Setting the Standard

        D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was important in the development of cinema in multiple ways. The production, structure, and impact made a lasting impression on what was to become of cinema after its inception. Griffith was a pioneer for his era of film making. He took risks others would never have thought to take, risks directors now would never dream of taking.

        Before The Birth of a Nation most films were made within a month, and Griffith was known for making films in as little as four days. However, he had dreams of rivaling the longest motion picture, and found his muse in the Civil War and his idealistic view of the South. He adapted a failed play, The Clansmen, into a full-length moving picture. His producer gave him a minimal budget, which Griffith ended up almost tripling (Cook 64). He invested his entire account and paychecks on this film, along with close friends’ money as well. No one knew what the outcome would be, and many even predicted failure.

        This film had no script, and Griffith was the only one aware of the continuity of the film from editing to props. This was the first film to take over a month to shoot. It took 15 weeks total, and during this time Griffith was so secretive most of the cast had no idea what the film was actually about or why he needed so many angles on one shot. It “composed of over 1,544 separate shots—in an era in which the most sophisticated of foreign spectacles contained fewer than 100…took three months to edit and score” (Cook 64, 65). These are only some of the many risks Griffith took while in production.

         The Birth of a Nation contains every narrative technique ever used in this one film and it was the longest and most expensive film ever made in America. It is one of the top-grossing films of all time with about 150 million seeing it by 1948 and had made about $48 million, the most money ever made by a film (Cook 65). Critics boasted about this film being the best ever made, and historically accurate. People believed there could never be another film of this caliber. However with this kind of success also comes controversy.

        The NAACP saw it was blatantly racist and even made him remove the “worst” scenes of racism. The modern Klu Klux Klan was born out of this film, and it was banned in many states. The motion picture caused such an uproar President Wilson had to retract his original praise of the film and merely commented on the technique. Griffith took the idea of a narrative epic and applied it to film. He was able to balance the personal with the epochal within the film, while focusing on a single aspect of history. He mixes fictional characters with historical figures perfectly while focusing on multiple plots with several characters. He mastered the dissolve and iris-in and out, and is able to follow two separate families while staying in chronology. He interrupts action shots of the blacks raiding the town, with the Klan’s ride to save the people. He uses the close-shot to call attention to symbols or a character’s reaction, and flashbacks. Griffith was able to create an epic with no rules or guidelines of cinematic narration to follow. He created a “symbolic realism” (Cook 66, 72) others would attempt to follow and perfect.

        The monetary success of this film gave birth to the Hollywood Blockbuster. Directors saw audiences devour emotional, sensational, and melodramatic material, and thus Griffith created Hollywood (Cook 72). It also introduced film as a political power as well as entertainment. Films can be controversial and political and gain an audience. However, outside of the world of cinema, his film had an impression as well. The KKK was reborn, and used this film as recruitment.

        Because of Griffith film making took on a whole new role. It melded art with reality and set the standard for every film to come. Griffith’s creation of this film set the path for cinema to test itself and its audience, to inspire and bring about a sense of catharsis, while taking into consideration to art and science of film making.

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

Lauren Bauer

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