Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Film: The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Stars: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthal, Miriam Coper, Mary Alden
Director: DW Griffith
Oscar History: Predated the Oscars
Snap Judmgent Ranking: 2/5 stars

I have dreaded watching The Birth of a Nation for years.  Honestly, AFI, what were you thinking?  I mean, I get the historical nature of the film and it being pretty much the first major feature-length film, but what an arduous movie to put on your greatest films list (thankfully you rectified the situation on your tenth anniversary edition).  And yet, I'm a completist, and I decided to take the three-hour tour through one of the most controversial films of all-time in order to finally, eighteen years later, finish the list (I saved a better film we'll get to later this year for the final checkmark).

(Spoilers Ahead) For those of you who haven't read what is the equivalent of cinematic War and Peace (even though War and Peace is actually a pretty good book from what I can tell), The Birth of a Nation is the story of the American South, told from the perspective of a group of southern soldiers.  As the film was released over 100 years ago, you can tell where we're going with the cringe-worthiness, but first it's worth pointing out that while there is racism in the first half of the film, the movie isn't as bad as I was expecting during the Civil War portion of the movie.  The action scenes during this period of the film were pretty impressive.  In an era well, well before CGI, we see battle sequences with dozens and occasionally hundreds of extras involved in extended marches and combats, and it's sort of staggering considering that film was in its infancy how much of these methods would be copied by pretty much everyone that followed Griffith, including far more impressively by Griffith himself a year later with the superior Intolerance.  The movie's focus on the battle, rather than the silliness of some of the girls and the soldiers that fawn on them (though Lillian Gish, always wonderful, rises above her dutiful and admired Elsie better than almost anyone in the film, where the acting is pretty bad even for the day), is a smart move and I can see why audiences were astounded to such a degree by the movie during these parts.

However, once Lincoln is assassinated and Reconstruction hits, we are left with an appalling display.  Even in 1915 the glorification of the KKK (of which our main character is a leader and member) appears in horribly bad taste, offensively portraying black men as lazy and over-sexualized, particularly in regard to the white female main characters.  The film shows a character based on Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, publicly destroying the now relatively well-received congressman (whose reputation admittedly at the time was still badly-bruised, particularly for Southern sympathizers), and makes him out to be both calculating and imbecilic, allowing his underlings to create an army out to "destroy White America."  The film glorifies lynching in some cases, and makes vigilantism something to celebrate.  The movie's politics are difficult to believe, even if you take yourself out of the artistic aspect and just look at it as an historical document, as the racism feels particularly raw.  It's worth noting, though, from an artistic standpoint the story jumbles when it tries to insert its politics in this portion, frequently creating too many subplots and sort of glossing over portions of the main characters' arches.

In summation, then, I cannot say the film doesn't have some things worth acknowledging.  The effects, the staging of certain scenes is damn impressive both for the time, and quite frankly for all-time considering how much work it is to do what computers make us take for granted crowd shots.  The film, in its first half, while not excellent is at least cogent and is better-plotted than you would expect from such a film.  However, the second half is a travesty, making you want to break the DVD or fast forward to get to the end and cross it off your damn "I saw it" list.  As a result I'm going with a two star rating because it's too impressive in certain sequences to deserve just one, but I can't bring it to three where it seems like I was possibly recommending the movie.

Those are my thoughts-what are yours?  This is a very famous movie and you've almost certainly seen clips if not the whole thing-how do you stomach the politics of the film while still admitting certain technical aspects are impressive?  Share in the comments!

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