The Birth Of A Nation is an undeniable cinematic revolution wrapped around a vision of supposed revolution that is both revisionist and vulgar. With it Griffith created one of the great paradoxical cinematic experiences of the early years of the American film industry, with its repugnance counteracted by a remarkable intonation of cinematic language. While it would be shortsighted and naïve to claim that the good outweighs the bad, for The Birth Of A Nation is a genuinely unappealing work for large sections in its running time, as a technical feat it is of great interest.
While by no means perfectly constructed The Birth Of A Nation flows with a remarkable fluidity for a film produced on the eve of 1915. Responsible for a number of Lumière/locomotive-esque urban legends, tales abound from the time of the films initial release of audience members swept up in the tale of masked riders “rescuing” the under-represented, with scenes of the horse-driven parade driving people towards diving out of their seats when faced with a camera facing action (not unlike the exaggeratedly reported response concerning early viewers of the Lumière’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat). Griffith’s pseudo-historical account certainly makes for gripping viewing, if not one that is ultimately emotionally engaging, thanks largely to the subject matter, as well as the lagging narrative that plagues the second half of the films presentation. Structural issues plight a great number of the early epics, with their precedent no doubt responsible for any major linguistic issues.
Griffith paints his portrait of hate with an infuriatingly effective sense of poeticism at times. The battle sequences for example, that close the first part of the two-part film are often lauded for their scale and ambition, yet it is in the close, toned down moments where they are at their most effective. At the centre of the film lays a story of two families brought together, then drawn apart thanks to the horrors of war, and it is with the coming together of the sons of those families during their final moments that draws the films most emotive breaths.
Approaching the film as a viewer in 2013 one cannot help but question just what it was that Griffith was attempting to do with The Birth Of A Nation. What were his intentions with making such a statement, and why do it in 1915? Perhaps Griffith genuinely felt that the cinema was a powerful enough force to instigate change, and that he was a powerful enough figure within that world to provoke it, if that was indeed what he strove for, or maybe, as is the often-trod line, he quite simply wanted to pay tribute to an age then forgotten, that some still held dear. The implications being made in the film, and the presentation of that hypothesis is so explicit and so degrading that it cannot help but be rightly labelled as racist and uncouth, and intensely foolhardy for a major Hollywood production in 1915.
Note – this is a revised and updated reprint of an earlier post, timed to coincide with the UK Blu-ray debut of the film.