“To watch (D.W. Griffith’s) work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.”
“Despite every valid attack on the biased history presented by The Birth of A Nation, there also can be no denying the unsurpassed artistic impact it had on virtually all subsequent pictures.”
This is a difficult post to write because it’s like sticking your hand in a bag of snakes to separate the poisonous ones from the non-poisonous ones.
While many filmmakers from many countries laid the ground work of the early years of cinema, it was D.W. Griffith who laid the axe at the root of the tree—and when he was done, everyone knew that things were going to be different. It was offical that movies had matured beyond the cheap entertainment of the Nickelodeon Theater.
The road Griffith took was paved by making 450 short films before arriving at the epic film The Birth of a Nation. The film is as controversial as it is long. I’m not sure what the longest film to date was at that point, but in the states one and two-reelers were still common place. (Under 30 minutes total.) (Update: The 1913 Italian film Quo Vadias? was the first film to surpass the two-hour mark. No original print is known to exist.)
Back in 1906 Charles Tait directed the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, which around 60 minutes in length and is considered the first feature film. Over the years other filmmaker in Europe followed and I think they too had running times in the 40-60 minute range. When Cecil B. DeMille made the first feature in Hollywood, The Squaw Man (74 minutes), it was 1914.
Some people at that time thought that human eyes could not endure viewing a film much longer than an hour. (Reminds me of those early quotes by some that thought television wouldn’t catch on because people wouldn’t stop working around the house and just sit and watch t.v.) So just telling a long story was a risk for Griffith. It would also not only be the longest film, but the most expensive up until that time. In Frank E. Beaver’s film history book On Film he writes of The Birth of a Nation, “In compelxity of story structure, in technical assimilation, in mere magnitude, audiences had never been exposed to anything like it.”
The original title for Birth of a Nation was The Clansman, the name of the book by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, on which the movie was based (along with another Dixon book, The Leopard’s Spot.) I have never read the books and it’s been many years since I watched The Birth of a Nation so I’ll depend on others to give a clearer view on the lay of the land. The script was written by Griffith with Frank E. Woods.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the film does give a favorable view of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). After the Civil War, the south went through a long and major reconstruction. Families had lost sons in the war, buildings had been destroyed, the economy was in shambles, and a way of life was forever changed. Griffith experienced this first hand when as a teenager his mother sold the family farm in Kentucky.
After the Civil War ended, there was much lawlessness in the South and the KKK was seen by some as a way to restore order. Out of that perspective and history was born The Birth of a Nation. Keep in mind that between 1776 and 1865 (ending just ten years before Griffith was born) slavery was legal in the United States of America.
In general, what film critics and historians do with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is the same thing they do with the pro-Nazi film Triumph of the Will—that is separate the film from the message. Director Peter Bogdanovich has called Griffith “a flawed genius.” He also goes on to explain the times;
“Remember, in 1915, the First World War having just begun, women—-black or white—-still didn’t have the right to vote. Do we no longer revere Washington or Jefferson because they kept slaves? In his brilliant documentary on the black heavyweight Jack Johnson of the 1910s, Unforgivable Blackness, Ken Burns quotes lengthy, virulently racist passages from such contemporary newspapers as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. As Robert Graves has pointed out, it is impossible not to be a part of your times, even if you are against them.”
And so over the years, the filmmaking influence of Griffith was felt on a wave of filmmakers ranging from John Ford to Alfred Hitchcock. (And there is no question that part of what set Griffith a part was the great cinematographer Billy Bitzer, who had 18 years of camera experience before he shot The Birth of a Nation.)
Now imagine a young Spike Lee—fresh from his undergraduate work at the historically all male & black Morehouse College— walking into classes at NYU film school and being shown The Birth of a Nation for the first time and being taught about the all the glorious film techniques of the great D.W. Griffith.
“They taught that D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema. They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did. But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how that film was used as a recruiting took for the K.K.K.”
The New Yorker article by John Colapinto
Even back in 1915 there were theaters and cities that refused to show the film. And in some cities where the film was shown, riots did break out. (Riots also occurred when the play The Clansman toured the country in 1908.) Motion pictures could no longer be seen as a simple entertainment. And Griffith proved that people could watch a 3 hour movie—and they would pay top dollar for it as well.
“Appalling as its message might seem now, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was the blockbuster of its day. Grossing pre-inflationary $18 million, it was the second biggest blockbuster office success of the silent film era. Immediately perceived as a classic, it was re-released in 1921, 1922, and 1930. Some 200 million people saw it before 1946.”
It’s been a while since I’ve repeated one of my favorite quotes that “Movies reflect the culture they help create.” In the case of Birth of a Nation, I saw one old photo that showed a person holding a sign outside a movie theater that read; “Birth of a Nation Revives KKK—N.A.A.C.P.” The KKK did experience a revival in the 20s that would last into the 60s.
In The Father of Film (Part 3) we’ll look at how Griffith addressed the charges of racism, how he created more classic films (even one about an interracial marriage), and how he was abandoned by the industry he helped create.
“Racism pervades Americam film because it is a basic strain in American history. It is one of the ugly facts of film history that the landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915) can be generally hailed as classic despite its essential racism.”
How to Read a Film
P.S. For what it’s worth (and lest you think the film’s success was just a southern thing) when The Birth of a Nation (then called The Clansman) was first shown at the Clune Auditorium in Los Angeles—according to Frank E. Beaver in On Film—it “resulted in a standing ovation by audiences who first saw the film during its initial run.” The title was changed to The Birth of a Nation when it first played in New York—to sold out crowds at a then record $2 per ticket. The film reportedly made its money back in the first three months of its New York run.
After the success of the The Birth of a Nation, Thomas Dixon (former politician, turned minister, turned writer of The Clansman) went on to becoming a screenwriter. Included in his IMDB credits are the 1937 film Nation Aflame about the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan.
The full title of his book that inspired Griffth (linked here as an ebook) is The Clansman, A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
Dixon writes in his 1904 introduction:
“In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man’s hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An “Invisible Empire” had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat.
How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon’s death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.”
“The most depressing fact to emerge from the tumult (surround The release of The Birth of a Nation) was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. This organization, which Griffith himself admitted had spilt more blood than at Gettysburg, had disbanded in 1869. The modern Klan began its clandestine cruelty on Thanksgiving Night, 1915, on Stone Mountain in Atlanta, where in June 25,000 former Klansmen had marched down Peachtree Avenue to celebrate the opening of the film.”
Hollywood, The Pioneers