D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, from 1915, is an extraordinary accomplishment in any era. The battle scenes look like documentary footage. The crowd scenes, the cast of hundreds, his innovative use of the camera (the close-up, fast “tracking” shots following galloping horses, cut-aways, inserts) – not to mention the realistic acting that he was able to encourage in his leads … all of these were giant innovations at the time. The advent of cinema had awkward beginnings, in many cases. Entertainment was theatrical and presentational, involving a proscenium arch. Much early cinema placed the camera far enough back to capture all of the action at one time – as though the camera were sitting in the audience at a vaudeville house. Perhaps it was hard to get your head around that this was a new medium, that with the camera you could do ANYthing. Griffith was the one who decided to go in close. To cut away from the main action to hone in on someone’s face – it is startlingly psychological, the close-up, and if you imagine only having seen plays, or vaudeville, to then have the ability to go way way in until you are almost up someone’s nose … It’s amazing that directors didn’t immediately perceive this from the moment the camera was invented, but they didn’t. Griffith did.
David Thomson writes:
To distill the stylistic advances of over three hundred films, Griffith abandoned the fixed point of view of the audience in the stalls and made his camera selective. He saw that there might be a balance between long shot, medium shot, and close-up, and that action might be heightened by the insertion of faces reflecting on or moved by the actions. T he effect of introducing a cinematic language should not conceal Griffith’s preference for the standard sentimental melodrama of nineteenth-century theatre and cheap fiction, but he established the emotional impact of films by recognizing the value of sensitive acting. He stressed rehearsal, eliminated crude overacting, and saw that close-ups were more effective if restrained. The outstanding proponents of this novel cinema-acting style are Miriam Cooper in Intolerance and Lillian Gish, but Griffith organized a company of excellent players, just as he liked to use the same, loyal technicians – most notably the cameraman Billy Bitzer.
A blockbuster at the time, it was controversial from the get-go (Griffith’s first screen of text in the film which has a statement abhorring censorship suggests that he understood that), and has just grown so over time. It’s a romantic uncritical look at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South. The Klan saved the South! Let’s all just hug one another in happiness and gratitude that the Klan exists! There is no getting around it. The viciously racist portrayals of blacks, not to mention the white actors in blackface, are hard to stomach, and none of it can be justified, except as being representative of a different time and place.
The most damaging exposure is of Griffith’s adherence to a shallow, sentimental code of morality, at variance with the authenticity that he was able to obtain in performance and that he cultivated in art direction.
That’s one of the reasons, for me, why Birth of a Nation is such a consistently fascinating and unsettling experience. Fascinating because I have to keep reminding myself: It’s 1915, there are horses galloping, and the camera is following them, or leading them on, or riding amongst them – how did Griffith achieve that? I wondered about his process. There is nothing STATIC about his screen. The camera moves in, moves back out, cuts to other rooms – we go from a tight closeup on Gish’s romantic little face to an enormous field of battle with horses and cannons and running soldiers – and this is completely modern. You are not looking at a “relic”, this is still something vital and new (and I believe that some of the “modern” directors today, with their love of hand-held jerky jumpcut style – for no apparent reason except that it seems to cover up their inadequacies and the fact that they don’t know how to TELL A STORY could learn from Griffith) – this is something that has life in it, still today. And yet so much of the entire enterprise is completely repellant. The swelling music when the “Little Colonel” gets the “inspiration” for creating the Klan. As though he has just discovered penicillin or something and we’re supposed to cheer. This is abhorrent stuff.
Still, the film has a power and a life to it that is undeniable.
It works as propaganda. If you take the film at its word, you can see the power of it, although that is difficult to do at times, because you can see the justification for racism woven throughout. But separate yourself from that, and see it as a historical document, in a similar way to the equally repllant Triumph of the Will (a more gorgeously shot film you would be hard pressed to find – but to what end?) – then you can see the propaganda at work. It is unsettling. I get involved in the story of the two families in Birth of a Nation, one from the North, one from the South, and they are good people, kind and loving to one another … and their nation is threatened by … well. Uppity negroes, frankly. Something must be done! Naturally, the climax comes when Lillian Gish finds herself in the clutches of Silas Lynch, the rabble-rousing “mulatto” from the North, who has come down South to raise up the blacks and crush the whites. The REAL threat is not equality of the races, oh no. The REAL threat is to the purity of white womanhood. Ah yes. Women are always at the heart of the matter, aren’t we? And men decide to kill one another to protect OUR honor. The Klan gallops through the dusty streets, terrifying to behold, and their main goal is to get to the Little Colonel’s house in time, before Gish can be deflowered by …. a mulatto! Yeah, cause that’s why the Civil War was fought, right? Dear men: do me a favor, and do yourself a favor, don’t use ME as an excuse to fight your damn wars, mkay? Come up with your own goddamn justification for the slaughter and leave me out of it.
