Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#237 The Birth of a Nation (1915)


Director: D.W. Griffith

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid

Appropriately described as one of the most revered and reviled films of all time, The Birth of a Nation is a film we simply wish to discard despite its groundbreaking stylistic and technical elements. Based on a rather racist play by Thomas Dixon entitled "The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan," the film spans from a pre-Civil War era, through Lincoln's assassination, to a post-war age where racial rivalry is at its peak. Showing African Americans in the worst light with the most blaring racial stereotypes, the film dually functions as a piece of racist propaganda, suggesting that their rise to liberty was the downfall of Aryian civilization. Showing Klan members parading in on stallions to a song of victory, murdering "crazed" blacks all along the way, certainly makes the film's standpoint clear, and sickeningly so.

Despite the horrors that this film projects, it simultaneously offers some of the greatest leaps and advancements made by any film. It is often said that this is the pioneer motion picture to define modern cinema, being the first to include key shots such as match-on-action, shot-reverse-shot, and even camera techniques such as tracking.

The three hour long drama is widely-debated and of course rightfully controversial, and I by no means would suggest the film is any form of pleasant viewing. The sick feeling it will leave in your stomach is probably not worth its historical significance to the artistry of film. But nevertheless, if you are persistent on seeing where it all started (or are just pursuing a crazy goal of watching all 1001 like me), try to prepare yourself for what is sure to be, however relevant, a difficult viewing experience.

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