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

 

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.

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