Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Chris0
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain.
These words grace one of the opening plates of D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation. For one of (if not) the first war movies of all time, these are far-reaching and insanely-prophetic words, indeed. Since that time, nearly one-hundred years, war movies have struggled to achieve this lofty goal.
The first half or so of Birth of a Nation consists of a chronicle of the US Civil War, albeit from a highly slanted "southern" point of view. Rather than play the role of encyclopaedic author or historian, Griffith takes us into the lives of the Confederate Camerons, and their northern Union cousins, the Stonemans. The two families' struggles through the war are told leading up to the assassination of President Lincoln. Really, this part of the film is pretty good stuff, for the most part. It can get a little confusing trying to figure out who is who, since being a silent film, we have only the intermittent and brief dialogue presented in between scenes to help us. A lost art, perhaps....
Griffith even manages to inject some humor here and there (the "hostilities" scene with the cat and dog would be my favorite) and overall manages to portray the war for what it was, a nasty and unfortunate event in American history.
Then there's the entire second half of this movie, the part dealing with the reconstruction, and most notably, and infamously, the formation and "rise" of the Ku Klux Klan. This entire half is filled with hyperbole and blatant racism. No better way to put it. The "knights" of the klan, running around on horseback in their "noble" effort to restore the south from the menace that has taken over..... After what I thought was a fairly impressive first half, I basically sat watching the second with my jaw on the floor. Then I remembered something.
Let me digress for a minute, and return to the film's opening titles. One of those plates, read in part like this...
A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare
Now, read that again. Is it possible, that the seemingly abhorrent second portion of the movie is just a long and sorely misunderstood satire? Consider that film-making and the art of story telling on film was still in its infancy. Maybe, just maybe this was intended to be so far over the top and unbelievable that people were supposed to be insulted and offended?
I don't know. Neither does anyone else, and we probably never will. The fact is, is that it is so far over the top and unbelievably insulting and offending that if it was meant as satire or meant to disparage the Klan.... it failed spectacularly. Its a point of contention to this day.
Truthfully, though, the movie does seem to do a fair job of illustrating the "Birth" of the current South, and the long-held, um, ah, animosity towards certain minorities, shall we say, that remains, to this day. Yes, it does, unfortunately. In that respect, at least, The Birth of a Nation may have succeeded, if only it hadn't encouraged a movement that never should have been.
I'll leave you with a quote from vaunted critic Roger Ebert on The Birth of a Nation.
"Certainly The Birth of a Nation (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet."
That about sums it up for me, as well. The movie is no doubt in the public domain at this point, but a new Blu Ray was released in 2011 (not how I saw the film, btw.) Check the "Details" tab for more information.
The movie was an adaption of Thomas Dixon's novel, "The Clansman," so maybe (I have not read it) there is a relevance and connection there (either way) that I am unaware of.
Despite the nature of the second half, I'm still giving this a 4/5. Why? Because of its importance as an early example of a war movie, and its place in film history in general. Not to mention the first half of the movie is, despite the second, quite good.
and sure enough, here's the whole thing on YouTube. Pull up a chair, you'll be a while.
The Birth of a Nation - Special Edition [Blu-ray]
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Product Description[DISC 1 - Blu-ray]: Nearly 100 years after its initial release, THE BIRTH OF A NATION remains one of the most controversial films ever made and a landmark achievement in film history that continues to fascinate and enrage audiences...
DVD InformationBinding: Blu-ray
Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Manufacturer: Kino Lorber films
Original Release Date:
- Lillian Gish
- Henry B. Walthall
- Mae Marsh
- Ralph Lewis
- Factory sealed DVD
Summary: Despite the nature of the second half, I'm still giving this a 4/5. Why? Because of its importance as an early example of a war movie, and its place in film history in general. Not to mention the first half of the movie is, despite the second, quite good.