Director D. W. Griffith was astonished to find himself called a racist upon the release of his landmark film, “The Birth of a Nation.” This in itself gives us a lot of information about the director, about the film, and the time in which it was made. Griffith was to discover something else, that the use of condescension and caricature are effective ways to make a point, and conversely, excellent ways of drawing controversy upon oneself.
Mentioning the film evokes all the controversy which surrounds it, overshadowing the Griffith’s truly groundbreaking techniques in cinema, the work of lead actress Lillian Gish who was one of the finest actresses of the silent era, and some interesting historical tableaus, including Lee’s surrender at Appomattox (that’s Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant), some technically accurate battle scenes, and a very dramatic re-creation of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater.
The title, which Griffith chose over “The Clansman,” the novel on which the film is based, is an apt one. The Civil War, in many respects, did signal a re-birth of the United States, changed it forever, and fixed two errors of the Declaration of Independence that had eluded politicians for decades. These were the political sovereignty of independent states, and slavery. Both had to go for the nation to become what it always said it was, free, and united. That it took a war for that to happen is the real shame of the Civil War.
Mr. Griffith tries to make war the big evil which threatens mankind, but his story of defeated white Southerners under the heel of monstrous black masters who want to marry all the white women is a look into Griffith’s psyche more than it ever was a treatise on war or an accurate representation of Reconstruction. Like the way a handwriting expert can determine psychological characteristics, Griffith’s film tells us more about Griffith than about his characters. Mr. Griffith was a Southerner who was raised in the aftermath of the Reconstruction days, spoon fed on the stories of despair and destruction in those difficult times. Unfortunately, his attempt at legitimizing the real suffering of Southerners in those days turns their hard times into a mere cartoon.
Any historical film is just as much about the times in which it was made as about the times it is supposed to illustrate. TV westerns made in the 1950s and 1960s carry more a flavor of the 1950s and 1960s about them than the 1870s, and so it is with any look into the past made today. We are not so sophisticated that we have found a way to be accurate, and at the same time not a traitor to the sensibilities of our own times. It is almost impossible. We leave our own imprint.
So, “The Birth of a Nation” is really more about 1915, about Griffith and a modern South still rationalizing past failures, and about the United States still struggling to be “traditional,” on guard against suspicious modern influences and trends. The film sparked controversy the moment it was released, and was protested against and banned in several cities, but still grossed more money than any film for decades, largely because controversy attracts us.
More on "The Birth of a Nation" tomorrow.