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The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation(1915)

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Before The Birth Of A Nation (1915), almost no one went to see a movie. Instead they went to the movies, a group of short films running 15 to 30 minutes each changing every week at a small storefront in a unfashionable part of town. Each program would provide a small taste of comedy, drama and adventure performed by mostly anonymous actors. This was how exhibitors wanted the movies to be and they fought hard to keep them that way.

With The Birth Of A Nation, director D.W. Griffith exploded all that. His epic civil war story ran over three hours, had a commissioned orchestral score and played only in the best theaters at prices previously asked only for live performances. Despite the howls of the exhibitors, The Birth Of A Nation became the biggest hit of the silent era, creating the first national phenomenon for a single film and forever establishing the feature film running at least an hour as the standard form of the cinema.

However, the story and the way Griffith told it also made The Birth Of A Nation the most controversial motion picture ever made. Beginning just before the Civil War, the story tells of two families, the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South as they become friends, fight against one another during the war and come back together during Reconstruction. The film's point of view is unabashedly that of a white Southerner of the period, that is, black slaves loved their masters and helped them fight the Yankees, Reconstruction was a nightmare during which ignorant, sex-crazed blacks were put in charge of whites, and the only force that could put the races back in their rightful places was the Ku Klux Klan.

This view of the war and its aftermath was not uncommon when the movie was released. Then President Woodrow Wilson had The Birth Of A Nation projected as the first film shown at the White House and famously remarked that it was "like writing history with lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Others strongly disagreed. Mass protests greeted the film in many cities, the N.A.A.C.P. and Union veteran groups called for boycotts and state censorship boards, then a rarity, began to spring up to deal with the complaints. The controversy continues to this day. As recently as 1999 the Directors Guild Of America dropped D.W. Griffith's name from their annual best director's award because he made this film.

The Birth Of A Nation has appeared before on DVD but now, as part of its Griffith Masterworks series, Kino Video has issued the movie as a two-DVD set that places the movie in its time and as a culmination of Griffith's art. Disc one contains David Shepard's 1992 restoration of the complete movie running 187 minutes with the original color tinting and accompanied by an orchestral recording of the Joseph Carl Briel score written for the film plus a short called The Making Of The Birth Of A Nation with surviving outtakes. Disc two has the sound prologue filmed for the 1930 release with Walter Huston, then starring in Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (1930) interviewing Griffith. There are also documents from the 1922 New York censor board hearing at which Griffith testified, clips from the movie's most-censored scenes, views of posters, ads and original souvenir programs, excepts from the source novel and a Photoplay interview with Griffith about the film. In addition 108 minutes worth of shorts about the Civil War directed by Griffith during 1910-11 show the development of his abilities to handle the spectacle and drama necessary to tell this story. With the exception of His Trust Fulfilled (1910), which has nitrate damage, and The Battle (1911), which is from a poor-quality print, all the shorts look marvelous for their age. A dramatic yet subtle piano score by Jon Marsalis helps this ancient cinema come alive.

Kino Video's issue of The Birth Of A Nation is likely to remain the definitive release of this title, preserving a film of immense historical importance.

For more information on The Birth of a Nation, visit Kino International. To purchase a copy of this DVDs, visit TCM's online store.

by Brian Cady