Speaking of war, I want to mention one scene in Birth of a Nation that never fails to bring me to tears, and each time I’ve seen it, I keep thinking it will end at a certain point, and then it doesn’t … it moves on, slowly, for a couple seconds more, and it is those couple seconds that make the difference. That Civil War battle scenes in the film are absolutely incredible. You get huge long shots, that today would be done with CGI, but here … what we are seeing is real. Hundreds of soldiers, entrenched on either side, flags waving, drums, cannons going off – it is incredible stuff. There is one scene, during a particularly violent battle, where the two old friends, one from the North and one from the South, come across one another. The man from the North lies fallen, shot. The man from the South races over, thinking it is just “The Enemy (TM)”, and raises his rifle to shoot him dead, when he sees who it is. His old friend and comrade. They hold out their hands to one another, they speak a little bit, all around them is the smoke of battle, but they are in a completely private space. This one short scene encapsulates, better than any giant battle scene, the true wrenching horror of the War Between the States. Brother against Brother. And then, the man from the South, who is standing upright over his fallen friend, is shot. He falls beside the other man. And here is where the shot lingers, lengthening, going on beyond the point where I think it will stop. Each time I’ve seen it. The two men now lie on the ground together, one curled up against the other. They are still alive, but the life is fading from them both. The man who has just been shot, reaches out and puts his arm over the man’s chest. It is a shockingly intimate gesture, as though they are in bed together. It is tender. Loving. Like they are two little boys, having a slumber party, or sleeping out in a tent together. Before the self-consciousness of adulthood has descended upon them. That is when I think the scene will end. But it goes on. A bit more. They lie there, one holding the other, and the man with his arm over his friend, starts to slowly stroke his friend’s cheek. A gentle loving gesture, usually reserved for male-female relationships at this time. Almost romantic. And still the scene doesn’t end. He continues to stroke his friend’s cheek, his body curled up next to his friend, and he strokes and strokes – until the life leaves him, and you can see it leave his body, his hand, his fingers … and then the two of them lie there, still and dead, in each other’s arms.
This scene kills me. It has the perfect arc to it, and then, when you feel, “Okay, I’m done now”, because of the power of it – it refuses to stop. Just because you the audience are done doesn’t mean that the STORY is done. This is the horror of the Civil War. There is more to do, more to show you. You may want to look away 5 seconds into this thing, but we’ve got 5 more seconds to go, and you’re going to take it.
It’s a beautiful poetic and tragic representation of that war, and its complexities, and it’s done with simplicity and emotion.
It is impossible to discuss Birth of a Nation without discussing its content, and I actually am not interested in such a discussion, because the content is important. But it is also important to acknowledge what was actually done here, in terms of innovation, and the inspiration it provided to directors around the world. Ohhhh, so cinema is not so much about action – it’s about FACES. Of course, why didn’t I see that before?
There’s a moment when Lillian Gish, after having a sunny walk with her beloved Little Colonel, where they pledge their troth to one another and what have you, comes into the house and goes into her room. We see her dancing around, hugging herself, laughing out loud, a delightful picture of a young girl in love. Gish is, of course, sweet and girlish (perpetually), and her acting has the stamp of pantomime across it – which is one of the reasons I love it. Acting WAS pantomime back then. There were GESTURES which suggested Grief, Love, Anger, Fear. This acting style no longer exists. But watch Gish, and you can see what a gifted proponent of the 19th century acting style looks like. It’s extremely effective, archetypal almost – and not melodramatic. It’s not schtick. She manages to infuse it with heart, life, breath. She straddles two centuries, that’s what we’re seeing. The scene ends with her sitting down on the bed, lost in a dream of her love. Griffith then moves in close to her face. We’ve been seeing her in long shot all this time, but now he cuts to a closeup. Gish, her big eyes gleaming, hugs the bedpost. She is lost, lost in her dream, her happiness. And, almost unconsciously, she almost doesn’t know she’s doing it, Gish kisses the bedpost, as though it is her lover’s lips. The scene fades to black.
This is the kind of naturalistic psychological detail that elevates Birth of a Nation (in terms of its content, I mean – the technological aspect cannot be denied) from a pamphlet about The Dangers of Uppity Negroes – to a story, involving character, motivation, obstacle.
Gish’s acting in that moment (and in others) has much to do with the success of the film, and it is in how she does it. It’s not just that she kisses the bedpost, which is already rather adorable and human. It’s that she appears to do it without thinking about it, without knowing quite what she is doing. It comes naturally out of what is in her heart. She wants to be close to him, but he is not there, and … the bedpost is. This is what cinema can do. Such a moment would not play on a stage. It is too small, too subtle. But on a movie screen, it reads large. We go inside her head and her heart. THAT was Griffith’s innovation.
Birth of a Nation remains a troubling document of a time and place, with many elements that are disgusting. But still. It draws you in. That’s perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all. That’s why the damn thing works.
If I didn’t know any better, I might also cheer at the sight of Klansmen galloping, as far as the eye can see.
Again, Triumph of the Will comes to mind. It is a haunting and gorgeous evocation of COMMUNITY, of ONE-ness. It compels you to join the group. It shows you the pageantry, the beauty, the sheer power of the group … it doesn’t have to say anything else. There are no questions involved in the film, nothing nags the conscience: Is this right? Is this group something I WANT to join? No. It appears to be an inevitability. The group COMPELS you to join it, and that makes Triumph of the Will, perhaps, one of the most effective films ever made. It’s horrifying.
Regardless of the moral elements here, and how times and ideas change, Birth of a Nation remains a highwater mark, at least technologically, in that it showed what the new medium was truly capable of.
View the film now on Fandor: