The Birth of a Nation (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
November 17, 2011 by Dennis Amith
The groundbreaking and highly controversial, first American feature-length film and blockbuster comes to Blu-ray! D.W. Griffith’s epic “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) revolutionized American cinema and now, makes its debut on Blu-ray! If you are a cinema fan, “The Birth of a Nation”, if viewed for its artistic and technical merits, is a must-own film on Blu-ray!
TITLE: The Birth of a Nation
FILM RELEASE: 1915
DURATION: 192 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1920x1080p, 1:33:1 , Color Tinted, Intertitles
COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber
RATED: Not Rated
Release Date: 2011
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Based on the Novel “The Clansman” and “The Leopard’s Spots” by Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
Written by D.W. Griffith and Franke E. Woods
Produced by D.W. Griffith
Music by Joseph Carl Breil, D.W. Griffith
Cinematography by G.W. Blitzer
Edited by D.W. Griffith, Joseph Henabery, James Smith, Rose Smith, Raoul Walsh
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman as Stoneman’s Daughter
Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron as Younger/Pet Sister
Henry B. Walthall as Col. Ben Cameron
Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron – Elder Sister
Mary Alden as Lydia – Stoneman’s Mulatto Housekeeper
Ralph Lewis as Hon. Austin Stoneman – Leader of the House
George Siegmann as Silas Lynch – Mulatto Lieut. Governor
Walter Long as Gus, a renegade Negro
Robert Harron as Tod, Stoneman’s younger son
Wallace Reid as Jeff, the Blacksmith
Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln
Elmer Clifton as Phil, Stoneman’s Elder Son
Josephine Crowell as Mrs. Cameron
Spottiswoode Aitken as Dr. Cameron
George Beranger as Wade Cameron – Second Son
Maxfield Stanley as Duke Cameron – Youngest Son
Jennie Lee as Mammy – The Faithful Servant
Donald Crisp as Gen. U.S. Grant
Howard Gaye as Gen. Robert E. Lee
More than 75 years after its initial release, The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most controversial films ever made and a landmark achievement in film history that continues to fascinate and enrage audiences. It is the epic story of two families, one northern and one southern, during and after the Civil War. D. W. Griffith’s masterful direction combines brilliant battle scenes and tender romance with a vicious portrayal of African-Americans. It was the greatest feature-length blockbuster yet to be produced in the United States and the first to be shown in the White House. After seeing it, President Woodrow Wilson remarked it was “like writing history with lightning!”
There was a time when critics sought to de-emphasize the film’s content and celebrate the picture as an artistic masterpiece, but from today’s perspective, such an approach seems less tenable. However flawed The Birth of a Nation now seems as an historical epic, it is undeniable that the film itself made history. In cities and states across the country, it energized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which tried to have the film banned, or at least the most gruesome scenes censored. The film also inspired African-Americans to move into filmmaking as a way to offer alternative images and stories.
Groundbreaking and one of the greatest American films of all time. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” was technically a major achievement in American cinema at the time and while controversial for its racist ideologies, the film, nearly a century later, continues to stand on its own and recognized for its achievements and its contribution to cinema.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a film based on the novel and play “The Clansman” by racist playwright, American Baptist minister and North Carolina legislator Thomas Dixon Jr., a man who had contempt towards Southern Blacks (it has been written that a reason for his bigotry was due to his father’s affair with a Black cook and the affair producing a half Black/White child).
As for filmmaker D.W. Griffith, the Kentucky-raised Griffith was raised by his father, a Confederate Army colonel in the American Civil War and a Kentucky legislator. Griffith made his beginnings creating Civil War silent short films for Biograph, which would lead to creating several shorts per week from 1908-1914.
Griffith was the first director to create the first feature film for Biograph with “The Adventures of Dollie” and also the first to shoot a film in Hollywood, California. But because Biograph felt that features were not viable for the company, Griffith would leave Biograph along with many actors to form Mutual Film Corporation and formed his own studio. And with partnerships with other companies, he went on to produce the film “The Birth of a Nation” in 1914 and a film that would be released in 1915.
