The Birth of a Nation: Masters of Cinema Review

The Birth of a Nation begins before the American Civil War, and focuses on two families: the northern Stonemans, led by congressman Austin (Ralph Lewis, playing a character based on real-life abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens), and the Camerons, a Southern family. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) falls in love with Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) but joins the army when the war begins...

In his fascinating interview book with Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations, editor/sound designer Walter Murch suggests Beethoven and Flaubert as spiritual fathers of the cinema. Not necessarily for their work, which predated the Lumière Brothers and other pioneers by decades, but as exemplars of cultural trends and interests in the nineteenth century. Beethoven for ideas of dynamism, movement, contrast, revolutionary at the time but quickly absorbed into the mainstream of creative thought and practice: a musical analogue for what would later become film editing. As for Flaubert, his work fed in to a current interest in the close depiction of observed reality, something at which the new medium of photography, at first still and later moving, excelled, far more so than drawing and painting ever could. Add these intellectual and aesthetic currents to advances in motion picture film, and you have the cinema. It was, Murch suggests, an invention that took off precisely because it came at the right time for it. The results speak for themselves. The Lumières first showed their short films to the public in 1895, and in just over a decade we had the first feature-length narrative film (using the definition of a work of at least an hour in duration), the Australian-made The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), of which only fragments survive. Feature filming spread to Europe a year later, and the first British and American features were coincidentally both adaptations of Oliver Twist made in 1912. And three years later, we have the film at hand, The Birth of a Nation, and the basic template of narrative filmmaking was in place. Colour (already being experimented with at the time), sound, widescreen, 3D and digital filming are all things that future filmmakers utilised, but the original model was there, and still is in mainstream narrative film to this day.

It is true that David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) did not himself come up with many of the innovations he (and not forgetting his DP, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer) is sometimes credited with. Examples of such as close-ups and cross-cutting have been found in earlier films, and the Italian epic Cabiria (1913) was an acknowledged influence. What is true that The Birth of a Nation, in its scale and length (three and a quarter hours at the correct speed) and its huge commercial success, and considerable controversy (of which more later), is the source on which many future filmmakers drew upon. It's important to remember that the American Civil War was a living memory for many of the film's first audiences. Griffith himself was born ten years after its end, though his father fought for the Confederates. Originally intending to be a playwright, Griffith entered the film industry in 1907 by joining the company of Edwin S. Porter (director of The Great Train Robbery in 1903, which ends with a very early, and still striking, close up). At first working as an actor, Griffith began to make short films in 1908, and shot a considerable number of them over the next few years: seven of them are included on this Blu-ray. Convinced that feature-length films were the future, Griffith achieved this goal in 1914 with Judith of Bethulia, one of the earliest features made in the United States.

The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas Dixon Jr's 1905 novel The Clansman, which the author also adapted for the stage, and Griffith's film premiered under that title. Dixon's novel (still in print) is subtitled A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Clan [sic], and that indicates the source of the film's controversy right there. The Birth of a Nation has a view of the American South rather at odds with the verdict of history: a land where slavery is benign, an Arcadia destroyed by white Unionists and villainous blacks (all but one of them played by white actors in makeup). The second half of the film, depicting the Reconstruction and culminating in the heroic charge of the Klan, is particularly uncomfortable to watch partly because it retains much of the visceral excitement it clearly had at the time, and it's no surprise to learn that the Klan approved of Griffith's film as a potential recruiting tool. This is not a case of imposing modern values and opinions on a past work: as with Disney's The Song of the South three decades later, there were protests at the time about the film's racism. I haven't read Dixon's novel – which is reputedly more overtly racist than the film – but nearly a hundred years after its making, this film for all its undoubted artistry and achievement and place in cinema history, is so much of a hot potato that disclaimers have to be placed in front of it, and what had a U certificate on its original run and later cinema reissues, has been rated 15 solely because of this theme since its original VHS release in 1994. For this Blu-ray release, there is a warning in the booklet that the articles in it contain language which may offend. The Birth of a Nation is an illustration that art and pure motives certainly do not always go together: in this case, the racism is an integral part of the whole. If The Birth of a Nation is a great film, and I think it is, and certainly deserving of a place in the Masters of Cinema series, it will forever be a troubling one. For his part, Griffith was hurt by the accusations of racism (which may well have been unthinking on his part) and made a response to his critics the following year with another epic-scaled film, whose theme is indicated in its title - Intolerance.

The Blu-ray

The Birth of a Nation is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema line. A Blu-ray checkdisc was supplied for review, and affiliate links refer to that edition. For those for the DVD, go here. The Blu-ray disc is a single BD50 which is stuffed to the gills: not only is there the main feature (running 193:08) but there are also seven short films (totalling 109:07) and other extras, totalling 45.5GB.

The feature is in the correct ratio of 1.33:1. The Birth of a Nation was shot in 35mm at a speed of 16 frames a second, which is rendered into 1080p24 by repeating every second frame. This is barely noticeable in motion and preserves the correct speed. Given that this is a ninety-eight-year-old film, you can't expect it to look pristine and there is minor damage throughout, such as scratches and spots, but nothing too distracting. But there is also a lot of detail visible, and greyscale and contrast are spot-on. The film was shot in black and white, and much of this Blu-ray is tinted, with amber dominating in the early scenes, red for the battles, with other tints including blue and mauve.

