Ambitiously made, with volatile subject matter. D.W. Griffiths phenomenal epic about the formation of the United States still strikes a nerve even today. Sitting through this film is an ordeal - but as affecting as great cinema should be.
Just look at that poster. Our hero everybody!
Wind the clocks back almost a whole century, to 1915. Film was the new thing, a cheap sideshow type attraction, with studios pumping out hundreds of movies a year, selling tickets for 5c at nickelodeons. The films were only about 20 minutes long, and no one would really call them high art yet, but there was one director that had a vision.
D.W. Griffith is considered the great pioneer of filmmaking. His techniques were not new or ground-breaking - but their implementation at his hands was marvellous. Audiences were blown away by his ability to juxtapose two scenes in editing - creating the sense of two things happening simultaneously in different places. They had never experienced a camera that moved at the same speed as the horse it was following; the thrill was spectacular. All these and more Griffith utilized in creating what is arguably his greatest film - certainly his best known: the 3-hour epic that is Birth Of A Nation.
The film is undeniably well-made for its time... although I must admit to being a little bored by the battle scenes. Indeed I was almost dozing off during the first half of the film, but I did manage to catch the gist of it. We are introduced to two American families - the Camerons from the south, and the Stonemans from the North. The two are close friends, but find themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War; which eventually resulted in the United States, but not without a lot of bloodshed and heartbreak first. The modern viewer will find the battle scenes that were then considered epic to be a bit confusing and a bit dull. The drama, however, is still top notch. The Camerons, eager supporters of the war effort, sell everything in their possession for the cause... and lose. There are touching moments, such as when the only survivor of three brothers slowly shuffles up the path to his front door, when his sister rushes out to greet him, and pull him the rest of the way home.
But the film only starts with this epic clash of the states. What follows is a re-enactment of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, followed by the sudden elevation of negroes in society in the south.
Here the film becomes more than a little troubling.
Griffith makes a point of retaining historical accuracy - constructing scenes based on pictures from the time. As far as I know the assassination is a good example of this. The representation of the legislative building after the blacks are given the right to vote (and consequently, win the majority seat) is not accurate. In fact, it is thought to be based off a cartoon caricature printed in a newspaper. And so it seems, with the elected black senators swigging whiskey, eating chicken, placing feet upon tables while debating whether or not members should wear shoes...
But it gets worse; the young Cameron girl is pursued by a black man, who chases her off a cliff in his lust. The black militia perform street marches to intimidate the whites, and the Lieutenant governor - a half-caste named Simon Lynch - has designs for building a black empire...
And out of the anarchy and tyranny of a state controlled by blacks, a hero rises. A symbol for the people - their salvation is at hand... in the form of white men in white sheets. Yes, this movie not only deals with the birth of the Klu Klux Klan, but casts them as heroes, who save the white people as they are being terrorized by the renegade blacks.
By this point the film is approaching the 3 hour mark. For me, it seemed, I had become accustomed to the silent black/white film. I found the climactic charge of the Klansman, set to the "Flight of the Valkyries" soundtrack, to be stirring and exciting. Suspense is built as we cut between the family besieged in a cabin, and the heroic Klan rushing to the rescue - we want them to get there in time... but there's something so terribly wrong with this whole situation.
I think that's as far as I'll go talking about this film - I can't address racism with due care and sensitivity, and I've probably said more than enough to get me in trouble already.
I'll say this: the film is masterfully crafted for its time, and important as a piece of American history. It's a shame that the grand tradition of American cinema got off to such a tainted start. Sadder still, that this reflects precisely the way the nation itself was born. But saddest of all is that this film is still taboo to this day... In other words, it still cuts just as deeply.