First Movie in the White House

J. Hoberman

  • D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ by Melvyn Stokes
    Oxford, 414 pp, £13.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 533679 5

The Birth of a Nation may not be the greatest movie ever made (whatever that might mean), but it is the one that has had the greatest impact on America and, indirectly, the world. Never was a movie more aptly named; and rarely have quotations marks been more superfluous than in the subtitle of Melvyn Stokes’s informative book.

What did Griffith bring into the world? Imagine an unholy combination of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, a movie as violent and sentimental as Saving Private Ryan and as tricksy as Forrest Gump, landing with the force of Titanic in the nickelodeon universe of 1915, where the typical attraction was 20 minutes long. Griffith’s blockbuster, a three-hour account of the Civil War and Reconstruction adapted from a popular melodrama by Thomas Dixon, was the longest, costliest and most spectacular American movie to date. The screen had never been filled with so many actors and so much action; battle scenes had never been so vivid; and the past had never been represented with such immediacy.

At the time, The Birth of a Nation appeared to epitomise modernity. But to understand Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein wrote, ‘one must visualise an America made up of more than visions of speeding automobiles, streamlined trains, racing ticker tape, inexorable conveyor belts. One is obliged to comprehend this second side of America as well – America, the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial.’ And, the Soviet filmmaker was too polite to add, America the racist, the self-righteous and the white supremacist.

The depiction of the entire Civil War is merely a prelude to the madness of the movie’s final hour: an orgy of arson and rape, anarchy, revolution and counter-revolution, human sacrifice and hair’s-breadth rescue, the sacred vengeance of flaming crosses, the vigilante justice of flags dipped in blood. To add to the frenzy, Griffith set this last movement to a virtual loop of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. The Birth of a Nation was the first movie for which an elaborate musical score was seen as integral to the action.

The hoopla that greeted the film on its release in 1915 – the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War – was no less impressive. Griffith strategically opened the second half of the movie with a series of quotations from Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People and manoeuvred to secure Wilson’s endorsement: The Birth of a Nation was the first movie ever shown at the White House; the next night, possibly at the president’s bidding, it was screened for an audience of Washington dignitaries. But not everybody appreciated it. It was immediately attacked by the newly established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which issued a statement declaring that ‘every resource of a magnificent new art has been employed with an undeniable attempt to picture Negroes in the worst possible light.’

The awful truth was that Griffith was the embodiment of that magnificent new art: he was to cinema what Henry Ford was to industrial production. Griffith introduced narrative suspense and emotional identification to the movies. He began making two-reel films in 1907, and after turning out hundreds of them he had learned how to use editing to create dramatic tension, by cutting back and forth with increasing rapidity between two or even three actions. Previously, a scene had usually involved a single camera set-up; it was Griffith who pulverised homogeneous space by shifting camera angles and using close-ups. The close-up also produced a new style of film-acting that gave heightened significance to objects, body parts and, above all, facial expressions.

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