'Birth' of an Industry, Beginning of the End of a Directing Career

The century since the first showing of D.W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' is a reminder of how much America has changed, and how little its films have.

Sunday, February 8 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American film. On that same date in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” premiered in California, the first U.S. movie that could be described as a full-length feature. (There is some controversy over whether the premiere showed the full, 165-minute version, or whether the first full showing only took place a month later, in New York.)

Cinema has changed a lot since that initial showing of “Birth of a Nation.” Sound was added to film; black and white film has been replaced, for the most part, by color. Screens are larger, cinemas themselves very different. Three-dimensional film technology has been developed, and regular film has been supplanted by digital technology. At the most basic level, however, Griffith’s film, which is still exciting to watch, established the foundation – from a narrative, formative and ideological standpoint – for American film as it is still known to this day.

Even though Griffith, who was 40 at the time, was already a well-known, highly regarded director (he began directing films in 1908), his decision to produce a movie of this length and scope – and with a budget of more than $100,000 – was at the time considered an adventurous gamble that many assumed would fail.

And then there was the question of whether members of the public, who had become used to seeing short films on a stand-alone basis or one after another, would sit through a film that was well over two hours long.

In Italy, films of similar length had already been produced by that point. One of them, Giovanni Pastrone’s “Cabiria” (1914) had a running time of 148 minutes. It was actually shown in the United States with some success, but was not seen as representing the future of the industry. Pastrone’s film, which greatly influenced Griffith to make “Birth of a Nation,” was considered a spectacle almost in the vein of a circus. Griffith, meanwhile, was setting out to make a realistic movie about a period of American history, the Civil War, that was not too distantly removed in time and still cast a major influence over the country.

Griffith based his movie on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s book “The Clansman,” which was published in 1905 with the astounding subtitle, “An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.” Dixon, who was a Southern Baptist minister, adapted his book into a play that also influenced Griffith. With respect to the story line, the film laid the foundations for the traditional Hollywood narrative that has guided American cinema to this day. It is motivated by the sense that the only way to present history is through the stories of individuals. (The main character could also be one individual, not only male but also female, as was demonstrated in 1939 with the next great film about the American Civil War, “Gone with the Wind.”)

In the case of “Birth of a Nation,” it featured two families – one from the North, the other from the South – and what happened to them before, during and after the war. The audience gets to know the northern Stoneman family and the Camerons from the South, whose ties of friendship – and, of course, romance – link them to one another, as required in any good melodrama. They represent an America split by war between North and South, in which former friends become enemies on the battlefield. The movie also shows the country’s efforts to reunite after the war, against the backdrop of a totally different political, social and cultural reality.

Cinematic achievements

Space does not permit a complete account of the cinematic enhancements that Griffith achieved in his movie. Some had already been employed in his short films, but had never been seen in such concentration in a single movie. They laid the foundation for the cinematic perspective that, in many respects, has not radically changed since. Watching this film now, 100 years on (and I have just watched it again), reveals work reflecting a skill that does not pale by comparison to the industry today.

The fact the film was produced early in the silent movie era is apparent in the captions it features, and sometimes also in the acting. But as a dramatic work, it is no less powerful, if not more so, than many of the American movies being produced today. The battle scenes are still among the most expressive and impressive ever seen on screen, and the film achieves just the right balance between the personal story of the main characters and the historic panorama in which they find themselves. (In addition, “Birth of a Nation” is known in part as being the first film to make effective, expressive use of the movement of the camera, unlike the static use of cameras until then.)

Griffith even added various shading to his film. And even if silent movies were never actually silent, usually featuring accompaniment by a piano, Griffith was the one who commissioned composer Joseph Carl Breil to create three hours of music especially for the movie, adapted from classical and popular music of the film period, in addition to original music.

The film is known for its cinematic breakthroughs and qualities, but is rarely shown outside of film schools and the like nowadays due to the content of the second half, which depicts the changes in the South after the war. The film critic Andrew Sarris noted, “Classic or not, ‘Birth of a Nation’ has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored ... and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.”

The second half, about the Reconstruction period after the war, shows black people in the South taking control of its institutions and public life, depicting them as primitive and violent savages. It presents the racist (and anti-Semitic) Ku Klux Klan as the solution to the “problem.” Some of the scenes in the second part are so shocking in their racism as to reach grotesque proportions (and some of the black characters were played by whites in blackface). The NAACP, which was founded in 1909, staged demonstrations against the film in several U.S. cities.

Explicit and direct

Biographies of Griffith recount that no one was more offended than he over the accusations of racism. Film researchers still disagree over whether the film can be divorced from the historical context in which it was produced; whether the racism in the film is simply a sign of the times in which Griffith lived and a reflection of it; whether the racism overshadows Griffith himself; and whether the film can be seen as a great work of art, despite its racism.

In any event, the racist hatred expressed in it adds to its historical interest. Not only is it an indicator of the racism that haunts American society to this day – it does it more explicitly and directly than any major film since. In the film itself, and in how it is related to, one can also find the basis for the ideological ambivalence that has characterized American film since. There are almost no American movies that deal with historical, political or cultural subjects that are free of it, and it is at the very heart of the entirety of popular culture.

Hurt, despite the major commercial success of “Birth of a Nation,” Griffith decided to redeem himself and respond to his attackers by embarking on the biggest cinematic adventure of his life with the making of “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” It was about three and a half hours long and released in 1916.

The film was made up of four stories depicting instances of intolerance throughout history, whether political, racist or religious. The first story – which used the most lavish and expensive movie set ever produced at the time – was set in Babylonia. The second was from around the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. The third was set in 16th-century France, and the fourth in America at the time in which the film was produced. That last story didn’t deal with race relations in the United States, but rather presented the exploitation and injustice resulting from class disparities, between corrupt capitalism and striking workers.

The cost of making “Intolerance” was almost double that of “The Birth of a Nation,” and although it is considered Griffith’s greatest film, it was a financial flop – from which, according to his biographers, Griffith never recovered. And that’s even though he directed several other successful movies until the end of his career in the early 1930s. He died in 1948, abandoned and nearly forgotten.