The soundtrack comes with two options, both in DTS-HD MA: one in 2.0 (which plays in stereo, non-surround) and another in 5.1, which is mixed a little louder. As this is a silent film, the soundtrack is a music score, played by the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (violin, trumpet, clarinet, cello and piano) and it sounds just fine.

In 1930, The Birth of a Nation was reissued with a synchronised music score. On this Blu-ray are the opening credits of this version (1:20) which include a couple of captions referring to the sound enhancement. Also included in this version was an introduction (7:45) consisting of a boy and two girls eavesdropping on a fireside conversation between Griffith and Walter Huston, both smoking. Huston gives Griffith a present of an old Confederate army sabre, before quizzing the now mid-fifties Griffith about his childhood and the making of his film. The introduction is in two parts, one for each part of the film. The introduction to Part Two, six minutes in, begins with a caption that says, “This is an historical presentation of the Reconstruction Period following the Civil War, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today”, another testimony to the film's controversy, only fifteen years after it was made. Even so, on being quizzed by Huston about his presentation of this time, Griffith lets slip a reference to “the carpetbaggers and the niggers”, making you wonder how much he had learned from the reaction to his film. This and the remaining extras on the disc have a Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack.

“The Making of The Birth of a Nation” (24:00) is a 1993 documentary, compiled and written by Russell Merritt, directed by Robert G. Beecher and produced and narrated by David Shepard. Shepard begins with discussing the genre of Civil War films, popular in the 1910s, and not just an excuse for showing battle action but also emphasising loss – viewed by many people with first-hand memories of the period. We see extracts from some of them, by Griffith (who made eleven Civil War one-reelers, seven of which are on this disc, of which more below) and other directors of the time, including Thomas Ince. The documentary moves on to a discussion of Dixon's novel and stage adaptation before discussing The Birth of a Nation itself. You wouldn't think there would be making-of footage or outtakes of a film this old, but here it is, and you can see Griffith talking his actors, Lillian Gish among them, through several scenes. It's a solid run-through of the making of Griffith's epic and its impact (racism controversy certainly included) and covers quite a few bases not touched upon elsewhere.

Finally on the disc are seven of the many one-reel short films Griffith made, all on Civil War themes, with a Play All option. These are In the Border States (16:09), The House with Closed Shutters (16:57), and The Fugitive (17:05), all from 1910, and His Trust (subtitled, The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant, 14:20), its sequel His Trust Fulfilled (11:29), Swords and Hearts (16:28) and The Battle (16:35), all from 1911. It's fascinating to watch the development of Griffith's directing abilities and techniques, over just two years, by shooting one short film after another: the use primarily of master shots, not to mention the marshalling of large numbers of extras in many scenes. All of them were photographed by G.W. Bitzer, so you can track his collaboration with Griffith as well. You can also see appearances from actors who would later appear in Birth, Henry Walthall among them. The rather paternalistic His Trust films also point to the content that enraged many in the later feature. The shorts are all presented in black and white throughout, with no tinting, and piano scores. There's a lot of damage, with scratches, spots and water damage abounding, with The Battle in the worst shape, seemingly having lost most of its greyscale between the blacks and whites. Given that we are lucky that these survive at all, when so many other films of their era do not, that can't really be a complaint.

Masters of Cinema's 44-page booklet begins, as mentioned above, that the two opening articles, one by Griffith and the other by Dixon, “express attitudes towards race, and use descriptions of African-Americans, which sit outside of the prevailing attitudes of today, and which may well offend the contemporary reader”. The Griffith piece is “On The Birth of a Nation” and is an excerpt from Photoplay magazine from 1916. Griffith talks about his urge to make a film from Dixon's novel, and discusses an early memory of his father holding his Confederate army sword. He does skip over (in two short paragraphs, in a discussion on casting) as to why no real African-American actors were among the principals. He ends with a plea for the motion picture as a medium, as an educative force as regards to history, taught “by lightning”.

On to Dixon, and a 1915 piece distributed as part of the film's souvenir programme, and it certainly puts us in no doubt of Dixon's view of history: “in the mortal agony of four years of Civil War and eight years of more horrible Reconstruction, a Nation was born.” “Brotherly Love” by Francis Hackett also dates from 1915 acts as a corrective to this, quite openly so, referring to Dixon's capacity for self-analysis as “stunted” and gives a taster of his novel that will be enough for almost everyone. It also calls the film “aggressively vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”

This is followed by a New York Globe editorial from 6 April 1915, “Capitalising Race Hatred”, followed by a rebuttal by Griffith four days later. “The Birth of Film as Art” by Seymour Stern is a brief appreciation from Sight & Sound in 1945. Jump forward to 1981, and in the pages of Film Comment, Michael Powell talks about The Birth of a Nation as a guilty pleasure – and not just a great film, the greatest of the silent era, but the greatest American film ever made before Apocalypse Now. Quite some claim. Powell first saw the film in 1920 as a schoolboy and refers to a US postage stamp featuring Griffith, which he discussed with Lillian Gish when he met her in 1980. The booklet ends with three pages of facts about the film, extracted from the 1915 souvenir programme, plus film and disc credits and stills and other archival imagery.

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