeemed by Griffith’s authoritative handling of the suspense and terror and unpredictability of war. Masterfully he guides Gish and Harron into sharp portrayals that, despite their conventional outlines, take on a poignant individuality. And the attack on the village, and other action scenes, are riveting.

Robert Harron, an actor close to Griffith during his early career, was a sensitive, handsome performer who died in 1920 in a mysterious shooting accident. He was only twenty-six. His work in Hearts of the World, and his other fine performances, keep him alive for audiences and commentators alike.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding )

*** Admin note: Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were invited as guests by President Harding – April 22, 1922 Exhibitors Herald. – in Mr. Quirk’s book this photograph is captioned wrong as “Griffith (right) with Dorothy and Lillian Gish, abroad to make the film.”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Great War Films – Lawrence J. Quirk 1994 (The Birth of a Nation 1915)

  • Great War Films
  • Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
  • A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group

The Birth of a Nation 1915

D. W. GRIFFITH / HARRY E. AITKEN / EPOCH PRODUCING CORP. (distributor)  1915

CAST: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Donald Crisp, Joseph Henabery, Raoul Walsh, Walter Long, Eugene Pallette.

CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods, screenplay; based on the novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon; G. W. Bitzer, photographer. Running time: 185 minutes.

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most famous and influential motion pictures of all time. It was the first great epic, and the film that introduced many of the cinematic conventions we take for granted today. And it is one that has been steeped in controversy from its initial release right up to the present day.

Birth of a Nation details the events before, during. and after the Civil War of 1861-65 and focuses on two families—one Northern (the Stonemans) and one Southern (the Camerons)—whose sons are friends. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), known as “The Little Colonel,” falls for Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) just by looking at her picture; one of the Stoneman boys, Phil (Robert Harron), also falls for one of Ben’s sisters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper).

Movies in America – Birth of a Nation

But the love stories are secondary to the Civil War action; Birth of a Nation features panoramic battle scenes employing thousands of extras who engage in fighting in such a realistic manner that it creates a near-documentary effect. Stoneman and Cameron eventually meet as enemies on the battlefield, where the latter is badly wounded but succored by his new found friend, who writes to sister Elsie, asking her to take special care of his pal in the hospital where she is a nurse.

Cameron’s reunion with his mother is touching, as is an affecting scene when he finally comes back home and greets his older sister on the doorstep; the two feign a happy air at first, but eventually both succumb to grateful tears. The assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, is meticulously detailed. For many of the war scenes, Griffith worked from photographs by Matthew Brady and others to help recreate the settings and action as authentically as possible. The picture is initially choppy and episodic, but eventually the audience comes to know the characters and gets caught up in their stories.

The main problem with Birth of a Nation is that it has absolutely no perspective (thus giving it an almost comically dated quality), as it is told by Griffith—a native of the South—strictly from the Confederacy’s point of view. Thus the scene that follows the title card “The master in chains before his former slaves” is not depicted as poetic justice but as the tragic downfall of a noble character (Ben Cameron, who later forms the Ku Klux Klan in response to Northern and carpetbagger-inspired Negro outrages).

The depiction of blacks in Birth ofa Nation has always engendered much comment. On the one hand, the scenes of blacks rioting, breaking into houses, and disporting themselves in a disgraceful manner often seem disquietingly and shamefully contemporary. On the other hand, Birth of a Nation unmistakably suggests that the only “good blacks” are those who toe the line and remain loyal to their former masters. Virtually all of the black characters (most of whom are played by white actors in black-face) are negatively portrayed, and their Northern supporters are the worst kind of “guilty white liberals.” Phil Stoneman’s father is pleased to hear that his protege, mulatto Silas Lynch, is going to marry a white woman. That is, until Stoneman learns that Lynch has designs on his own daughter—after which he is repulsed and furious. The final scenes show the “heroes” in their white hoods and raiment rushing to the rescue of the Camerons who are trapped in a cabin by crazed Negroes and Northerners. Birth ofa Nation may be historically accurate in some respects, but it lacks balance.

The NAACP protested strongly against the film upon its release, and many in this era of political correctness would like to see it consigned to oblivion. Others, such as black filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), feel that Birth of a Nation’s artistic achievements override its political content. “It’s like the Holocaust,” Singleton has said. “We should never forget.”—W. S.

The great war films – Birth of a Nation

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

GRIFFITH (Hearts of the World) – Kevin Brownlow 1979

  • The War The West and The Wilderness
  • Kevin Brownlow 1979
  • Alfred A. Knopf – New York

GRIFFITH

The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of English cut, a bow tie—and a tin hat. It is David Wark Griffith, recorded by a British official cameraman on his tour of the front.

