Saturday, 18 May 2013

The difficult one… The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Pre-internet there was no option but to gain information the hard way and as a child I used to work my way through the twelve volumes of Purnell's New English Encyclopaedia my parents had bought. In the section on film there was a list of the twenty best films of all time (probably taken from the AFI list?) and I was fascinated by the fact that the majority were not only in black and white but also silent.

This was one of my earliest encounters with the idea of silent film and, of course, near the top of the list was The Birth of a Nation. It is a film I've always wanted to see yet one I've become very wary of because of its complex relationship to the truth and the attitudes not only of the film makers but the millions of Americans who made it the most successful silent movie of all time.

David Thomson calls the film “appalling” and that we should not watch it “unprepared” or in ignorance: it's a reminder and call to educate... (not to mention, agitate and organise).  So much has been written about this film, I'm sure no one is waiting for my take, but here it is anyway...

The Birth of a Nation is and always has been racist: this is not just good guys against bad guys it is good guys against bad black guys. Griffith’s awareness of this was clear from the inter-titles before part two: “ this is an historical presentation...and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.” He tried to couch the representation of racially-based motivations as something of the past.

But this was not a distinction accepted by all at the time. Speaking to the New York Post in March 1915, Jane Addams (founder of Hull House and future Nobel Prize winner) said: “The producer seems to have followed the principle of gathering the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people, and showing them as representatives of the truth about the entire race... It is both unjust and untrue."

DW's introduction the the 1930 re-release
Yet, even in the introductory interview Griffith recorded with Walter Huston for the 1930 re-release, he was still supporting the views in his film, saying that the Clan was needed "at the time" and that he still believed his film represented “the truth”. Oddly he then quotes Pontius Pilate in saying “the truth, what is the truth?” Well, exactly...

These outrageous sentiments show that Birth of a Nation was not just an error of judgement but a reflection of long held views - Griffith was a Southern Man. The same director went on to film an inter-racial relationship in Broken Blossoms and put together Intolerance as a plea for human understanding and in penitence following the reaction of some to Birth… yet here he is 15 years later, defending the validity of his story in a cosy chat with Walter. Huston goes on to say that the film is perhaps the greatest ever made and there are still many who might agree with that...technically if not morally.

"Gus, a Renegade Negro" played by Walter Lang
Birth of a Nation reflected a lot of common feeling and exposed the truth of racial thinking in a society which was still trying to complete the process of equality a century after the Civil War let alone after a half century.

Griffith starts his film with the thought that “the bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” Is he trying to place blame on the slave traders or the slaves: one of a number of occasions when the message seems conflicted - hedging his bets? He doesn’t devote too much time to the causes of the War other than the implication that the North was trying to dominate the liberated South in the proposed Union.

The Camerons entertain the Stonemans
He’s passionately anti-war though having grown up with tales from his father who fought for the Confederacy. Griffiths had acted in plays about the Civil War and it featured in eleven of the short films he made before the big feature. Common themes show the splitting of family and friends and the awful damage done to both sides by the conflict.

Thus we see the Northern Stoneman family driven against the Southern Camerons in spite of their links of brotherly and romantic love. Once the conflict has begun Griffith skips two years to the closing days and the Battle of Petersburg.

The battle is magnificently recreated starting with a close up of a family cowering on a hill and then panning across a valley in which the trenches will be dug and the armies converge.

In moments like this you can see the compound technical breakthroughs achieved by this film – how many were the director’s own innovations is open to debate but no one had ever before used so many cross-cuts, super-impositions, dolly and tracking shots, close-ups and other devices in such number. The film feels almost modern in some sections but this was Griffith consolidating the language of film we all take for granted.

Had the story ended with the carefully-reconstructed assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the film might have been more unequivocally “great", but then he goes and blows it all…

The second half of the film shows the Reconstruction as the post war Union was destabilised by the economic impact of Southern defeat and by the land-grabbing carpet-baggers who came down from the North to take advantage of the chaos.

Griffith suggests that the gifting of equality to former slaves and the black populace in general was a mistake as they were taken advantage of and corrupted by the Northern opportunists. It is excruciating to modern eyes but haven’t Hollywood films always enjoyed a tenuous relationship with historical fact, following the simplest of populist paths.

Mary Alden as Lydia Brown
Yet, in this case, Griffith can’t look beyond the ingrained beliefs of his upbringing. There are two mixed race characters who take advantage of the naïve Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), first his excitable "mulatto" maid Lydia (Mary Alden) bends his ear – “the great leader's weakness  that is to blight a nation...” and then he enables the rise to power of Sylas Lynch (George Siegmann). Lynch seems to be an amalgam of various perceived wrong ‘uns who lust after the white women and who’s agenda is simply to take what the white folk have got: everything.

The fact that both characters are played by actors in black face makes things so much worse. But this is what Griffiths, sincerely, believed had happened.

George Siegmann, Ralph Lewis, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall
The saviours of this situation were the be-sheeted Ku Klux Klan who, quite simply, kept on fighting even after the war had finished. In Griffith’s eyes and those of the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to join the KKK in the years after the film was released (helping to reverse its long-term decline), this action had been unavoidable given the whites’ “disenfranchisement”.

At the end we see a group of black men put off the idea of voting by a troop of Clan riders standing proud on horseback…. In Griffith’s view two wrongs clearly made a right … If you’re feeling particularly generous, he was over-reaching… but he was not alone in thinking that desperate times called for martial law.

The film’s climax is exceptionally well choreographed and set the template for so many that followed, with triple strands of peril and rescue as Lynch pursues Elsie, the Camerons are chased into a shack and the Clan ride into town to out-muscle the black militia.

Miriam, Lillian and some men in sheets...
All ends with a victorious Clan march through with lovers united and peace descending.  Griffith shows a vision of Hell replaced by caucasian Heaven as the two sets of North and South lovers gaze outwards from a windswept hilltop.

Of the largely excellent cast, Henry B. Walthall as the “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron stands out for his energy and resolve – a believable hero on the battlefield and off. Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh are also exceptional but Miriam Cooper stands out as the eldest Cameron daughter who mourns her two dead brothers almost at the expense of life beyond with her love from the North.

Miriam Cooper
At least some boundaries were crossed in the end and it’s important to remember that this film appeared in the year of the 50th anniversary of the war’s ending – a time of country-wide reflection and re-affirmation that, somehow, it was all worth it.

Like many a film-maker, Griffith processed this sentiment through the establishment of semi-fictionalised agents of evil which he hoped to anchor in the past. Like it or not, millions were willing to immerse themselves in this fiction – he touched a nerve alright, but he may have also played a part in the ultimate rejection of these sensibilities by the majority…

At the time there was criticism from the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its "vicious" portrayal of blacks and support of the Klan. Riots also broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and other major cities and it was denied release in a number of states including Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis.

Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall
Griffith miss-judged the focus of his film and the burgeoning civil rights movement may have gained as much from this film as the Clan. Whatever the statistics, there was a long road ahead but change was going to come.

I watched the splendid Kino BluRay edition which features both the 2011 restoration as well as the 1997 one and seven of Griffith’s Civil War shorts. This is now out in the UK Masters of Cinema set, an excellent restoration of a very important if not strictly enjoyable - difficult - film.

The final title card reads: "Liberty and union,  one and inseparable,  now and forever!"

All images copyright of Mr DW Griffith as per usual - they're here to help sell your movie.

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