“Birth of a Nation” would be the first American blockbuster and also the first feature length film over one hour. Because of the cost of making this epic, to watch this film, the average cost was $2 (for that time, is equivalent to around $43 today) and the film was popular and broke box office records.
As the film focused on the Civil War, the death of Abraham Lincoln and the reconstruction via post-Civil War, because it was based on Thomas F. Dixon’s novel, the film is about the corruption of the South by the Republican North by “carpetbaggers” (those from the North who moved to the South) by giving control to the corrupted Black people which would lead to the creation of the Ku Kux Klan, praised as heroes to restore order to the South.
Needless to say, the film received protests and was banned in several cities, especially when Blacks were being beaten and killed by those who took the film by heart and would use to justify their violence to hurt Black people. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested and even conducted public education campaigns to let people know of the film’s fabrication and inaccuracies.
To this day, “The Birth of a Nation” continues to be a controversial film because of the film’s racist ideology which has been proven to be filled with inaccuracies. But when the film was created in 1914, people only know what they were taught. And back then, people learned through the Dunning School, a group of historians who shared their historiographical school of thought regarding the Reconstruction period of American history. The leaders of the revisionist movement criticized Dunning’s racially biased narrative, especially as the Dunning school would look at Blacks to be ignorant and savages at the end of slavery.
But as Dunning schools teachings began to be known as “fact” for many people of that time, despite the generalizations and racist biased, that’s how people grew up during that time.
While many film critics have criticized the film because of its racial overtones, if one can separate themselves from that and put themselves in the shoes of viewers at that moment of time, “Birth of a Nation” was a cinematic revolution.
Before I begin my review, it’s important to preface that as an Asian American, I have watched this film and have two opinions. One as a person who has been vocal for human rights and against racial intolerance but also as a reviewer who appreciates the history of cinema, its technical achievements over the years and know that when it comes to silent films, as a fan of silent cinema, I’m able to put myself in the shoes of a reviewer who can understand how things were back then.
While I acknowledge how appalling it is to watch the celebration towards racist ideologies in this film, I do know that this is a film about how people were at that time and for Southerners, there are those who feel that what shown in the film was accurate. D.W. Griffith was raised by a colonel in the Confederate Army and it is quite obvious through American history of the disdain the South had towards the North and their opinions towards the ending of slavery. And of course, the portray
And by saying that, my review will from here on in, focus on the film, its accomplishments rather than bash about how hatred this film is towards Blacks. This is no surprise for everyone who is familiar with this film. But still, I look at this film as a skewed portrait to America’s past, but know that many people, including those who were involved in this film, believed the story of “The Birth of a Nation” to be true.
With that being said, “The Birth of Nation” is an epic film that shocked America. It broke box office records, it led to protests but technically, it was a film like no other. Over two-hours long, filmed in California and it was a groundbreaking film in 1915. To capture the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln t the reconstruction period, as D.W. Griffith would be known for in future films, that is to include large numbers of extras to create the efficacy of the look of a war.
The film would gross over $10 million in its first year (which was phenomenal) and in 35 years, would earn over $50 million and holds the title of highest grossing film for a decade.
In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and was #44 in the American Film Institutes (“100 Years…100 Movies”.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a film that is presented in two acts.
The first act focuses on two families. In the North, the Stoneman family features abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (played by Ralph Lewis, based on Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful politician depicted by the Dunning school as the person responsible for his advocacy of harsh measures in the South), his two sons and his daughter Elsie (played by Lillian Gish).
In the old South, we are introduced to the Cameron family which features Dr. Cameron (played by Spottiswood Aitken), Mrs. Cameron (played by Josephine Crowell), their three sons including Colonel Ben Cameron (played by Henry B. Walthall) and their two daughters Margaret (played by Miriam Cooper) and Flora (played by Mae Marsh).
As the Stoneman brothers visit the Cameron family at their South Carolina estate, the eldest Stoneman brother, Phil (played by Elmer Clifton) falls for Margaret Cameron, while Ben Cameron falls for Elsie Stoneman.
Unfortunately, the Civil War takes place and the brothers are called to fight for their region.
