After nearly a hundred years, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation maintains something of a Janus-headed reputation. Griffith’s contributions to feature-length narrative storytelling can’t be underestimated. His pioneering use of techniques like tracking shots, cross-cutting, iris effects, and night-for-night photography (setting aside entirely questions about whether or when he “invented” them) comprehensively indexed and consolidated a film grammar for future filmmakers. Stocked with members of Griffith’s repertory company, including future director Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth, The Birth of a Nation was for its time state of the art, the longest, most expensive, most elaborate film yet made amid the burgeoning Hollywood studio system. At its best, it’s a still rousing experience, full of spectacular set pieces, large (the panoramic siege of Petersburg) and small (the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is a tour de force in miniature).
On the other hand, Griffith’s attempt at “writing history with lightning” (an assessment attributed, perhaps wrongly, to then-President Woodrow Wilson) effectively meant rewriting history. The Birth of a Nation put forward a disingenuous fable of the Reconstruction in which the hooded heroes of the Ku Klux Klan ride to the rescue of besieged family values, a terribly misguided scenario Griffith soon felt the need to rectify with his follow-up apologia Intolerance. The damage, however, was done, to the extent that the film’s critical and popular success led to the reformation of the KKK. Over the next few years, a violent wave of lynchings and race riots would follow in their wake.
Griffith opens The Birth of a Nation with due pomp and circumstance. A title card informs viewers that each and every intertitle must, by penalty of law, be framed with the Griffith rubric: a modest affair that has “Griffith” at its top corners and “DG” centered at bottom, just so you know who’s moving this particular picture. After that, old DG makes his bid for artiste status with “A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE.” (All in caps, naturally.) As one of the earliest claims for film’s status as the Seventh Lively Art, and a fecklessly optimistic charm against the censor’s scissors, it’s worth quoting in its entirety: “We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue—the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word—that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.”
But Griffith’s humility doesn’t end there. From time to time, he’ll throw up a title card with a citation meant to assure the audience as to the film’s scrupulous exactitude, like the one claiming that Ford’s Theater has been reproduced in its exact dimensions and layout. In fact, as film historian David Shepard has pointed out, many of the images were lifted directly from scurrilous political broadsides and caricatures, none more inflammatory than those depicting a Senate chamber stocked to the rafters with buffoonish barefoot “darkies” swilling hooch and gnawing on chicken legs with wild abandon.
Griffith puts the last-minute rescue, a melodramatic trope he obsessively recycled, to particularly twisted purpose for The Birth of a Nation‘s climax, as the Klan “liberate” a shack surrounded by a mulatto militia. The technique is faultless (cross-cutting furiously, ratcheting up tension to the crescendo of his editing), but the content is questionable: the Charge of the White Brigade. Even worse, the epilogue shows armed Klansmen patrolling outside voting precincts to fend off the Negro menace. Order will henceforth be safeguarded by violence, and a double wedding welds families, former foes, and fractious friends under the benevolent gaze of MC 900 Ft. Jesus. All is right with the world.
Since this set includes two versions of The Birth of a Nation, a newly remastered 1080p transfer and an SDVD copy of David Shepard's 1993 restoration, it constitutes an ideal lesson in Blu-ray upgrade. The biggest benefits are reaped in overall clarity, density, and contrast. The digital tinting works nicely: offsetting a discomfortingly paternalistic cotton-picking scene with a wash of verdant greens, tactless narrative ameliorated by pictorial acumen; basking nighttime fireworks and battle sequences alike in deep reds and blacks, turning them into disorienting, almost Whistler-esque panoramas. The score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is provided in both 5.1 Master Audio and 2.0 stereo. Both mixes are impressive, filling in and rounding out, rather than overwhelming the on-screen action.
Kino presents The Birth of a Nation in a three-disc set (one BD, two DVD). The sole extra on the Blu-ray is the "spoken introduction" prepared for the film's 1930 rerelease, which now includes a newly discovered intermission sequence. More than introducing the film, this is actually a little skit that opens in a stage-set salon with a trio of ragamuffins looking on in starry-eyed wonder while Walter Huston and D.W. Griffith, seated in overstuffed wingback chairs, chew the fat. These impressionable youths are presumably meant to confirm Griffith's bona fides for the talkie generation, as the gamine opines, "I seen one of his pictures. It was swell!" Huston, who had just starred in Abraham Lincoln, Griffith's penultimate film (and first talkie), puts him through clearly scripted paces. Griffith discusses growing up in Kentucky, the son of Confederate Colonel "Roaring Jake" Griffith, and reminisces about The Birth of a Nation's production and reception in the sketchiest, most roundabout way. Huston winds up by posing a couple of softball questions regarding the film's historical veracity. Altogether, it's a fascinating, albeit featherweight curio piece.
The two DVDs included in this set port over the contents of Kino's 2002 "Griffith's Masterworks" two-disc set. David Shepard's making-of piece does an excellent job providing historical context, including a comparison of shots from the film with contemporary illustrations, a priceless scene from an early example of black film parodying Griffith's Klansmen (here swathed in black robes adorned with white skull-and-bones designs), and moments from earlier Griffith Civil War two-reelers (seven of which are provided in their entirety on the third disc). That disc also contains a wealth of documents related to The Birth of a Nation: excerpts from the source novel, The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., as well as letters and legal briefs related to censorship battles. Finally, there's an advertising and poster gallery.
Formalist text and object lesson in mythmaking, D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation gets a lavish three-disc presentation, loaded with extras, including a spanking new 1080p transfer, from Kino.