by Allan Fish
(USA 1915 187m) DVD1/2
Monument of shame
p D.W.Griffith, Harry E.Aitken d D.W.Griffith w D.W.Griffith, Frank E.Woods novel “The Klansman” by Thomas Dixon Jnr ph Billy Bitzer ed James E.Smith m Joseph Carl Breil
Henry B.Walthall (Benjamin Cameron), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Robert Harron (Ted Stoneman), Wallace Reid (Jeff), Donald Crisp (U.S.Grant), Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman), Joseph Henaberry (Abraham Lincoln), Raoul Walsh (John Wilkes Booth), Josephine Crowell (Mrs Cameron), Violet Wilkey (Flora Cameron as a child), Eugène Pallette (union soldier), Walter Long (Gus), Sam de Grasse (Charles Sumner), George Siegmann (Silas Lynch), Bessie Love (Piedmont girl), Erich Von Stroheim (man falling from roof),
Paragon or pariah? Masterpiece or monstrosity? Superlative or shameful? In truth, probably all six. D.W.Griffith’s epic adaptation of Dixon’s openly racist novel is everything people say it is and more, worthy of the moral outcry at the time when it was labelled “a flagrant incitement to racial antagonism”. In its way, as offensive to modern sensibilities as Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it remains the most controversial American film of them all, but the one without which American cinema would not have been the same. Released on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the best part of a century on it still has the power to both move and offend.
The story focuses on two families, the Northern Stonemans from Pennsylvania and the Southern Camerons from Piedmont, North Carolina, who are friends before the war but find their loyalties tested during and after that most fateful of American conflicts. More disturbing than this penny dreadful plot is the racial undertones surrounding in particular the offensively evil Silas Lynch. In the world of Griffith and Dixon, negroes are potential rapists, predatory and avaricious. Such assumptions and assertions not only offend, they insult, and there would indeed be a good case for not allowing this film into the list for political reasons alone. And yet, with this list intending to cover the history of cinema, not including The Birth of a Nation would be like a novel without an opening, a play without an act one, scene one. This is where American cinema really began, so, much as many scenes may make you wince (especially those with the actors in blackface), it remains essential viewing.
The film was made, according to Griffith’s opening captions, so that “war may be held in abhorrence.” That goes without saying, but it can be hard to believe given the racist undertones, strong enough to strike resentment for decades. Griffith tried to atone with Intolerance, America and Abraham Lincoln, but how can you argue against a prosecution which can claim the opening sequence reading “the bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion”? As if it were the Africans’ fault for coming to America and they hadn’t been torn from their roots and their country by colonialist capitalists. Or against condemning a film showcasing the Klan as the cavalry riding to the rescue? As Barry Norman once said, “it’s racism from the racist’s point of view.”
Looked back upon after ninety years the acting may seem somewhat antiquated. Certainly the shameful villains are out of the most offensive of pantomimes and the heroines are out of a Victoriana view of femininity that goes against everything we find alluring about the fairer sex in the 21st century. Gish in particular is given little to do but simper, a million miles from the parts in Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind that confirmed her as the American silent screen’s greatest actress. Yet in spite of all this, only The Battleship Potemkin and Napoleon were as revolutionary in their command of film technique, the work of Griffith and his great D.P. Billy Bitzer the founding stones of their respective arts. The camera may still be relatively static, but the images remain powerful. It may be black and white in more ways than one, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the most important American film ever made.