Griffith and the Great War 5

The sight of this elegant figure touring the scenes of the battle is like something out of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant afternoon outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history. A group of French soldiers ambles past the camera, some of them turning round to give a surly glance at the lens; Mr. Griffith follows them into the picture. The camera pans as he inspects a half-completed trench. French soldiers are sweating away with shovels. Griffith peers down, grins, makes a little digging gesture, and wanders out of shot. Next, he visits a heavily shelled concrete dugout. He stumbles over the rubble, awkward in his polished shoes, descends into a crater, and disappears into the dugout. Moments later he reappears to signal to the cameraman to cut.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

All the scenes have been carefully posed, and at the start of each shot, the participants wait for a moment before jerking into action, as though instructed by a director. Everyone plays the game but Griffith. As the party files through a reserve trench, they all duck their heads. Griffith, however, remains imperiously upright, spoiling a subtitle’s illusion that the enemy is but sixty yards away.

This trip to the front in May 1917 was a result of Griffith’s agreement to make a propaganda film for the British. It is perhaps ironic that Griffith should have traveled to England, ostensibly to attend the premiere of his great pacifist film Intolerance, but actually to make a film to promote the Allied cause. I owe to Russell Merritt the startling information that Griffith had already been approached by the British government before he left for England. Griffith’s own version has always been accepted as the truth: that he happened to be in England when a meeting of “the gifted men of Britain”-Barrie, Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton—decided the most effective medium for the Allied nations was not a book or a play but “a drama of humanity, photographed in the battle area.”

Griffith and the Great War 4

The new chairman of the War Office Cinematograph Committee was Lord Beaverbrook, and he had already instilled a more vigorous attitude to film-making among the Official Kinematographers. The idea of inviting Griffith to make a propaganda film was undoubtedly his, and the much-publicized meeting of the authors and playwrights probably a way of deflecting criticism from the fact that the “great director” was not British.

Griffith had left Triangle in March 1917, and a big special was part of his new contract with Adolph Zukor. By coincidence, one of the financiers of Triangle, and formerly of Mutual, was Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, who now moved to back Zukor. Otto Kahn was a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook, and despite being of German extraction, he was a naturalized British citizen who fervently supported the British war effort.

The New York Times leaked the news that Griffith’s plan was to make a motion picture history of the war—on a commission from the Allies that would take him to all the fronts—that would eventually be placed in the archives. This may have been a smoke screen for Beaverbrook’s true intention; he seems to have had a massive propaganda epic on the lines of The Birth of a Nation in mind.

Griffith and the Great War 6

The offer from the British government came at a moment when history had inspired Griffith with a sense of adventure. “In one way, this is indeed a great day to be alive,” he told reporters upon his arrival in Britain. “In another terrible. It is terrible when you see the things you must see and feel the things you must feel. It is the most terrific moment in the history of the world. We used to wish that we could have experienced the days of Caesar and Napoleon. And now incomparably greater times are taking place around us all.”

DW Griffith in France 1917

A special tour of the war zone was arranged for Griffith; he crossed the Channel in a Royal Navy destroyer and made a preliminary inspection of the front. Upon his return to England, he began to set up the production, and cabled to California for Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Billy Bitzer.

In London the company stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Billy Bitzer picked up film from Kodak—during an air raid-and then bumped into Lowell Thomas, who was on a similar mission. Thomas explained how hard it was to get film, and Bitzer told him to use his name. Thus the Griffith picture replenished the supplies of the Lowell Thomas operation, and when the two men met again, at a Press Association dinner at the Savoy, Thomas confirmed that the film was still coming through.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

The Gishes and Bobby Harron had raced up to the roof of the Savoy during the raid, and had seen the German planes returning, the pilots waving at the watchers on the roof. Lillian Gish suggested they go out to see the damage, and they discovered that a school in Whitechapel had received a direct hit. “Children and teachers were the victims,” wrote Bitzer. “When you hear the moans of the dying and see their mangled bodies, you realize what it is all about. We thought by getting to work immediately we might forget this scene. But we never did. Griffith, as a Southerner, was fascinated by the aristocracy of England. For a film concerned with the triumph of democracy, Hearts of the World was to have had a surprising amount of footage devoted to society beauties. But Griffith planned another film, Women and the War, to show how the idle rich had thrown themselves energetically behind the war effort.

