The Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film, demonstrates that D.W. Griffith is the most influential American filmmaker of the 1910s. Griffith used new techniques and improved on old ones to produce his three-hour epic, which had the longest running time of any feature film of the day. His work marked the birth of the Hollywood cinema, as we know it today.
Based on Thomas Dixon’s racist novel, The Clansmen, The Birth of a Nation is significant for a variety of reasons. Griffith created character psychology unlike films before it. A sentimental modernist, Griffith used the melodramatic mode and pathos to draw the viewer into the diegesis of the film and its characters. He combined the epic and the intimate like no other filmmaker had done before him. In the sequence at the Ford Theater on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Griffith shows a close-up of John Wilkes Booth’s gun, representing Booth’s inner state of mind. Previous filmmakers probably would have simply shown Booth assassinating Lincoln and jumping onto the stage. Griffith takes the time to show hesitancy in Booth, garnering sympathy for the villain.
Griffith employs a variety of techniques in crafting his Civil War epic. His use of match-on-action provides a seamless flow from one shot to the next. The technique also serves to link the interior to the exterior, such as when Margaret Cameron walks into the house in one shot and the subsequent shot shows her emerging onto the porch. Contiguity creates an artificial relationship between spaces. For example, Griffith filmed in both the studio and the outdoors and often cut from one setting to the other. Filmmakers prior to this usually filmed on a studio set. If they did shoot outdoors, they would not cut back and forth between the studio and the natural setting. Griffith crafts complex planes of action by using cross-cutting in which there are multiple points of view in different parts of town. This was unheard of at the time. There are also multiple planes in composition throughout the film, in which there is an emphasis on the foreground, middle ground, and background of the shot. Earlier films focused on just one plane of composition. Griffith expands depth considerably with his emphasis on all three planes.
Even Griffith’s use of intertitles is innovative. Shots were first linked by intertitles in an American film in Edwin S. Porter’s version of Harriety Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ironically, Griffith’s film presented a perspective of African Americans that ran contrary to Stowe’s positive view in her novel. Griffith uses the intertitles to manipulate the viewer, using words such as, “suddenly” and “meanwhile” to create temporal relationships. Unparalleled in his time, Griffith uses symbolism throughout the film. The most important symbol is cotton, which becomes a motif, representing the white purity of the South. The film is also unparalleled in its depiction of black sexual perversity and lustfulness. Griffith seems to sanctify Ben Cameron and his little sister’s relationship, which seems strange today. Any sexuality expressed by minorities, on the other hand, is considered perverse.
The evolution of the cinema lies in its relationship with the viewer. Griffith realized that the viewer could understand the film during multiple planes of action. Earlier films, such as Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903), utilized continuity editing, but not to the extent that Griffith does in Birth. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) was the first film to use a dolly for tracking shots. Griffith adopted this technique while making other innovative uses of camera movement. He abandoned the theatricality of the cinema of attractions for a more realistic approach. Earlier films were often theatrical, while everything in Birth has the appearance of the natural. Yet, Griffith was one of the first filmmakers to twist historical truth and blur the line between fact and fiction. Filmmakers would do so in subsequent films, which also altered history in a variety of ways. The first part of this film is generally historically accurate. The first part sets the viewer up before the story spins out of control. By establishing authenticity in the film’s first half, Griffith can exaggerate in the latter part of the film, knowing that the viewer was conditioned to believe it.
Griffith’s Biograph studio shorts that he made prior to Birth were a preview of his abilities and precursors to Birth. The Girl and Her Trust (1912) showed Griffith’s use of the chase scene. The Female of the Species (1912) displayed Griffith’s interest in displaying the hardships of women and the melodramatic mode. The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) showed Griffith’s capacity for staging elaborate battle sequences. All of these focuses would become assimilated into Birth. Griffith deepened the viewer’s identification with the characters by using long, lingering shots and frontality in which a character will turn toward the camera without actually looking at it.
After the spectacle of the cinema of attractions became assimilated into the narrative cinema, the chase scene emerged as one of its earliest incarnations. Although Griffith used the chase in his early Biograph shorts, he perfected it in Birth in the climactic rescue sequence. Griffith mounted his camera on a car to create fast tracking shots that showed the Klan members on their galloping horses. In 1913, Griffith claimed to have created the close-up, intercutting, fade-outs, and restrained acting. The truth is that many of Griffith’s contemporaries were exploring similar techniques, but Griffith’s gift was in combining these techniques to create a narrative that became Hollywood’s classic style. By combining many techniques, Griffith displayed the possibilities of the cinema and its magic.
Birth was a film aimed at the upper classes. When the film was released, tickets cost two dollars each, which was much more expensive than any other film of the time. The film was a reaction against the infiltration of the immigrant class and an attempt to raise the taste and status of film to a higher level.
Movies can echo the anxieties of the time period in which they were made. Beginning in 1902, the film industry concentrated on making fictional films and this is the way it has been ever since. People have an undying fascination with myths. There are certain societal and cultural truths embedded within these myths. In the 1910s, there was concern that movies were influencing people in negative and antisocial ways. Birth arrived at a time in which there were anxieties about the rise of the immigrant class in America and the emerging rights of the African American. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established in 1909. The struggle for civil rights was well under way when Griffith’s parable was released with unintended consequences. The film inspired both acclaim and outrage from people. Editorials in both white and black owned newspapers denounced the film. Some of the film’s supporters, such as William Joseph Simmons, used it as a means to resurrect the Ku Klux Klan. Unsurprisingly, African Americans who saw the film were horrified, instigating boycotts and riots all across the country. One African American, William Walker, recalled his viewing of the film: “Some people were crying. You just felt like you were not counted. You were out of existence. I just felt like killing all the white people in the world.”
Due to segregation, NAACP members were not able to see the film in theaters but had to see it at an arranged screening. They demanded that the censorship boards ban the film or at least cut the most offensive scenes. Their voices were not heard and the film was shown across the country for years. As a result, some black filmmakers sought to create films that would show a more positive image of African Americans. However, these filmmakers lacked adequate funding, and their attempts were limited to shorter films that were not widely seen.
In conclusion, Griffith combined a variety of filmmaking techniques that were adopted by every subsequent filmmaker. One takes these techniques for granted today because they have become forever engrained into the cinematic language as we know and love it today.