And while the North are winning the Civil War, the Union army featuring a black militia led by a white leader are shown as cruel savages as they ransack and burn homes of those living in the Cameron’s hometown. The militia kill many male Southerners who try to fight back.
Meanwhile, we are shown the North and South fighting in the war. In one scene, a Cameron sees a Stoneman being shot but as the Cameron brother goes for the kill, he recognizes the Stoneman brother but because of his pausing, he is shot and killed and both Stoneman and Cameron men are shown dead. And another Cameron brother is shown being killed.
As the Black militia break into the Cameron home, the mother, daughters and the maid hide in an underground basement in fear. Fortunately, the Confederate Soldiers arrive not long after to rescue the Southerners.
But unfortunately, the Cameron’s learn about how the North are winning and that their three sons, two have been killed and one, their son Ben, will be punished for his crime against the north and will be executed.
As Mrs. Cameron rushes to the aid of her wounded son, Ben is not in the best shape but a familiar face is watching over him. It’s Elsie Stoneman and when they find out that Ben will be executed, Elsie asks for Mrs. Cameron to plead to President Abraham Lincoln, who happens to be in the area, a plea for leniency to Ben in hopes to save him.
As we see Ben’s rehabilitation, we are then taken to a story of how President Abraham Lincoln is shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth and how his death may be problematic for the South.
Meanwhile, in the North, we see a happy Austin Stoneman as he and his mulatto maid/partner are thrilled about the death of Lincoln because he will now be the next person in line for power.
For act 2 of “The Birth of Nation”, Austin Stoneman and his mulatto protege Silas Lynch go to South Carolina in 1871 and see how the Black soldiers are celebrating about their freedom. And now voting begins for a new Lieutenant Governor.
But with the Blacks now free and in control, they prevent the Whites from voting and in the process, Silas Lynch is voted to be the Lt. Gov. And immediately, he elects an all Black legislature and we see how the Black legislature are portrayed as people who do not know how to be professional. Everyone is talking loud, one member of the legislature is shown eating chicken, another is shown drinking liquor and another is shown putting his feet up on the desk.
The Black legislature has now passed a law requiring all white civilians to salute Black officers and have voted to allow mixed-race messages.
With the Southern whites are living in fear of the Black people, Ben Cameron feels that it is an injustice that the “carpetbaggers” (those from the North trying to change things in the South) and the Blacks are trying to take control of the area from the Southern whites. When he sees a group of Black kids being scared off by white kids wearing a white blanket and pretending to be ghosts, Ben Cameron has an idea. To talk to Southern Whites in taking back their area by creating the Ku Klux Klan.
Meanwhile, one day as Flora Cameron has gone out to fetch some water for the family (despite being warned by her brother Ben, because of the potential danger of the Black people in the area), a Black soldier named Gus comes up to her and wants her to salute him but also be his bride. Flora tells him no but Gus won’t take no for an answer. She tries to escape but Gus follows her everywhere.
As Ben finds out that she left the house to get some water, he begins to worry and look for his younger sister. As for Flora, we see her in the hill but is trapped on a precipice. Gus is trying to get her and warns him that if he comes any closer, she will jump. And as he tries to get her, she jumps and falls from a long height onto rocks.
Ben runs towards the area and sees Gus who has run off. He finds his militia hat and sees a body down below. He rushes and finds out it is Flora, who dies in his arms.
Now, Ben along with the other white men of the South ala the Ku Klux Klan intend to show their justice by capturing Gus. And as trouble escalates, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan and in the process, the Cameron home is searched and in the process, they find Ben’s KKK costume and it belongs to Dr. Cameron, and he is arrested for the crime which is punishable by death.
We also see the Southern Blacks who get revenge on the KKK by killing innocent white civilians. With hope dwindling for the Southern whites, they can only hope that their heroes, the Ku Klux Klan, can save them from Silas Lynch and the evil Southern Blacks.
“The Birth of a Nation” is presented in (1:33:1) 1080p and is color-tinted. Having owned the 2002 Kino DVD release, for me, it was a given that this film would receive HD treatment. It’s too important of a film that people would expect this American classic to be on Blu-ray. David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates did a magnificent job in restoring the film in 1993 with the best film elements possible at the time and the DVD that was released from Kino was good. But of course, I was curious of how this 1915 film would look on Blu-ray.
