David Wark (D.W.) Griffith's BIRTH OF A NATION has been hailed as a masterpiece since its release and it is indeed a landmark in cinema history. It is also a vital historical document showing by its very existence how many people felt in 1915 and how readily they accepted the history they were taught. Cinematically, it contains many imaginative and innovative techniques and helped define standards of cinema during the early stages of film history. But is it a masterpiece? Does it deserve the praise it has received, even if that praise is consistently tempered with outrage at its content? What makes a film great? Can one separate content from technique and praise one but not the other? BIRTH OF A NATION forces the viewer to confront all of these questions and here it is hoped we may find some answers.
Separating content from technique is something not often done in film history. Rarely will you read a review of a film stating, "The story was one of the worst I've ever seen, poorly written, employing all manner of stereotype and filled with hate but boy did it look good. Four stars!" Rare too is the reverse but not as rare. It is much more common to forgive low budget techniques if the story, acting and overall themes are laudable. So why is it the BIRTH OF A NATION gets a free pass? Why do film historians consistently bemoan its deplorable content but still rank it as a masterpiece based on its technique? First, let us understand the film and its story.
BIRTH OF A NATION shocks the first-time viewer with its profoundly racist imagery. No matter how prepared one is by reading about the film and the scenes it contains, shock and disgust cannot be suppressed when actually witnessing them firsthand. This is not the racism of later Hollywood with its servants and mammys, this is racism presented bluntly and brutally: Lazy, shifty and lusting freed slaves taking over the small town of Piedmont, South Carolina; abusing power in the state senate they now control by enacting laws to make legal their lust for white women; the Ku Klux Klan being portrayed heroically as they free the town; and finally, near the end of the film, a scene of the Klan with guns drawn to prevent freed black men from voting - presented comically! And through it all the black man is presented as being just shy of an animal. It is abhorrent to anyone with any measure of civilized sensibility. But that is the second half of the film. The first half deals with the before and immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
As the film begins we get this title card: "The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion." So much overt hateful racism appears later in the film that this opening is often overlooked. The title card mentions nothing of slave-traders, nothing of plantation owners, nothing of Supreme Court rulings that slaves were property but could be counted as "half a man" for census purposes. The word "slave" isn't even used. It says that the African brought to America planted the first seed of disunion. In a very subtle way it is saying the Africans were the problem, not the white slave-owners. In fact, as we will later see in the film, the white slave-owners are presented as the most decent people in the story. Those slave-owners, the Camerons of Piedmont, live in an idyllic state on their simple plantation where their slaves, later described as "faithful souls", serve them their dinner and even dance for their entertainment. The eldest son, Ben, will become the protagonist of the film. The Stonemans, friends from Pennsylvania, are Northern Abolitionists. The patriarch, Austin Stoneman, fights in congress for abolition. Later he will be seen as a betrayer of the proud white race. He is for the abolition of the most heinous institution ever created by man, the owning of other human beings as property, and Griffith chooses to portray him as misguided and hypocritical. One title card states that Stoneman's lust for his mulatto servant, Lydia Brown, is "(t)he great leader's weakness that is to blight a nation."
The coming war is described this way in another title card: The power of the sovereign states, established when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the individual colonies in 1781, is threatened by the new administration. In case you missed the overwhelming subtlety of that title card, the Civil War resulted from Abraham Lincoln's dictatorial tendencies to take all power away from the states, not from the fact that the Southern states did not want new states admitted to the union to have a choice as to whether to be a slave state or a free state. At this point in the film it is clear where Griffith's sympathies lie. As the South secedes from the Union and forms the Confederacy the Camerons and Stonemans are in battle against each other. The two youngest sons from each family die on the battlefield together, arm in arm. During the war a black militia (of course) ransacks the Cameron house, terrorizing and pillaging. It is during these scenes that Griffith sets up marvelous set pieces that are in no small part responsible for the great technical reputation of this film. His overhead and long vistas intercut with medium shots and closeups during battle as well as harsh, realistic historical recreations of such seminal events as Sherman's March through the South, shows a director who understood film at a fundamental level when others around him were still using static medium shots of tableaux, as if placing a camera before a stage. That Griffith was an innovator is certainly not in question. He also produces "historical facsimiles," as they are called in the film, reproductions of historical events such as Lee's surrender at Appomattox or Lincoln's assassination in Ford's theatre. These "facsimiles" present a problem for the whole film, especially to an audience of 1915 still uneducated in the manipulative uses of film as propaganda. They give the illusion of truth, that we are watching "real" history, a subtle nudge that if these scenes are true so must be the rest of the story. At the very least, true in theme.
