"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Birth of a Nation (David W Griffith, 1915)

An important film that argues for evil

It is hard to watch The Birth of a Nation today. Such overtly racist propaganda makes unpalatable viewing and even as a film it is unconscionably long (twelve reels, 190 minutes at 16 fps) and the acting is to modern eyes absurdly and childishly melodramatic. You watch it as a historical document.

The film is, of course, in many ways seminal. DW Griffith was a pioneer and he, more than any other early film maker, practically invented the language of the cinema. In the restored print available today the film is certainly remarkable in its staging and fluidity. The battle scenes are extraordinary
 Great battle panoramas
and the tableaux vivants showing such events as Lincoln signing the call-up, the surrender at Appomattox or Ford’s Theater, modeled on famous paintings, have an element of greatness about them. 1915 audiences witnessed the first intercutting in a chase scene: two concurrent actions building to a joint climax. It was remarkable and no wonder it thrilled. Cinema experts list many such innovations.
But as Andrew Sarris, quoted by Roger Ebert, says, "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."

1915 was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War/Great Rebellion. There were many parades and commemorations held all over the United States, often with the emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness. There were few living survivors of the conflict and those that attended were usually very old. The war was passing into myth and legend. Many early films concerned themselves with the subject. Griffith himself directed eleven one-reelers on the theme.
Hard to watch
Griffith was a Southern sympathizer heart and soul. His father had been a Confederate colonel. His actress wife had starred in productions of The Clansman (1906), a most unpleasantly anti-Negro play by white supremacist author Thomas Dixon Jr. which represents the KKK as the savior of the nation. It was a big hit and Griffith decided to adapt it for the screen.

Ebert again:

It is a stark history lesson to realize that this film, for many years the most popular ever made, expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views. Miss [Lillian] Gish reveals more than she realizes when she quotes Griffith's paternalistic reply to accusations that he was anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."

It smacks of those slave-owners who used to deny their racism by arguing that “we treat our niggers very well.”

We mustn’t forget that there were those even at the time who protested against the film. The NAACP was outraged and many people, black and white, wrote to the press or expressed their dislike of the movie in other ways. The fact remains that the film was a huge box-office success, and the première publicity stunt of white-robed Klansmen parading in LA on February 8th, 1915 was greeted with more amusement than outrage.

The majority of the movie is given over to the story of two families, the Camerons and the Stonemans, one Southern and one Northern, whose friendship is sorely tested when they find themselves on opposite sides in the war. Sons of both families die on the same battlefield. The stern Northern paterfamilias is the Hon. Austin Stoneman, Leader of the House (hammed up unmercifully by Ralph Lewis), based on Thaddeus Stevens, complete with black wig and club foot. His daughter Elsie is played by Lillian Gish. I know it is correct to praise Ms. Gish for her great acting and long career but to my mind, in this she is absolutely awful.
Lillian Gish overdoes it shockingly
She demonstrates horror at the effrontery of a black man talking to her by literally waving her arms in the air. You feel that even on the stage in the corniest of Victorian melodramas she would be laughed at as overdoing it.

On the other side, the Cameron family, Mae Marsh is more restrained (if overly sugary) as “Flora Cameron – The Pet Sister” and she takes the (limited) acting honors. Marsh was an interesting person who had appeared in several early silent Westerns, including for Griffith, and became quite a star of the silver screen in the 1920s. Later, she was a character actor in talkies and was taken up by John Ford, appearing in many of his famous Westerns.
Mae Marsh better but still very sugary
Donald Crisp was General Grant and other minor roles were taken by Monte Blue, Eric von Stroheim, John Ford as a Klansman (well, according to Ford) and Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth.
Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth
One of the most bizarre aspects of the film is the use of white actors in blackface. George Siegmann is Stoneman’s henchman, Silas Lynch, “Mulatto Lieut. Governor”. Stoneman’s evil, scheming “mulatto” housekeeper Lydia is Mary Alden, another who hams it up with rolling eyes and villainous gestures. And Walter Long is Gus, “A Renegade Negro”. He dares to pay court to Mae Marsh’s white character so the girl duly throws herself off a cliff, as of course who wouldn’t?
Mary Alden as villainous 'mulatto' in blackface
Lillian Gish said in explanation that "There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he had trained." Well, there was a reason why there were few black actors on the coast, Ms. Gish, and probably a more evident reason still for Mr. Griffith not using any. The blackface is so badly applied and unconvincing that we can only conclude that Griffith wanted it that way. Using black actors in scenes suggesting possible sexual intent with whites would have shocked 1915 audiences in a way we would find hard to understand now.

