Clocking in at number 3 out off 1001 films that I apparently have to watch before I die is this film, The Birth of a Nation. This film was made by the legendary director, D.W. Griffiths in 1915.
The last film I watched on this list was The Great Train Robbery. It was made in 1903, and we now jump to 1915. The jump in filmmaking technique in just 12 years is astonishing.
Griffith had mastered (if not invented) all sorts of techniques that we take for granted nowadays. Close ups, battle scenes (where one side always moves from left to right and the other army always moves from right to left, so nobody gets confused), ballroom scenes, fade ins and outs – you name it – they’re all in this film.
He also developed the idea of film momentum. This film runs for 3 hours 10 minutes (that’s not counting the intermission) and it starts quite slowly, but gradually, as the time progresses, the speed of the storytelling takes off, until by the final half-hour, it’s all non-stop action, with rapid editing, cross cuts back and forth between different characters and anything else they could use to get the audience on the edge of their seat.
But even in the slow parts, I liked what he was trying to do. In some respects, he reminds me a bit of Leo Tolstoy in that Griffith’s camera is always looking for the quirky little details that make what you’re watching seem human. So whenever it was possible to get animals and babies in their, he’d put them in. Why? Because they can’t really act – they will always look spontaneous and real.
Of course, film was still in its infancy, so there’s none of the subtlety of Tolstoy. To make sure you don’t miss the little mannerism that the actor is trying to do, their body language and facial expressions are so overdone, that it becomes much larger than life and melodramatic. In fact, it’s the acting more so than the stories or lack of dialogue that is probably the hardest thing to cope with when watching silent films.
The two other noticeable issues are the speed of editing and the music. Despite the fact that there are quite rapid cuts (especially towards the end, as I mentioned), ever since about the 90s, editors have rapidly quickened the pace of films for the MTV generation. (I learned all this from a documentary I watched recently about film editing.) So what would have been a fairly fast film to keep up with from a 1915 perspective becomes, even at its fastest, quite slow for us.
And as for the music – it could have been a lot worse, but the soundtrack for this film was an amateurish miniature orchestra (I’d estimate about 10 people) playing music that ranged from the banal to clunky versions of classical music like “The Ride of the Valkyries”. With a bit of “Dixie” and “Bonnie Blue Flag” thrown in because this is a Civil War film after all. Still, it could have been a lot worse. The worst silent films I’ve ever seen are the ones where the soundtrack is either completely synthesised or (shudder!) the Wurlitzer organ.
Anyway, that’s the technical side of this film – the story is quite another thing. Anyone who knows a bit about this film, will know the uproar it caused. The first half of the film is not so bad. It’s the Civil War half and tells the story of friends caught on either side in the great war. The idea of this is to make war itself look bad, and it largely succeeds.
The problems really begin in the second half of the film, where the post-War Southerners are now “at the mercy” of all the freed black slaves. In this film, the blacks (largely played by white actors with black face paint, which doesn’t help matters) take over parliament, run riot through town, stop white people voting, etc. etc.
Finally, the poor, persecuted Southerners have no choice but to form the Ku Klux Klan to save themselves and their families from certain peril.
Even back in 1915, this was a hugely divisive things to do, and while the crowds turned out in the thousands to see the most spectacular film ever made (at the time), there were also protesters in lot of cities where the film played.
My own feeling is that Griffith was a bit naive on the issue. Certainly, the point of his film was to actually promote an anti-war message, and the ending of the film (where Jesus makes a brief appearance) was to promote a time of peace when all wars would cease. And not every black person in the film is bad.
But most of them are, and the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as heroes, and for that reason, this film will always be technically brilliant for its time, and morally flawed. And that gulf between its acceptability as a story and its technical genuis as a film will only grow wider as the years roll on. Myself, I’d far rather watch Griffith’s follow-up film (which he partly made to respond to all the criticism that this one attracted), the absolutely jaw-dropping Intolerance. But I’ll get to that soon.
2 1/2 out of 5.