While filmmaker/writer/restoration expert Kevin Brownlow has his own restoration for the film and people wondered if this was the version that would make it to HD or a Photoplay version, according to Kino Lorber, the version used is a newly mastered HD version from archival 35 mm elements.
The picture quality for this film which is nearly a 100-years-old is very good. Because of the age of the film, you’re going to get some scratches and white speck but I did not see any film warping or nitrate/acidic burns on the negative.
I did notice the newer tinting (for some scenes which were sepia in the 2002 DVD, now it’s orange. Some scenes are re-tinted, magenta scenes are now red. Some grayscale scenes are now green.) and you can see more detail of the talent (especially their eyes for actress Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh) which is more prominent on Blu-ray) and also see much more detail on the clothing. From Elsie’s dress or when Flora has the cotton balls all over her dress and also, HD does bring out some of the makeup errors of a character and how makeup application as not as good when it came to the Blackfaced actors. HD tends to bring out those makeup details, which most people probably do not see as prominent when it was released on DVD or VHS.
I am actually very impressed of how much detail and clarity the was for the film in HD and for silent film fans who have waited for a reason why to upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray, “The Birth of a Nation” is a fine example!
While I’m not a fan of red tinting, as it can be hard to see the darker portions of the film, still…I found the picture quality for “The Birth of a Nation” to be very good and there are not many feature-length films that are this old, going to get the HD treatment. So, I’m quite pleased with how the video turned out via HD.
It’s also important to note that the Dave Shepard (2002 Kino DVD) version is also included with this release.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
As for the audio, I have to give credit to the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra who has done a fantastic job with the music. Presented in 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1., the music really enhanced my viewing of this film this time around.
According to Rodney Sauer of Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra on his approach to the score (as posted on Nitrateville.com), “I decided that the J.C. Breil score is well-represented in the available editions, so I’ve compiled a new score, mostly of obscure classical works written prior to 1915. However, since photoplay music didn’t really kick in until after Birth of a Nation appeared (and probably at least somewhat in response to it), this leaves the score compiler a little sparse on good battle music and agitatos without going to well-known orchestral works. So I stretched the time period a bit for those sections of the film. Consider this a possible score for a revival of The Birth of a Nation around 1921.”
But the music really builds up the mood to the war, the more emotional moments of the film and also the danger.
While those who enjoyed Joseph Carl Breil’s original score that was included in the 2002 DVD, you can hear it on the included DVD version of the film as well.
But for the most part, the lossless musical soundtrack of this film by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is fantastic!
“The Birth of a Nation” comes with the following special features:
There are three special features on the Blu-ray featuring D.W. Griffith being interviewed by actor Walter Huston (while they were filming “Abrahama Lincoln”) about “The Birth of a Nation” and also Griffith responding to the criticism of inaccuracies depicted in the film. Of course, rather than being polemic, Griffith uses Woodrow Wilson’s writings as written fact. Also, included is the newly rediscovered intermission sequence.
- Introductions Part 1 – (5:51) Walter Huston interviews D.W. Griffith about the film and presents him with something special.
- Introductions Part 2– (1:53) Walter Huston questions Griffith about the film’s historical accuracy.
- 1930 Re-Release Title Sequence – (1:23) A title sequence discussing the added sound to the 1930 re-release.
- The Making of the Birth of a Nation – (24:00) A documentary produced by David Shepard and compiled and written by Russell Merritt, Dave showcases footage from behind-the-scenes of the making of “The Birth of a Nation”. NOTE: This is the same documentary from the 2002 DVD.
The special features from the original 2002 DVD with the Civil War Shorts are presented with this 2011 Blu-ray release. Included are the following D.W. Griffith shorts (featuring music by Jon C. Mirsalis and also the Biograph Quartet) and also the “New York vs. Birth of a Nation” feature:
- In the Border States – (1910, 16 min.) A father living in a border state joins the Union Army instead of the Confederate Army.
- The House with Closed Shatters – (1910, 17 min.) A young soldier turns coward and runs away to his home to hide, his sister puts on his uniform and takes her brother’s place in battle.