Griffith introduced to Queen Alexandra 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

Dowager Queen Alexandra made an appearance and among the extras were such friends of Beaverbrook’s as Lady Lavery, Elizabeth Asquith, the Countess of Massarene, Princess Monaco, and Lady Diana Manners. The scenes were shot at Lady Ripon’s estate at Coombe Hill, Kingston, and the Army and Navy Hospital. Griffith sported his finest clothes; Bitzer was astounded at the gap between the classes, and wondered at the complacency of the working class in their support of the aristocracy. The material was eventually used in The Great Love.

Griffith and the Great War 1

Griffith was given facilities to film on Salisbury Plain, the British Army’s central maneuver area, and at Witley and Blackdown, near Aldershot. Official receipts refer to vast numbers of troops and explosives—some of which blew up by accident in storage and were the subject of an army enquiry. According to Griffith, he was also given the opportunity to return to France, with his cast. A somewhat confusing impression of the film’s production has grown up around this fact. Historians have stated that Hearts of the World was actually made at the front.

The front refers specifically to the battle area; the opposing trenches that zigzagged six hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland were known as the front lines. The only member of the company permitted to visit the front was Griffith himself, as the Ypres reels testify. Not even his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, was allowed near the place, although he flew to Le Bourget and filmed scenes in Montreuil. The fact that his full name was Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer didn’t help, but the army refused to allow photographs to be taken in the war zone except by official cameramen. Griffith was assigned an Official Kinematographer at Ypres, Frank Bassill.

Griffith 50 yards from German trenches – The war, the West, and the wilderness

When he returned to France in October 1917, Griffith was based in Paris, and assigned a cameraman from the Section Cinematographique of the French Army. A great deal of conflicting information has been written about the adventure. Did anyone accompany Griffith? According to Lillian Gish, she, her sister and her mother, and Bobby Harron went over; the French trip was hair-raising, and over the months” the Gish family became highly nervous and lost weight. But Griffith was only in France for a matter of two weeks. Mrs. Gish suffered a serious case of shell shock—was this due to the bombardment in France or to the concussion of the air defense guns situated next to the Savoy Hotel in London? The main location was the village of Ham, near St. Quentin, on the River Somme; Griffith stated that by a strange and unpleasant coincidence, the first scenes of the second act were taken in the village of Ham, “which has only recently fallen again into the hands of the German invader.” Yet just a handful of shots in the surviving versions were taken in France, and only one of them shows a member of the cast (Lillian Gish entering a devastated house). Billy Bitzer states categorically, While it is true many scenes were taken at the battle front by cameramen, I did not go there, and neither did any other member of the company, with the exception of Mr. Griffith.” (However, the Bitzer book is very inaccurate.)

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Griffith later made a statement that, appearing out of context, makes him seem an obsessive, single-minded, and callous man: “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing.” Single-minded Griffith may have been’ but he was not callous. The quote comes from a Photoplay interview with his old friend Harry Carr, war correspondent and future Griffith press agent, and it goes on to say that everything he saw—troop trains moving away to the front, wives parting from husbands they were never to see again—precisely fitted his imagination. “All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them in the pictures for years and years that I found myself absently wondering who was staging the scene.” The front lines were lacking in visual impact. “Everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No-Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness. At first you are horribly disappointed. There is nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are standing sometimes almost to their hips in ice-cold mud.

Griffith – gas alarm 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

“It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.”

Griffith’s disappointment with the war reflected his inability to capture any more than a fleeting impression of it. By this point, artillery bombardments and mortar shelling occurred intermittently around the clock, but the kind of action Griffith hoped for—”the dash and thrill of wars of other days”—tended to take place at night.

Griffith and the Great War 2

This is pure conjecture, but so much mystery surrounds the film that I feel obliged to make a few assumptions. Once Griffith had realized the difficulty of shooting at the front, he abandoned interest in it. His remarks to Carr suggest that he was justifying to himself his work of reconstruction—the real thing, after all, had proved indistinguishable from his inspired guesswork. There was no respect for documentary per se in those days, therefore why should he not reconstruct all the action scenes at his leisure, when he could lavish his customary care on each scene?

The reason advanced by Griffith for returning to France was to make use of the devastation; yet Russell Merritt has found evidence that the War Office offered Griffith the kind of ruins he needed in England. So why the second trip to France?

