According to Kevin Brownlow, D.W.Griffith was “the only director in America creative enough to be called a genius”. To Charles Higham he was the founding father of Hollywood who “imported a provincialism, a bourgeois Philistinism from which it has never escaped”. According to James Agee, The Birth of a Nation is “equal to Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, and Whitman’s war poems”. To John Simon, the film is “morally objectionable, and artistically and intellectually insufficient”.
This barrage of conflicting views has never prevented Griffith being regarded as a great, ground-breaking director and The Birth of a Nation as a key film in the evolution of the medium.Yet you can’t possibly look at it now without understanding the accusations of racism, or the moral embarrassment of those critics who used to include it in their lists of the ten best ever made.
Griffith’s immediate source was The Clansman, a play based by Thomas Dixon Jr on two turn-of-the-century novels that represented the South as some kind of Arcadia from which all the best features of American life had sprung. But this stupendously nostalgic and wish-fulfilling work was whittled down by the director ( who himself came from the South) into an emphasis on the female-oriented values of the family, and to a society where everyone,including black slaves, seem to know their place. It was not for nothing that the central image of Intolerance, his other great masterwork, was a mother rocking her cradle.
The Civil War and its aftermath gave Griffith the opportunity to make the South as a whole into an heroic family but it also allowed him to emphasise, through the climactic rescue scene where Southerners and Northerners fight side by side – and the earlier cross-barrier love affairs of the protagonists – that all Americans, were part of the same clan.Unfortunately he also emphasised, in that part of the film that corresponded most closely with Dixon’s play, the danger that black America, migrating en masse from the South, would prove a threat to everything he held dear.
Under the circumstances, how can such a film possibly be considered great? There are three good reasons. The first is that the film wasn’t just ground-breaking in its technique. It was the way that technique was applied to dramatise the story that was impressive – to take one example, the length of each shot was designed so as to influence our emotional response, with dramatic scenes cut faster. There are many other such totally new concepts for a large-scale feature film. And, astonishingly, Griffith did all this, using one camera and two lenses, in a mere nine weeks.
The second reason for its greatness is that the film marked, in America at least, the effective birth of a cinema that wasn’t just mere entertainment but a fully-fledged art form that could be appreciated by the masses. The third is that the director’s reliance on and support for his actors, and particularly his actresses, which was not so much concerned with making them into luminous stars as real people capable, like the great Lillian Gish, of interpreting their parts with a proper honesty.
Unlike the even more epic Intolerance, which is glorious and dull in turn, The Birth of a Nation holds the watcher as in a vice because it shows such ingenuity in integrating a very intimate story within the framework of so large an historical canvass. However much you object to its actual interpretation of history, you have to admit this. You also have to admit that the quasi-Victorian Griffith was in so many respects way ahead of his time even if his philosophy and mind-set could often be said to be behind it.