And here we arrive at the second half of the film dealing with Reconstruction. It is in this half that we see the full thrust of the film's racist ideologies. Reconstruction's failings are heaped upon the shoulders of abolitionists, carpetbaggers and freed slaves. Griffith quotes Woodrow Wilson's HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE to set the tone:
"..... Adventurers swarmed out of the North, as much enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes..... In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences."
".... The policy of the congressional leaders wrought ... a veritable overthrow of civilization in the South ..... in their determination to 'put the white South under the heel of the black South.'"
"The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation ..... until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." WOODROW WILSON
As Reconstruction begins Austin Stoneman tries to persuade Abraham Lincoln to rule over the South viciously and brutally so that they may pay for their sins but Lincoln refuses. After Lincoln's assassination, Stoneman gets to run Reconstruction the way he wants to, with the aid of his protege, mulatto Silas Lynch. Stoneman forces Charles Sumner, an actual historical figure, to legitimize Silas Lynch who in the next election becomes Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. Lynch is portrayed as the ultimate villain because of his mixed race, presumably possessing the supposed superior intellect of the white man and the supposed cunning deceit of the black man. He is seen as the symbol of all that is morally wrong with Reconstruction. He lusts for power and will betray the trust of his white benefactors as soon as it suits him.
On election day, Silas Lynch has his Black Supremacists intimidate the whites away from the voting box so that blacks sweep the election. It is here, in one of the most disgraceful scenes ever set before a camera, that we see the newly elected black legislature, resting their barefeet on their desks, drinking whiskey and eating chicken, dozing off, and, of course, lusting after the white women in the visitors gallery. This is also the first instance of "bait and switch" in the film. Prior to this, as noted above, Griffith used "historical facsimiles" to give the film an air of historical accuracy. Now, before the legislature scene, he presents this title card: AN HISTORICAL FACSIMILE of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina... The subversive logic being, "Earlier we saw facsimiles of Sherman's March, Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination. We know those are true. This must be too."
The legislature wastes no time passing laws that "all whites must salute negro officers on the streets"and other legislation "providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites." In Griffith's eyes, it was the sanctity of the pure white woman that was most threatened by reconstruction.
After the debacle of the election Ben Cameron wants to fight back but doesn't know how. In a scene that would be comical for its simple mindedness if it were not so offensive to the senses Ben observes white children scaring black children by hiding under white sheets as if they were ghosts. According to the title card, in that moment of divine inspiration is born "The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule."
Silas Lynch declares, "We shall crush the white South under the heel of the black South." He tells Elsie Stoneman, who is in love with Ben "Your lover belongs to this murderous band of outlaws." Elsie breaks off her engagement with Ben but assures him she will not betray him. No white women will betray the members of Ku Klux Klan as we are assured by the title card, "Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed."
At this point other black characters emerge who also represent the evils of reconstruction. Gus, a freed slave, lusts after Flora Cameron, brother of Ben, and in a scene of great technical brilliance involving crosscutting techniques that would be used to even greater advantage in the climax of the film, Gus chases Flora through the woods until she finally leaps (falls?) to her death - the better to die than be touched by the black man. She dies in the arms of her brother Ben.
Ben and his Ku Klux Klan brethren hunt down Gus in another example of technical brilliance by Griffith in which the chase has multiple actions intercut together as Gus is slowly cornered between the townspeople and the Klan. He is given a "fair" trial, found guilty (of course) and lynched. In the original version of the film he was castrated as well but those scenes were excised after the original release, the footage lost. After his lynching his corpse is dumped on the steps of Silas Lynch. And thus begins the climax of the film.
Lynch reinforces his Black Militia to fill the streets of Piedmont. They are to hunt down anyone making Klan costumes and kill them. The Klan prepares itself for battle with these chilling words: "Brethren, this flag bears the red stain of the life of a Southern woman, a priceless sacrifice on the altar of an outraged civilization. Here I raise the ancient symbol of an unconquered race of men, the fiery cross of old Scotland's hills....... I quench its flames in the sweetest blood that ever stained the sands of Time!"
Lynch has the Camerons arrested and paraded in chains. The "faithful souls", the Cameron's loyal slaves, rescue them and race out of town. Pursued by the Black Militia they find refuge in a small cabin occupied by Union veterans. It's not clear why Union veterans are living in a cabin in South Carolina except to give Griffith the opportunity to show that all whites put their differences aside when faced with a black menace. As the title card says, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defence of their Aryan birthright."
Meanwhile, Elsie, "ignorant of Lynch's designs on her", goes to him for help, hoping he can resolve the situation. Proposing marriage he states, "See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side." Lynch tells Austin Stoneman of his intentions to marry his daughter and Stoneman is horrified, betraying his hypocrisy, a hypocrisy Griffith must have believed was present in all white people who "supported" black people's rights.
