THE BIRTH OF A NATION
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh
Director: D. W. Griffith
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Kino International
Features: Original Documentary
Length: 187 Minutes
Release Date: November 22, 2011
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.
For a movie made in 1915, this is about as good as you can expect. I'm glad to see the Blu-ray release featured both the original color tinting according to Griffith's original notes. There is unavoidable print wear given the age, but the overall effect of the images is still quite sharp and good.
I'm disappointed that Kino opted for an all original score when the original
score, including cues from Wagner, still is known and used. It's hard to
watch the Klan ride without "Ride of the Valkyries" playing. The score is
mixed for 5.1 sound, but it's way too high end and light for the drama, at least
for my taste.
This three disc set has plenty of goodies. The Blu-ray includes
re-release introductions featuring Griffith and Walter Houston, plus the opening
title sequence for the 1930 theatrical exhibition. The second disc is a
DVD of the film and includes a short making-of documentary. The last disc,
also a DVD, has 7 Civil War themed short films made by Griffith prior to this
movie, the documentary "New York vs. The Birth of a Nation", and some
reproductions of early advertisements.
If you love classic cinema, there's nothing that can quite compare to experiencing this film, especially on this quality Blu-ray. You'll be watching a larger than life, thrilling, and entertaining spectacle, though one tainted by an obviously unfair point of view, but more than that, you'll be witnessing an unparalleled historical landmark.