Reviews

The Birth Of A Nation

4

A cinematic milestone with troubling values

A towering milestone in the history of cinema. Asentimentalised, reactionary slab of racism. Can a film be both?

In the case of D.W. Griffith’s silent-era classic The Birth Of A Nation, unfortunately it can.

No question, Griffith was one of the greatest pioneers of American cinema.In the 400-odd movies he directed between 1908 and 1915, he revolutionised the art of cinematic narrative, releasing it from its stiff, theatre-bound limitations. 

His use of cross-cutting, of the balance between long shot, medium shot and close-up to advance and heighten the action, his willingness to move the camera within the frame, his preference for subtle acting over crude hamming – all this fed into his planned magnum opus, a Civil War epic based on Thomas Dixon’s stage play The Clansman.

It was a fatal choice. 

Dixon was an out-and-out racist – and Griffith, a born Southerner, son of a Confederate officer, couldn’t see how offensive his material was. TBOAN’s depiction of an idyllic antebellum South, with happy black folk singing as they slave for thewhite ‘massa’, is very hard to take. 

But that’s nothing beside the film’s second half, in which the poor defeatedSouth isoverrun by white carpetbaggers and uppity blacks (mostly played by white actors in blackface) who want nothing more than to molest white girls. 

But never fear, a bunch of Southern veterans have donned white hoods and are riding gallantly to the rescue...If – and it’s a very big if – you can get past all that, the sweep and grandeur of Griffith’s vision is still impressive (critic James Agee called one scene of an infantry charge “the most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie”). 

There’s genuine pathos in the depiction of the two families, one from the North, one from the South and united by friendship, who are torn apart by the war, and a moving performance fromLillian Gish.

Eureka have put together a lavish package with a new 1080ppresentation of the film. Extras include archival intros from Griffith and Walter Huston and seven of Griffith’s Civil War-themed shorts.

Film Details