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

If it was for authentic backgrounds, why did they not appear more often in the final film? Only a few brief shots were taken in France. A cable from Griffith to Zukor refers to $5,000 paid to the French for “facilities,” which may explain why Griffith did not shoot the entire film on the locations described in the story. I put forward the suggestion that the trip to France with the cast was the equivalent of the trip round the trenches; the idea of it gave the film a reputation for authenticity, and a veracity and dignity beyond all other war films. This is supported by the elaborate fiction given out by Griffith and his press agents, for example in a New York Times interview of 14 April 1918, which asserts that Bitzer, George Siegmann, George Fawcett, and the child, Ben Alexander, went to France, which they did not, and which describes the company sheltering from bombardment for four hours in a cellar and becoming the target of an air raid. Lillian Gish, in her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, gives as definitive an account of the trip as we are likely to have; she talks of shells falling “close enough to make us nervous.”

Hearts of the World

It is this lurid melodrama that acts as a barrier for modern audiences. George Siegmann’s attempt to rape Lillian Gish seems somewhat less important today than the mass slaughter raging outside. While Siegmann’s behavior would have aroused audiences of 1918 to a pitch of patriotic fury—and we must always remember that people reacted to films in those days far more intensely than we do today—sixty years later audiences are merely amused. But look at the scene. It is actually very cleverly directed. It begins as a game; Siegmann sees his opportunity, locks the door, and has a bit of fun with the girl. He leans back in a chair and traps her tiny figure with his legs. At this point, Siegmann plays the scene amusingly, and his jack- booted horseplay fits his character. He is transformed to door-battering fury not by his inability to rape Miss Gish, but by the more serious matter of enemy infiltration. Bobby Harron, a French soldier in German uniform, has penetrated the building, an officer has been killed, and Siegmann’s desperation is thus dramatically legitimate.

Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, according to Russell Merritt, was horrified by the scenes of German brutality, and she conveyed her feelings, which undoubtedly coincided with those of her husband, directly to Griffith. He sent a lengthy telegram: “Spent a sleepless night and troubled day, trying to think why the play has made such an effect on you.” He blamed his excesses on the fact that the public was “a very stolid, hard animal to move or impress. We must hit hard to touch them.” Nevertheless, he agreed to eliminate a couple of scenes so that his film would “hit the masses” but would not offend “the refined and sensitive spirits such as yourself. Otherwise I shall be a very disappointed, broken individual, for my hopes and my work and prayers have been so bound up in this that, unless it is pleasing in your household, I feel that everything has been in vain.” Mrs. Wilson’s criticism evidently led to the reshooting of the scene in which the German soldier whipped Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish witnessing her mother’s death in the Hearts of The World

Griffith must have been particularly hurt by Mrs. Wilson’s reaction since he despised the pro-war propaganda pictures and was aiming at a much more elevated kind of film. Melodrama apart, the picture has some admirable scenes. Griffith never falls into the trap of romanticizing war. There are no false heroics, and the horrors of war are shown as powerfully as possible. “War’s gift to the common people” declares a title before scenes of panic and evacuation in the village. Lillian Gish’s old father refuses to leave his home. A shell explodes on the house. When Miss Gish rushes back to search for him, Griffith makes us flinch, even today, with a brief flash of the old man’s body-blown in half. And the audience has to share Lillian Gish’s agony at the death of her mother-a most moving performance- and her delirious state when she celebrates what should have been her wedding night. She finds out where Bobby Harron’s company has been fighting, and by the light of the moon, she runs out to join him. When she finds him, he is apparently dead. Wrapping herself in her wedding dress against the cold, she gently presses her body against his and joins him in sleep.

Hearts of The World – Lillian Gish with the girl’s most precious possession – her wedding dress

It is the sense of authenticity that makes the film so compelling, and yet there is very little that is authentic. The village is compounded of parts of Stanton, near Broadway, Worcestershire, and Shere, in Surrey, together with back-lot construction in Hollywood (on the old Intolerance set). The close-combat scenes resemble Gettsysburg more than Verdun. Worse still, the child, Benny Alexander, remains the same age throughout the entire four years of war. But for much of the film, it takes an expert to distinguish the reconstruction from the actuality material. Griffith included documentary scenes that are now beyond price. Almost shyly, he begins the film with a title begging the audience’s indulgence for his unusual prologue. “It has no possible interest except to vouch for the rather unusual event of an American producer being allowed to take pictures on an actual battlefield.” Griffith is shown in the trench at Cambrin, and at Number io Downing Street; Lloyd George shakes Griffith’s hand, wishing him “great success for his picture.” (He was actually saying goodbye on the day Griffith left for the United States!) “Apologies and thanks,” says a title. “The picture follows.”

Hearts Of The World Press Book – The Bride Gish – searching on the battlefield for her lover (Robert Harron)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page