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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 2

The Birth of A Nation is one of the best known of Silent films, mainly because of the controversy that surrounds it.
It is widely claimed to be a major step forward in Cinema in terms of technical abilities, budget and the amount of money it made, among other things.
It was the highest grossing film of the Silent era, making about 10 million dollars.

 I had heard much about it before viewing it, the controversy, the ground breaking technical achievements etc. And was curious to find out for myself what all the fuss was about.
Some reviews I had read criticised the film in the strongest possible terms for it's content which they labelled nothing less than racist. Some called for people to look past the controversial content and recognise the films technical achievements. I can't recall any saying they enjoyed or could relate to the story though...

The first part of the film tells the tale of two families, the Cameron's in the South and the Stoneman's in the North who get caught up in the Civil War. Some die, others live to see the end of the War but their peace is a troubled one as President Lincoln is assassinated shortly afterwards.
The second part of the film tells of the resulting troubles that bring anarchy to the South after Lincoln's assassination. The Blacks dominate the Whites and cause much havoc, thus the Ku Klux Klan is formed to fight the injustice the Blacks are subjecting the Whites to.

As I'm sure you can tell, the content is of a very controversial nature.Yet what may seem surprising is the fact that the film was an enormous success upon it's release. So while we can criticise it for it's content when looking upon it with a modern eye, I'm sure at the time it must have been quite extraordinary.

In some ways I think a comparison to recent mega blockbuster Avatar might be apt. Most notably the popularity of Avatar despite the content which is rather prejudiced, one sided and simplified. As is the content to this film. And I can't help but wonder if in about 100 years, people will look back on Avatar as we look back upon The Birth of A Nation, as a great technical achievement and a step forward in Cinema, but with content that can be quite offensive at times, yet was a great success with the public.

A modern viewer will obviously have problems with the way Blacks are portrayed in this film, as dishonourable thieves, liars and villains, and the way the infamous Klan is portrayed as saviours of the South.
And that viewer would be right to be offended as it is quite manipulative and unpleasant content. But as always one must keep in mind that the times were very different when this film was made, in fact some of the older viewers of this film might have actually experienced the events at first hand in their youth.
 It was not such a distant memory to them and thus I'm sure they looked at it in a different way.

But this does not mean that the film aroused no controversy upon it's release, in fact the outcry was very strong (despite, or maybe because of, it's high earnings). To prove that he was not racist, Griffith went on to direct Intolerance, and anti-racist film and the next film I'll be reviewing, which ironically was a flop.

One cannot ignore the various, and very strong, examples of anti-war sentiment expressed throughout the film.
But I could not help but feel that a film that criticises War yet at the same time condones and even provokes violence such as that carried out by the Ku Klux Klan against the Blacks is very hypocritical. In fact I would argue that the Civil War served a greater purpose, even if it was a tragedy, than the killings of Blacks in the South ever did.
If you want to a real anti war film of the Silent era, then I would strongly recommend J'Accuse.
All this does make me wonder what Griffith actually thought and believed in though, if he really was racist then why make Intolerance after this ? Was this film merely an attempt at an anti-war film gone wrong ? No one really knows but him I suppose.

Lincoln's Assassination
I have purposefully oversimplified the synopsis as there really is much more to this film, actually it could be said to be primarily a Romance set during and after the Civil War. But the Romance is often sidelined for the Historical elements of the story, such as the assassination of Lincoln, scenes of battle during the Civil War, scenes of Blacks voting for the first time etc... But this often causes the Romance to appear in a rather clumsy fashion, I mean the plot twists and turns in order to make the lovers reunite at specifically emotional times. Most of the elements that cause these meetings were rather unbelievable as we're many other chance encounters on the battlefield and the fact that a pair of the lovers was present at the assassination.  This all felt a bit constrained to me. But I do realise that it was done in a crowd pleasing effort.
Griffith used a pretty classical love story in this film, in fact it's two parallel love stories, the man (woman) is from the North (South) yet despite their love they cannot be together due to all the suffering caused by the War and the resulting disturbances. A pretty classical "star crossed lovers" theme, played out in double in this film, between two couples. And despite my general dislike for Romance in films, I found little problems with it here except the aforementioned problems with the plausibility of certain events.

The Romance I think was used mainly to please the audience, to present a more human side as opposed to the more historical and factual elements of the rest of the film. This is something film makes have been doing since the beginning of Cinema.
But the problem is, as I mentioned before, that these two sides to the film to not fit well together. The fact that the film cuts from a scene between lovers or the family is some drama or another, to a scene of crowds shouting and protesting and such just didn't work well in my opinion. It gives the film a disjointed feel.
I also thought that the idea of showing the film from the point of view of the Southerners and the Northerners was a very interesting one, but sadly Griffith failed to use that idea to it's full potential, thus most of the film centres around the Southerners and their problems and the way the Northerners might have seen things is rarely shown.

But despite all these ramblings, I still must find time to mention the technical side to this film which was quite remarkable.
This film broke a lot of new ground in Cinema at the time, it was the longest film ever made up until then, at just over 3 hours in length. IT pioneered new waves of setting up shots, close ups, editing. It also filmed various scenes on larger scales than had ever been seen before.
Griffith directs with considerable talent and put all the available techniques of the day to great use. Including the iris and various colours of tints.

The battles scenes, which were easily the most impressive in the film, feature many extras, explosions and are shot in a rather revolutionary way. If you can look past the content, you will definitely be impressed by the apparent ease with which this was filmed, for when ones thinks of Silent films one generally thinks of the things they couldn't do such as the lack of sound, lack of camera movements etc... But this film feels very unconstrained in a technical sense, it seems that all the shots Griffith wanted were made perfectly.
The way the action was portrayed, many characters each going about their individual struggles in the same frame was impressive to watch and must have taken quite some time to set up, but the result is great. We get a film on an amazing scale, with sets ranging from the theatre where Lincoln was assassinated, to battlefields in the War to a small cabin besieged by enemies.
Many outdoors scenes are equally impressive and actually very much ahead of their time, although they are easily the shots with the poorest quality, their presence in the film is nonetheless extraordinary.

When watching this film, which can be said to be something of a turning point in Cinema, I was also struck by how much Cinema had changed from the date of this films release, in 1915, to the 1930's. In fact I the advancements between this film and a late 20's film (such as the wildly innovative Napoleon) were very apparent as well.
This just goes to show how fast Cinema moves, surely it must be the most ever changing of art forms.

All in all, I don't think this film is a masterpiece. I think it deserves recognition for opening many doorways to future film makers who would take the advancements this film made even further, but it's story falls rather flat in my opinion and much of the second half is rather offensive whereas much of the first half was historically inaccurate.

Obviously just because a film is very old and influential, this doesn't mean it's a particularly great film and The Birth of a Nation isn't particularly great. But it is important, and is worth watching for that alone, even if it can be a gruelling watch at times.

This ended up way longer than I expected, which in turn caused my posting this to be late, I'll try and keep the next review more concise, although I realise now that I say the same thing every time I write a review...
Next up is Griffith's "Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout The Ages"!

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