Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation; silent drama, USA, 1915; D. W. Griffith, S: Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, Mary Alden

Two American families, the Northern Stonemans, and the Southern Camerons, live in peace. But when the Civil War (1861-1865) erupts, they become enemies. The Southern General Lee tries to free a train with food, but loses from General Grant from the North. Ben Cameron, whose two younger brothers died in the war, gets sentenced to death in a hospital, but Abraham Lincoln gives him abolition. After Lincoln is killed by John W. Booth in a theater, the politic towards the South becomes harsh, while mulatto Silas Lynch turns Black people into a privileged race in South Carolina. After Flora Cameron jumps from the cliff and dies by running away from the Black Gus, her fiance Ben organizes the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan kills Gus and Lnych and brings order in the town, after which Stonemans and Camerons unite again.

The old saying goes: "A picture tells a thousand words". Here, 600 pictures tell one thing, and 400 pictures another. The first 600 tell that director D. W. Griffith is a master of the silent movie era and a skillful reconstructor of history pieces, but the last third of this film displays an ideology - White supremacy - that's so wrong, so misguided, so racist and naive that one could question oneself if he was aware of what he was filming. Monumental epic "The Birth of a Nation", shot as an ode to the post Civil War America, is a very ambitious work with a running time of 190 minutes, making it the first 3 hour film in the history of cinema: despite its complicated story, the movie enjoys a reputation of a classic not because of its questionable ideology, but for its revolutionary role in exploring and developing the cinematic techniques. Even though a large part of the modern audience might not understand it, it doesn't mean that "Nation" is a bad film - "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are also hard to read today, but that doesn't mean they are not significant for literature.

With a budget of a record 110,000 $ for that time, the movie's awe is visible: the long queue of scenes of the war between the North and the South (burning houses, shooting) that last for almost 30 minutes, whereas Griffith advanced the movie style by using fade outs, fade ins, big close ups and especially the parallel montage of two events at the finale - today, numerous movies use cross-cutting of scenes of different events that go back and forth, but back in 1915, when movies were extremely straight forward and only had the "aim and shoot" camera technique in wife angles, the audience was thrilled to see such a new kind of climax. There is even a little bit humor present here, mostly revolving around the African American characters: an older lady kicks a gentlemen from the North in his butt, while a politician puts his bare feet on the table in the senate, upon which his colleague warns him about the law that tells that people must be shod there. Griffith crafted scenes full of mood (Ben is seen walking in the distance through the forest; at the end he has a vision of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem), but not even today is it clear why the Ku Klux Klan is so idealised. The African Americans are all shown as barbarians that oppress the White race, and the Klan as a noble organization that keeps everything in order, which is a pointless nonsense. At any rate, it's a great film despite itself that shows how history changes and how the certain organizations of one era can become infamous in the future.


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