which nobody else in movies has managed to achieve; this last one, like his images of our Civil War, seems to come out of the deep subconscious: it is an absolute and prophetic image of a nation and a people. I will always
regret having missed Abraham Lincoln, his last film to be released: a friend has told me of its wonderful opening in stormy mid-winter night woods, the camera bearing along toward the natal cabin; and that surely must have been one of Griffith’s finest images.
as I can remember, the unique purity and vitality of birth or of a creature just born and first exerting its unprecedented, incredible strength; and there are, besides, Griffith’s overwhelming innocence and magnanimity of
spirit; his moral and poetic earnestness; his joy in his work; and his splendid intuitiveness, directness, common sense, daring, and skill as an inventor and as an artist. Aside from his talent or genius as an inventor and artist, he was all heart; and ruinous as his excesses sometimes were in that respect, they were inseparable from his virtues, and small beside them. He was remarkably good, as a rule, in the whole middle range of feeling, but he was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge. He was capable of realism that has never been beaten and he might, if he had been able to appreciate his powers as a realist, have found therein his growth and salvation. But he seems to have been a realist only by accident, hit-and-run; essentially, he was a poet. He doesn’t appear ever to have realized one of the richest promises that movies hold, as the perfect medium for realism raised to the level of high poetry; nor, oddly enough, was he much of a dramatic poet. But in epic and lyrical and narrative visual poetry, I can think of nobody who has surpassed him, and of few to compare with him. And as a primitive tribal poet, combining something of the bard and the seer, he is beyond even Dovzhenko, and no others of their kind have worked in movies.
However, comfortably within his lifetime (he died in 1948), there was broad recognition of the fact that under his guidance film had emerged as a medium of expression as distinct from the stage as it was from the world of literature. The late author and film critic .James Agee summed up the wonder: “To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of a melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, co-ordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize . . . this is the work of one man.”
Seeing it again offers the chance not only for a reunion ‘with an archetype but also for a return to The source beginnings of this century’s enchantment with the movies.
The Birth of a Nation is a tremendous, heroic, lyrical melodrama about the Civil War and the period of reconstruction. (It’s strange to think that when the film was made, there must have been many people who remembered that historical period just as people remember the 1920s now).
It is always difficult to come to terms with an old film which winds up on the wrong side of the political- moral fence.
Of course, the immediately notorious thing about The Birth of a Nation is its violent anti-Negro bias and its final hosanna of praise for the Ku Klux Klan. (It was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, and at the end it is the Klan which rides in for the rescue).
This nora1 lapse, in addition, to a’ few sequences which may’ seem naive or stilted, still leads some people—surprisingly in this supposed time of sophisticated film audiences—to sit sniggering through the film.
But this wasted act of condescension (seemingly unavoidable if a film is more than 10 years old) closes the door to the countless remarkable and memorable qualities of such a masterpiece as The Birth Of A Nation.
Griffith’s use of fragile, vibrant actresses—Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in this film—remains very moving. The famous scene in which Miss Marsh welcomes her brother home from the war is as rending as anything ever put on celluloid.
This piece, by the Toronto Star's Geoff Pevere is all too typical of the current anti-Griffith climate. It has more mistakes in it than Swiss Cheese has holes. See the William M. Drew posting for details.
Among the many places in America where the Ku Klux Klan rode to the rescue 90 years ago, perhaps the most conspicuous was the White House.