The late great Roger Ebert once said, “I think most people are more susceptible to prejudice than to reason” and that insight seems as relevant as ever. In this year, when tensions are at a high and politics are seen as polluted by greed and devious agendas; we’re urged to look back into the past. By doing so we have to ask, what has changed? Some things have, some things haven’t and in reviewing the BFI’s newly restored and outstandingly assembled centenary edition of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 notorious war epic, The Birth of A Nation, we have to say that all these years on it still provokes debate, discussion and a need to compare it with our contemporary cultural climate. If you have never heard of this film or its maker, you are missing arguably the most integral film and auteur in the advancement of early (especially American) cinema, as a respected and professional craft. However, the film’s sordid relationship with history remains ever visible.
Split into two acts, this silent historical war epic tells the tale of two families fragmented by the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. The Stoneman family is pro-union North, the Cameron’s are pro-confederacy South and this sprawling story looks at the conflict of war, the assassination of Lincoln and the “liberation” of the south by the Ku Klux Klan. Now, the below rating must be explained because while indeed The Birth of A Nation remains a distinctly powerful and technically masterful picture, the racial issues are ugly and thus caution is advised. Through modern (and rational) eyes this is a racist film but being adapted from (the even harsher) ‘The Clansman’, the book and play from admitted white supremacist Thomas Dixon, this is hardly a shock. 100 years on, the second act narrative actions and presentations of black people as animalistic, sexually predatory characters (played mostly by white actors in ‘blackface’) make for uncomfortable and distressing viewing.
Once lauded by president Wilson, praised by critics and among the most successful films of all time, the story of The Birth of A Nation is a problematic one to express. On one hand we cannot deny the achievement on the other hand the advancement of society relegates this content to the darkness of a thankfully bygone era. However, should this difficult subject make you abstain from embarking on “the mightiest spectacle ever produced”? No it shouldn’t, in fact if anything it should encourage you to because- though factually untrue (and that’s a big understatement)- the racist elements of this story wonderfully illustrate the evil behind organised prejudice. For Act I of this story, Griffith tells a powerful story of the futility of war and the film takes on a conversely pacifist tone. One opening card even reads, “If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain”. This sweeping and structurally ahead of the times tale ridiculously contrasts to the film’s reconstruction story of Act II.
It would perhaps be more satisfying were this workmanlike propaganda we could rightly condemn. However, considering we are celebrating this films 100th anniversary and considering who was at the helm, this could never be the case. The Birth of A Nation is a difficult film to watch but a necessary insight into dark deeds that men do and in that respect, it stands the test of time. The story is instilled with comic elements, Drama and pioneering technique which has impacted every major motion picture ever since. From spectacular scaled set pieces to close-ups, sophisticated editing and sequences constructed to rouse an audience; this film even today leaves you in awe of the craftsmanship. These technical successes arguably birthed the cinema we know today and even when things go morally to vile places in Act II (The Ku Klux Klan heroically horse-riding to Ride of the Valkyries) the film’s sense of wonder scarily entices.
This immaculate BFI Blu-Ray Centenary Edition of the film is one we highly recommend to cinema historians and archivists because never has a film this old looked so fantastic. The expert John Lanchbery score- adapted from Joseph Carl Breil’s 1915 original- is like a character in itself and alongside the painstakingly restored visuals and buckets of archive special features and silent films, it makes for an exemplary collection and the accompanying booklet is brilliantly informative. In many ways this is a film where you enjoy the craft but analyse the content, it is an aggressive work that has much to say about the nature of hate and evil deeds and how perpetrators often mask (in this case literally) such deeds behind a sheet of ignorance or manipulation. This film is an education and this set is a tool to go back and learn.
Celebrate its triumphs, learn from its flaws, Birth of A Nation remains a landmark cinematic work that audiences today can learn an awful lot from- be it in researching the abhorrent era of propaganda politics it depicts or the ahead of its time technical construction for cine buffs. So, especially considering the events that are going on right now, we ask in concluding point, how much has been learnt? We would like to think a lot but with the persistence of conflict and prejudice, perhaps there is much to be gained from going back and seeing how such acts only cause great harm to advancement and progression. Case in point, this film is Griffith’s most accomplished and influential film, yet it is justifiably constrained because of the controversial (both then and now) acts of intolerance it depicts. Learn from the morals and enjoy the early cinematic innovation.
Special Features: Outtakes and Original Camera Tests, Melvin Stokes on The Clansman, Interviews, Newsreel, Sound Reissue Featurettes, BFI Roundtable Discussion, Archive Short and Feature-Length Films, Score Recording Sessions and Illustrated Booklet
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (CENTENARY EDITION) (BLU-RAY) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: D. W. GRIFFITH / SCREENPLAY: D. W. GRIFFITH, FRANK E. WOODS / STARRING: LILLIAN GISH, MAE MARSH, HENRY B. WALTHALL, MIRIAM COOPER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW