Birth of a Nation to Bonnie and Clyde:
Creating Controversy in the History of Cinema

         All of the films we viewed in English 313 were important to the history of film; however, Bonnie and Clyde and Birth of a Nation stand out to me due to their controversy. It is evident that sometimes, in order to help any field evolve, things need to be shaken up a bit. From notions that the Earth is round to theories of evolution, the pioneers of the human species sometimes had to go against everything that was known. It has been no different in film. Both of the above-mentioned films were influential not only because of their controversy, but also because of their innovative use of the camera.

         D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) used many different camera shots to help perpetuate and accent the story, such as the iris shot, dissolve shots, flashbacks, close-shots, the “psychological” intercut, etc., according to A History of Narrative Film in chapter three (Cook). Another contribution that this film made to cinema was the realization of narrative in film. Of course, narrative had been incorporated into film before this, but never on this grand of scale and this effectively. The inclusion of narrative in film is key to the history of film today because this is chiefly how we make movies.

         The controversy of Birth of a Nation ion centers on social and political aspects of the film. This film very much skewed the actual events during the Civil War and portrayed the Klu Klux Klan as the saviors of the white race. In addition, it portrayed African Americans very poorly; to the extent that “558 feet” were of “the film’s most blatantly racist sequences” were cut from the film. This film was so racist in nature and full of propaganda that it was “used as a key instrument of recruitment and indoctrination” of the KKK into the 1960’s (Cook 66, 73).

         So why was this film so influential? Griffith was uninhibited in his use of the camera to evolve the storyline; this is a philosophy many directors go by today, like Steven Spielberg. He also proved that narration was important in film and that it can be used as a “potent social and political force” (Cook 73). Directors continued, and still do, to portray these forces on film, evident in movies like Jirí Menzels 1966 Closely Watched Trains and Sergei M. Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin.

         Also influential in film was, and still is Bonnie and Clyde. This film is particularly interesting because it was influenced by two separate generations with two separate agendas. First of all, naturally, it is influenced by the generation the real Bonnie and Clyde lived in. Bonnie and Clyde went on their bank-robbing spree during the Depression. This was a time of great dissatisfaction with the government, due to the economic depravity. The actual film was made in the 1960’s, also a time of rebellion against the government due to the Vietnam War. This film is significant because it represented a kind of freedom that was wanted by the younger generations.

         This film was influenced by the 1940’s film noir movement in that the film makers “were interested in exposing their audience to certain dark realities of contemporary American life” (Cook 853). Arthur Penn’s film was controversial because of this: he not only glorified criminals, but he also sensationalized violence. This was very influential because it provoked later film makers to explore controversial subject matter. This film proved that America was now ready for the realistic portrayal of death on the screen. It is surprising, considering how much violence is around us in America, that it took so long to accurately portray it on film. It is not so important to show violence, as it is important to be real to life, film is so much a fantasy world as it is.

         What was most impressive about Bonnie and Clyde was how Penn shot the scenes to create suspense, intrigue, and horror. The gory end scene was very influential after its time.

         These two films were very influential, after their time and during their time, in the history of cinema. Griffith and Penn used innovative camera work and controversy to create films that would cause debate and inspire greatness far into the future.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004.
Jamie Scaggs

Table of Contents