In these final scenes the film's technical reputation is seen in all of it's glory as the Klan's ride to the rescue is intercut with the forced marriage of Lynch and Elsie about to happen. When they prevent that from happening they ride to the rescue of the Union veterans and the Camerons with their "faithful souls" in the besieged cabin. Just before the rescue the Union veteran is shown holding the butt of his rifle over his daughter's head, ready to strike her dead should the black militia overrun the cabin and try to molest her. In Griffith's world it seems all black men want to do is rape white women and girls. Griffith's camera goes into closeup to show the daughter's terrified face. Moving cameras, long shots intercut with closeups, and creative angles heighten the tension as film drives towards its conclusion and the family is rescued.
After the rescue on both fronts the Klan parades through Piedmont, the conquering heroes. We see the title card, "The Next Election" and then see two black men emerging from a line of tents to go vote. Then we see Klansmen, guns drawn and pointed at the black men. The black men affect the caricatured bulging eyes of the "frightened black man" then spin around and go back inside. It is clearly meant to evoke laughter. The beginnings of what would become over a century of harsh oppression of black people in the South, played for a laugh.
The film ends with Ben and Elsie sitting together by the seaside as the approving figure of Jesus Christ is shown in double exposure over the scene with the inter title, "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more. But instead - the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace." The End.
It is a repulsive film. Vile and hateful and wallowing in a swamp of moral filth that would make most sensible intelligent men and women physically ill. And yet, it is considered important in film history and hailed as a masterpiece.
The critical responses to THE BIRTH OF A NATION have followed a similar pattern from the beginning. There were few film critics to speak of in 1915 and once, by the late twenties, film criticism started up in earnest most critics developed a pattern of response to the film that continues to this day: Praise the film's techniques, deplore the film's content, let technique trump content, declare the film a masterpiece.
So first let us deal with the techniques of the film that so often allow film historians to rank it as a masterpiece. Although the film does employ many artful and thoughtful techniques during the course of it run this should not be enough to elevate it to the level of masterpiece. Intrinsically understanding this, many critics have chosen to believe, whether true or not, that it employed these techniques for the first time. The logic being that in many ways THE BIRTH OF A NATION is necessary to the development of the language of film. Without this film, the apologist critic must argue, we would never have had the masterworks that followed. This is simply not true.
It is also not necessary. Why would a first make a film better? For instance, one of the "firsts" often cited for THE BIRTH OF A NATION is that it was the first film to have its own score composed for an orchestra. Actually, Camille Saint-Saëns, the famed French composer, wrote music specifically for the film L'ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE in 1908, seven years before NATION. Other film companies, specifically the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, run by L. Frank Baum, author of the famed OZ books, produced scores for all their films composed mainly by Louis Ferdinand Gottschalk who would in fact later go on to score for Griffith.
Now, does this make L'ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE a masterpiece to be revered and studied. No, of course not. Here's a quick list of other firsts in film history that, unlike musical score truly deal with the cinematic language of the camera. None of them comes from BIRTH OF A NATION and with the exception of the last film on the list, none of them are held in the great esteem of a masterpiece despite their historical firsts:
*The earliest multi-shot scene, that is different cameras used to capture different angles within the same scene: THE LITTLE DOCTORS (1901)
*The first panning shots: KOMISCHE BEGEGNUNG IM TIERGARTEN ZU STOCKHOLM (1896)
*Earliest Wipe: MARY JANE'S MISHAP (1903)
*First close-up: EDISON KINETOSCOPIC RECORD OF A SNEEZE (1894)
*First interpolated close-ups, that is close-ups intercut within a scene for reactions and emotional effect: GRANDMA'S READING GLASS (1900) Other examples: THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN (1903), THE GAY SHOE CLERK (1903), THE GREAT JEWEL MYSTERY (1905), TRIAL MARRIAGES (1907).
*The first dissolve: CENDRILLON (1899)
*The first double exposure: THE CAVE OF THE DEMONS (1898)
*The first backlighting: ENOCH ARDEN, PART ONE (1911) by Griffith
*The first use of a camera dolly: CABIRIA (1914)
CABIRIA, made in 1914, one year before NATION, employed many of the techniques held in such high regard by NATION apologists. There are dollys and pans as well as epic length, complicated multi-charactered story and even complex chase scenes. Admittedly, none seem to be handled as surehandedly as those in NATION but perhaps that is because they came first.
The point is that to rank THE BIRTH OF A NATION as a masterpiece requires something quite extraordinary as it's moral base is corrupted and it's list of firsts is dubious at best and even if entirely accurate of no consequence to elevating the film to the level of masterpiece. One must then rely on Griffith's execution of the techniques at hand and it is here that the apologists have their strongest argument.