- The Fugitive – (1910, 17 min.) A story of a Northerner and a Southerner who leave their girlfriends and family to fight in the war. The Northerner kills the Southerner and ends up taking shelter in the victim’s home.
- His Trust – (1911, 16 min.) A Confederate officer goes to war and leaves his wife and daughter in the care of George, his faithful slave servant.
- His Trust Fulfilled – (1910, 11 min.) A slave named George takes care of his deceased master’s daughter after her mother’s death.
- Swords and Hearts – (1911, 16 min.) A poor girl falls for a wealthy young planter and helps him from being captured by Union soldiers.
- The Battle – (1911, 17 min.) A soldier turned coward escapes from being captive by the Union Army but sick of being a coward, he tries to help his comrades.
- New York vs. the Birth of a Nation – An archive of information documenting the battles over the film’s 1922 re-release, including protests by the N.A.A.C.P., transcripts of meetings, legal documents, newspaper articles and montage of scenes ordered cut by the New York Censor Board.
- Excerpts from Souvenir Program Books
“The Birth of a Nation” comes with a slipcase cover.
Over a decade ago, I remember having this premonition of having to review “The Birth of a Nation” and wondering how to approach it. As a person who is not white, who began a career of taking on stories as an editor in college for race relations and featuring stories on local and national injustice that were being spotlighted in media.
But that was then.
I’m older and also have widened my perspective towards cinema from as early as the 1890’s to the present-time. Invested in books and DVD’s, to truly learn about filmmakers who made a big contribution to cinema.
D.W. Griffith is a fascinating person to read and learn about. But at the same time, I am fully aware of the controversy that surrounds his film “The Birth of a Nation”.
If I was growing up around that era, I would probably have protested against it as it was a harbinger of hatred and a film, while a big hit in other cities, it also inspired violence against Blacks.
But I remember when film critic Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 2003, his words were “All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it.”
Also, we have to consider the era this film was made and also the man behind the film. D.W. Griffith was a Southerner, raised by a father who was a Colonel in the Confederate Army and his mother also sewn for the KKK. There are always two sides of the coin and we know that there were teachings that were inaccurate. Many in the South learned about the Dunning School and how it painted a picture of the reconstruction era as corruption by the North and its perspective towards Blacks as inferior, to the point of troglodyte status. Not believing Blacks were intelligent enough to govern or take control of their lives and lead, like the whites.
Many of us have grown up with a perspective towards life, may it be through our parents, schools, church but while modern society benefits from learning through other experiences today via Internet, by newspapers, by television, radio…these individuals learned without technology but with books and by teachings which were treated as fact?
I look at the recent release of interviews with Jackie Kennedy who spoke ill of Martin Luther King not long after her husband, JFK was killed. But we learn from her daughter and others, that it was because she was fed information by Herbert Hoover who was trying to hurt Martin Luther King’s influence in America. She didn’t know at the time but she learned for herself later that King was a good man, and she even attended his funeral.
Why I bring this up is because “The Birth of a Nation” is portrait to how the beliefs were for white Southerners were back then. For Griffith, he went by what he knew, even used quotes from President Woodrow Wilson who had his own feelings about the reconstruction and how the KKK was necessary at the time.
We can look back at American cinema and see a lot of wrong things that were wrong… but at the time, people took in as a form of entertainment. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland sporting blackfaces in “Babes on Broadway”, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”… And if people were to react today and say, “that is wrong!”. Yes it is. But race relations were a bit different back then than they are now. With “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, with the 2009 DVD release, it went as far to have a producer and even the director now coming out and saying it was wrong to have that scene, to include a featurette to discuss why it was hurtful.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a film that is not easy for some people to watch because of its racist ideology. But if it was portrait of America long ago, the film goes to show how Black portrayed and thought of by those who were taught or grown up thinking that way. I’m not going to defend D.W. Griffith, because he felt the backlash and tried to make amends with his 1916 film “Intolerance”.
But still, it’s not going to change things if one was raised with a certain belief and the fact that as a Southerner, growing up around a time of the Civil War, I’m sure many Southerners carried deep resentments towards the North and the change of way of life was not going to be easy. Even today, while race relations are much better than it was back then, unfortunately, the fact is that racism, bigotry and prejudice still exists in various forms.
