Before "The Birth of a Nation," motion pictures were a medium with the potential to be an art. This movie, more than any afore, realized that promise. It's the most important film ever made; it's the birth of an art. Alas, it's also racist.
The film's controversy appears to have left director D.W. Griffith dumbfounded, judging by Griffith's responses to critics and from descriptions by Griffith biographers. The son of a Confederate soldier, his prepossession for an antebellum South wasn't, if not still, unusual. Histories of the day, including those by would-be US President Woodrow Wilson, supported his perverted depiction of the Ku Klux Klan saving a South pillaged by carpetbaggers, scalawags and encouraged Negroes. The film quotes Wilson's "History of the American People." Thomas Dixon Jr. himself solicited the White House screening where the President is said to have quipped, "It is like writing history with lightening, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Dixon's racist book trilogy and the subsequent play were Griffith's inspiration for "The Birth of a Nation."
In it, the American Civil War and Reconstruction disrupt the once-friendly relations between the Unionist Stonemans and the Confederate Camerons. The first part is largely free of controversy, although its racially-segregated imagery underlies a nostalgia for the institution of slavery; it's idyllic romanticism and melodrama typical of Griffith, absent Dixon. And, the battle scenes are excellent. Explosions, smoke and hundreds of extras fill the action. Future prominent directors like Raoul Walsh and Erich von Stroheim assisted the direction. The action shifts between bird's-eye views and medium shots, demonstrating vast scope with attention to isolated skirmishes. Including Griffith with "Judith of Bethulia," filmmakers had until now failed to realize massive battles with such grandeur. To top it off, cinematographer G.W. "Billy" Bitzer's moving camera shot of the Little Colonel's charge.
The second half of the film, when Congressman Austin Stoneman (based on Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens) and his mulatto protégé Silas Lynch lead the freed slaves into postwar power, is when the racism becomes especially blatant. Blacks are portrayed as childish morons or as easily-excitable brutes--harmless enough if put in their place, such as with the condescending "faithful souls." According to Griffith, it's the mulattos that are especially dangerous, because they posses the cunning of a white with the animalism of a black. What they want is to "marry," which means rape, white virginal women. The film is sexist, too. This is most evident in the infamous scene of the Black buck Gus chasing the childlike Mae Marsh through the woods, to a cliff she leaps from to preserve her purity. It's especially offensive because it's so well done, except for the trope of the "Little Sister" ludicrously surviving the fall briefly for a last gasp. The photography sets it apart, and the crosscutting intensifies the classic last-minute rescue attempt, as the Little Colonel enters the action.
Yet, the Klan rescue is by far the most offensive and concurrently most exciting sequence in the picture. Griffith and his editors, headed by James and Rose Smith, crosscut between multiple actions, climaxing with the rescue of Elsie Stoneman from the threat of being raped, the Aryans and faithful souls under siege and the whole of Piedmont under the heel of a black mob. To that date, it's the most advanced, amazing montage and remains impressive to this day. Before, Griffith had found how exciting well-edited suspense could be, with "The Battle at Elderbush Gulch" and his last-minute rescue flicks, such as "The Girl and Her Trust." And a variation of Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" greatly adds to the intensity.
The silhouette of Klansmen riding upon a hill, with the sunrise behind; the moving-camera shot of the approach; the angled camera positions: Bitzer and Griffith photograph it brilliantly, too. That is, besides the interiors. Theatricality is the film's major cinematic weakness. This is most evident in the missing walls. The narrative structure is also traditional. Griffith would never do otherwise, and it's certainly not unique for 1915. Filmmakers were beginning to exploit the advantages of controlled filming within studio sets by now, but the open-air sets with natural lighting, as used here, were still prevalent. At least, the sets here are decorated in detail. Bitzer and Griffith, however, were consistently innovative in their beautiful outdoor photography--with camera movement and positioning, tinting, nighttime photography and good use of split-screens and of masking the camera lens.
The acting is also theatrical, but Griffith did direct his actors to be subtler in comparison to contemporary acting. Lillian Gish rose to the forefront of this style, largely because of this film, which made her a star. She plays Elsie Stoneman, who has the more prominent of the two romantic relationships in the film with a soldier from the other side; she's Griffith's ideal white virgin. There are some especially well-acted moments here for its time. The sequence with Marsh using ermine in attempt to garment her ragged house dress for the homecoming of her brother and Henry Walthall's slow, moving walk towards the front door of home are especially poignant--showing the destitution of the postbellum South.
"The Birth of a Nation" is a troublingly racist picture, which is said to have revived the KKK (as well as being the cause célèbre of the newfound NAACP in its efforts to censor it). Nevertheless, its importance in film history, and its cinematic merits are immense. There are other impressive works from this time: films by Bauer, Chaplin, Christensen, DeMille, Sjöström, Starewicz, Tourneur and Weber. Yet, to say the least about "The Birth of a Nation," as far as I've seen, nothing before matches its scale with such filmic innovation.
It runs for 12 reels--having cost some $110,000 to make. Its vast popularity also had incalculable effects on movies as an industry, including the establishment of Hollywood at its center. Although other estimates are lower, Griffith-biographer Richard Schickel claims it grossed more than $60 million by 1917. Its influence, not only on cinema, is enormous. No other film has been as important to the direction of motion pictures as an industry and an art.