As mentioned previously, CABIRIA employed many groundbreaking techniques, but it must be admitted they were not presented with the same skill and ability as when exercised by Griffith in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. And here, I believe, we get to the crux of the problem.
Griffith was a supremely skilled craftsman in the world of film. Had a lesser director, or even a good but not great director, employed these same techniques, with the same exact story of NATION the film would most likely have long been deservedly forgotten in film history, an unfortunate racist tract to be ignored. But it wasn't done by a lesser director, it was done by D.W. Griffith, a man who understood the language of early cinema better than anyone. As a result, film critics and historians have long marvelled at the ingenious setups, the sense of suspense heightened by the expert editing and visual richness of its camerawork. It is true it does all of these things well and this cannot be ignored. But is that enough? That question takes us to the final stage of the history of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
The film's status either rises or falls based on three factors: Content, Technique and Execution.
It's techniques are innovative and imaginitive but not necessarily firsts. But are they important to the development of the language of film? Griffith himself went on to produce INTOLERANCE, BROKEN BLOSSOMS and WAY DOWN EAST to name three films easily the equal of THE BIRTH OF A NATION in cinematic quality. Others from Sergei Eisenstein to Abel Gance to Cecil B. DeMille also innovated and developed important benchmarks in the language of early cinema with their works. Surely, like the "discovery" of the New World by Europeans, the development of cinema and its language was an inevitability. To hold NATION up as a film necessary to further developments is revisionist history. From CABIRIA on it was clear where film was headed. Audiences weren't going to last forever feasting at the sparse table of one-reelers and nickelodeans. New technologies and art forms are curiosities. But curiosity quickly fades and anyone involved in the art has to take it in new directions or die. From the earliest visual recordings of trains entering stations, men sneezing and couples kissing there is a clear and consistent development of the story of film. From A VOYAGE TO THE MOON to THE LIFE OF A FIREMAN to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and on up to CABIRIA films kept getting longer, more intricate, more detailed, more nuanced. By 1941 we would have arrived at CITIZEN KANE whether Griffith had ever made THE BIRTH OF A NATION or not. Because someone else would have and did make films just as groundbreaking, just as important to the next generation of filmmakers in learning their craft.
So if its techniques and execution thereof are not absolutely vital to the progression of film development and its content so abhorrantly hideous then why is it rated so highly? I believe that one answer is that film historians and critics have convinced themselves of its necessity. Many film books take it on faith that film would not have developed its early syntax without it and the students of those books perpetuate that myth. Another answer has to do with respectability: Ignoring a film of this historical magnitude makes the film historian seem unstudied or pedestrian. Praising its techniques while deploring its content almost becomes a game that each successive generation of historians and critics must play to pay their proper dues. But at what cost?
I do not believe in separating content from execution of technique. I believe film is a multi-layered art form that provides story, character and visuals. The camera is employed with the words as a means of telling the story. There are films that may seem to be all technique (WAVELENGTH 1967) and others that may seem to be all character (MY DINNER WITH ANDRE). But they are not. They are all judged by what they tell us. And how they tell us. THE BIRTH OF A NATION tells us that one race of people are subhuman and deserving of mistreatment and execution. It does so with state of the art techniques that assure we understand its message implicitly. And that is revolting. It is vile abuse of the trust filmgoers give the filmmaker when they enter the theater to watch his film. It is unacceptable.
There is a great moment in Ken Burns' 1994 documentary BASEBALL. It comes in the third installment, after the career and life of Ty Cobb has been documented. Like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, baseball experts and fans relate the greatness of Cobb, many calling him the greatest player ever, always tempering their remarks with what an awful, hateful violent person he was. By the time they are finished it seems as if Ty Cobb's revolting personal life has been rationalized, subverted to his greatness on the diamond. And then it happens. Burns cuts to Baseball Historian Daniel Okrent who provides the final words on Cobb with the following:
"The more his fires burned, the more that provoked him on the field and I suppose one could say that the happy byproduct was the extraordinary baseball he gave the fans of the time but there's a moment when you have to say it's not worth it. I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball."
THE BIRTH OF A NATION should never be forgotten. It should be taught in film history classes and sociology classes to educate people on the power of racial myth, the power of hatred. It is as important an historical artifact as the Nazi propaganda films of the thirties and forties and has enormous historical value. But it should not be taught in film class anymore as a great film. It should not be revered. And when it is brought up and the urge becomes overwhelming to praise its techniques and innovative camerawork, one must remind oneself of the moral tightrope walk that inevitably follows as the repulsive content must be dealt with. And it is at that moment that one must back away and say, "It's not worth it." That moment has long since passed for film critics, film historians and teachers. It belongs on no list of great films. It belongs on the ash heap of film history. In its totality, and how else to judge a work of art, it is an embarrassment.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION - It's just not worth it.