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THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh
Director:  D. W. Griffith
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Original Documentary
Length:  187 Minutes
Release Date:  November 17, 1998

Film ****

The Birth of a Nation is the most important landmark in the history of American cinema. In fact, it's safe to call it the forefather of modern filmmaking. In saying this, I don't mean to compare it to the likes of say, Citizen Kane, but I do say that CK could not have been made if Birth hadn't paved the way. This is, nearly 84 years after it's initial release, the most recognized title of the silent movie era, and for good reason. Nothing that came before it could compare in terms of cost, spectacle, drama and suspense, or sheer popularity. No other film has maintained so strong a sense of controversy for so long, either. If you've never seen it, you're in for a treat, and possibly a shock.

Let's cut to the chase. The film is pioneer director D.W. Griffith's attempt to tell the story of the Civil War from a Southern point of view. He had remarked prior to embarking on the film, "the losers in war never get to tell their side of the story". Therefore, what encompasses most of the second half of the film is an embittered, conquered south under the indignity of the north forcing the power of the ex-slaves over their former masters, and results in the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film's marvelous, suspenseful climax, the KKK rides to the rescue of a white family besieged by a black militia. It's enough to keep you on the edge of your seat and scratching your head at the same time--are we supposed to root for the Klan?

Because of this scenario, The Birth of a Nation drew enormous ire and hatred during its initial release despite its overwhelming success, and continues to do so to this day. This film continues to inspire a great deal of anger, and I suppose, some genuine feelings of hurt. My take? I've seen this movie at least a dozen times, and I think you have to take it for what it is, and the time period it came out of. For better or worse, a film like this could only have been made in the freedom of pre-studio system Hollywood. It happens to be one of the greatest examples of storytelling on film ever made, that just happens to have a disturbing point of view. There's no reason to view a picture made in 1915 as politically topical in today's world. In fact, even though the Klan of the teens and twenties used this picture as a rallying point, both Griffith and novelist Dixon publicly and loudly denounced them, and Griffith in his own writings expressed sorrow and hurt over the fact that people, especially African Americans, considered him a racist.

Still, none can argue the impact this movie had in the world of cinema, which would change forever after its release. Movies were taken out of the boisterous, smoke filled nickelodeons and into the classiest theatres and concert halls. The studio system would soon spring up, as people who had invested small amounts of money in the picture were suddenly fantastically rich and powerful, as the film played for years and became the first film to earn over a million dollars in ticket sales. From that moment on, there would be filmmakers and studios who would spend money and try to create bigger and better spectacles to fill the audience's new demands.

Ironically, all of these things would eventually leave Griffith behind as like a dinosaur in a medium that would grow rapidly more along the lines of a business than an art form. Still, there can be no doubt that whatever movies we love and cherish today, be they Star Wars or Saving Private Ryan, owe at least a small debt to the vision and boldness of D.W. Griffith, and his film that altered the course of cinematic history.

Disc Quality **1/2

For a movie made in 1915, this is about as good as you can expect. I'm glad to see the DVD release featured both the original color tinting according to Griffith's original notes, and a recreation of the original orchestral score, featuring the slightly altered excerpts from Wagner to accent the ride of the Klan.

Features **

I would have liked a historian's commentary on this movie--no doubt any would have jumped at the chance to do it, but the disc does include a documentary on the making of the film. It's a little lukewarm, but interesting because of a few outtakes and never before seen filmed rehearsals and tests.

Summary:

If you love classic cinema, there's nothing that can quite compare to experiencing this film, especially on this quality DVD. You'll be watching a larger than life, thrilling, and entertaining spectacle, but more than that, you'll be witnessing an unparalleled historical landmark.