There are even scenes where lead actors in blackface are seen against a background of real African-American people (in an uppity mob or as cheerful dancing “darkies”) and this contrast is as bizarre as it is chilling. “Them colored folk” dance with delight when the Confederates march off to war. I prefer to think their delight that their masters were going to the battlefield was for other motives than support.
President Wilson denied his approval of the play/film
The funniest part (unintentionally) is Gish’s scene caressing a very phallic bedpost.

There is a scene of siege in a cabin which reminds one very much of Griffith’s The Battle of Elderbush Gulch of 1913, also starring Gish and Marsh, except that the besiegers are not Indians but “coloreds” and it is not the US Cavalry but the KKK that rides to the rescue at the last minute.
In this blog I tend not to talk about a film as being the 'property' of a director, in terms such as "DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation" as I do not hold with auteurism and believe that a movie is the product of too many other people to be accredited to only the director. However, in this case, as Griffith produced, released, directed, cast, and wrote it and it was his film company, I think we do need to call it "DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation" and place any credit or blame firmly at his door.

Let’s finish with Roger Ebert too:

The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.

It probably is a great film but as I said at the beginning, it's hard to watch now.



  1. As you know, I love your blog, but I must confess that I think your swipes at Lillian Gish are out of line. Having met the very elderly Gish several times in my youth, and reading countless stories of her kindness and generosity, it is a little churlish to castigate her simply because a woman born in 1893 does not have 21st Century sensibilities. I am sure that many ‘truths’ that we take for granted now will seem equally wrong-headed in the decades to come; no doubt we will also be posthumously pilloried for thinking along the same lines of our historical moment.

    1. Hi Bob
      Fair enough and perhaps I was a bit harsh. I am rather given to overstatement, I know. Though I think it's reasonable enough to compare her to other actresses of the time (or even in the same film) and remark that she overdoes it. She was very 'girlish', wasn't she, and she had a look about her that seems to me to almost suggest a rather racy Victorian postcard.
      I do think she was outstanding as an older lady in The Night of the Hunter (see review).
      Thanks for your comment and best wishes,

    2. Sorry if I was harsh -- and more Jeff Arnold's West, please! :-)

  2. I saw this in a restored 35mm print in 1970 in Dallas, TX. I was a high school sophomore, and quite the student of film, but I had no idea, as I walked through the NAACP picketers in front of the theatre, why anyone would care about the content of a 55 year-old silent film. But the vileness of the content, and the technical and creative artistry with which it was so effectively conveyed, answered that question with a knockout punch that is still with me 45 years later. I engaged a couple of the picketers in a lengthy and satisfying discussion, that carried over to a 24-hr coffee shop, afterwards.


    1. Thank you!
      I think we are all agreed: hard to watch now but great artistry all the same.

  4. Jeff, about history vs movie and vice-versa and moreover history vs Hollywood, mayI recommand to your avid readers, an excellent and very extensive - by its listings by centuries and themes - blog written innFrench by a Swiss, Hervé Dumont, a cinema historian and the former director of the Swiss Cinémathèque

    1. Hi JM
      Very interesting site. Thanks for the tip. It will repay a lot of study, I think.