Thursday 24 January 2013

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

This entry may sum up with the greatest purity one aspect of this project: I've watched this film so you don't have to.  I've dreaded 'The Birth of a Nation' fro some while, having tried it in 2004 and given up bored after half an hour.  Here's a film that's way racist, way long at 190 minutes, and not especially engaging or rewarding to a modern eye.  I considered other options for this year, 'Der Golem', for instance, but 1915 simply is 'The Birth of a Nation' and to skip it out would be simply absurd.

The first half of this sentimental and differently-exciting melodrama shows two American families, one Northern, one Southern, divided by the Civil War.  We see the war, in all its glory and tragedy (the South were the heroes, by the way), and the ensuing reconstruction under the Neanderthal-faced Abe Lincoln, whose assassination is lavishly reconstructed at the film's mid-point.

John Wilkes Booth, after assassinating the president

The more notorious second half tells the tale of the liberated 'negroes' (as the film insists on calling them) and ruthless carpetbaggers (who are a cross between carpet slippers and teabaggers) oppressing the 'helpless White minority'.  The Ku Klux Klan is formed, apparently to seek something like good and equality through 'fair trials' and diabolical fancy-dress, and to quash these (obviously blacked-up) rascals who are, we are told, degrading America.

'The organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule'.  It's a very ugly piece of propaganda, but it seems to have worked.  The release and popularity of this film was almost wholly responsible for the re-emergence of the KKK in 20th Century America, a vigilante mob still exercising its brute force well into the 1950s.  The heroic young colonel of the film's first half is the instigator of this gang of terrorists, and the film would very much like us to admire him for it.  At the end, the spectral form of Jesus Christ puts in a cameo to lend it a little credibility.

The household servants are presented as benign (in short, they're submissive),
presumably as the one example with which to say 'this film can't be racist'.

All this is set to a rich orchestral score, which may be a more modern addition.  It's rather odd to see such American scenes of alarm overplayed with Grieg's characteristically Norwegian Peer Gynt music, or 'O Christmas Tree' (though it may have been the equally irrelevant 'The Red Flag').  Colonel Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant was apparently made to the strains of the British national anthem, a tune which may have a different meaning in the U.S., but I felt compelled to stand up in salute to her majesty in any case.

One of the most striking discoveries in the 100 films experiment is how competent, stylish, ambitious and advanced films were a century ago, a time we think of as their infancy - and how the advances from then until now have been slow, gradual and constant.  The adventure from 1913 cinema until 2013 isn't marked by milestones and watersheds (except perhaps the arrival of talkies, which so far seem to have emerged over-night fully formed), but by seemingly seamless development.  The more films I view, the more I can see how cinema got from the 1910s to the 1920s, from there to the 1930s, and so on.  Technically there's little between this and 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) bar a honing of special effects.  Decades famed for their distinct flavours - the 60s and 70s, for instance, flow smoothly from one to the other.

The North marvel at the South's bravery in war

To bring this back to 'The Birth of a Nation', here are superimposed images placing models ablaze in the same short as fleeing crowds; a camera clearly fixed to a moving vehicle to keep pace with actors on horseback; shots are juxtaposed with the understanding that viewers will know how to read the links between images; intertitles introduce scenes (as they did a decade earlier) but also provide excerpts of dialogue or context within the scenes.  In 1915, the movie and the movie audience are both highly advanced.  This is a flm wholly confident of its ability to use all cinema's techniques to tell any scale or complexity of story.  Of course, it looks crude and ancient now, but who was to know back then how far cinema might develop.  If director D.W. Griffith didn't anticipate the coming of sound and colour, then the epic scale of this achievement, with its cast of hundreds, its historical re-enactments and battlefields filled with smoke, horses and explosions, must have looked like the greatest film it was possible for humanity to produce, the eventual pinacle of the medium.  I wonder what film holds that title now.

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