The Birth of a Nation versus Gone with the Wind

         Many films from the early days of the cinema are considered to have set the standard and paved the way for the films of later years. While I do believe that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was released in 1915, paved the way for future movies centering on the Civil War, I do not believe that it set the standard. I believe the standard for these movies was set by Victor Fleming’s great film Gone with the Wind, which was not released until 1939.

         First and foremost, the acting in Gone with the Wind was much better. The actors in The Birth of a Nation were extremely exaggerating their movements and facial expressions to make up for gritty camera shots and the lack of sound. They believed this was the only way to make their emotions known to the audience. They were so wrong. I believe the old saying about “if looks could kill…” was coined just for Vivien Leigh’s character Scarlett O’Hara. With just her eyes she could make me feel as if she were a little girl enjoying the day or feeling the hottest fires of hell burning down my neck. Her eyes could put many modern actresses’ abilities to shame.

         Perhaps what I despised most about The Birth of a Nation was the way the slaves were portrayed. They were shown to be completely moronic and extremely petty. Once they had gained a little bit of freedom, they became power crazy. It also made them hell bent on seeking revenge against the whites who had repressed them. While there is a shred of truth in that, I believe that the movie greatly exaggerated it. They did not even allow black people to play the roles of the slaves. They were all performed by while people who had their faces painted. Obviously this is not true of Gone with the Wind because Hattie McDaniel, as Scarlett’s Mammy, became the first African American person to ever be nominated for and to win an Oscar. However, I do feel that Gone with the Wind also did not accurately portray the slaves during the Civil War. It was also a very one-sided view. The film makers showed only how well the slaves were treated by the O’Hara family and how the slaves did not really want to leave the family and go away. While this did happen, it was a rare occurrence. There are not many movies about the Civil War that do show both sides of struggle equally; but, between the two being compared here, I believe that Gone with the Wind is the fairer.

         While the comparisons are endless, I will leave them here and say only that The Birth of a Nation did open up people’s minds to the idea of making films about the Civil War. However, the standard they set was not a very good one. By far, Gone with the Wind was the superior movie in so many ways.

Stephanie Utley

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