But “The Birth of a Nation”, I’ve learned to watch and observe the film, not more for its racist ideology but for its technical merit and what Griffith was able to create. The first American blockbuster, the first feature-length film that was over 60 minutes long. This was all new territory for cinema… from the sheer magnitude of creating an expensive film, to help establish Hollywood, California as the new home for moviemaking (as many short films were still being shot in New Jersey) and to showcase what is possible with making movies.
“The Birth of a Nation” was a revolutionary film that set the course of more feature-length films and to show that these films can make money (many studios felt that feature films were not financially viable) and in the case of this film, people were willing to pay the price of $2 (equivalent to $48 today) to see it.
And the message is clear with “The Birth of a Nation”. While it starts off a bit slowly and many characters are introduced, its when the war begins in which the film starts to take its shape. Southern pride, praying for love ones during the war and hoping for a positive outcome but to find out your side is losing. To make things worse, the enemy, the north is encroaching towards your home with a militia of Black men who are intent of destroying the homes and belongings and to kill anyone who tries to fight back.
A message that possibly Griffith’s father, their friends and other families have had towards the north and what Griffith saw as a kid, a hidden hatred by American white Southerners who blame the north for changing their way of life.
The north are looked at as savages, man who cares for no one but themselves. One must remember that Southerners were religious, may they be Southern Baptists but they felt their strong connection to God and looked at the north as these cruel people who would unleash their wicked ideals and alter their way of life.
But we watch as the war takes place. The full scale of North vs. South, many men being killed in battle including members of the two families that are focused on…the Stoneman’s and the Cameron’s. Griffith featured many talent fighting against each other on the battlefield and managed to capture the war like no one has ever seen before during that time.
The first act of the film keeps viewers captivated by featuring the Civil War, to show the mourning of families who lost love ones and then the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. When I first watched this film, I was impressed by its first act along of how much was featured. Where most silent films focus on a certain location, there were so many shots out in the field, in various homes and offices to the replication of the Ford theater. The efficacy of the war choreography was amazing and I was really impressed by the overall costume and set design, a pre-cursor of what Griffith would later accomplish in a much more grander scale with “Intolerance”.
By the second act, we are now shown the Reconstruction era and it is the second act in which many people sensitive towards racism will have a problem with the film.
With Lincoln’s death comes the emergence of Austin Stoneman, a man without scruples who is thirsty of power, has sexual relations with his mulatto maid and brings the mulatto Sylas Lynch to the South in which Lynch would give control to the Southern Blacks to make the decisions that will impact the Southern whites.
We are treated with appalling characterizations of Black leaders as they are shown to be not intelligent during their legislature meeting as they are eating chicken, drinking on the job and putting their feet on the desks as if they can not function as leaders in society. Furthering the Dunning School of the inferiority of Blacks but yet, as punishment by the carpetbaggers of the north, they are inflicting their will against the whites.
And thus, the KKK was born… to fight against the wrongs caused by the North and the Blacks. The whites are seen as victims of the war, and now the greater evil are trying to take over…that is until the heroes, the men in white robes, like ghosts, would fight for their land and the dignity of the Southern white people.
And of course, nothing generates tragedy by showing the two prominent female characters of the film, Flora Cameron and Elsie Stoneman being harassed by the Black man who are like troglodytes of forcing the white woman to marry them. And the tragedy that further flames the resolve of the Ku Klux Klan.
Watching the second act today, I found it to be appalling but yet I continued to remind myself that this is not my era or belief that is being shown on the film, it is the belief of what many Southern whites had at the time. And I realize that when you watch a film such as the Nazi films by Leni Riefenstahl or even North Korean films that seem so innocent and pure for the benefit of their country, you know they are poking fun on the Capitalism. I found myself conflicted but logic telling me to put myself in the shoes of those who created the film, those who believed that the Reconstruction era was as it was depicted in the film.
I do give credit to Griffith for creating a sensational climax. From the various shots incorporated in the film to capture the action scenes, the dramatic scenes…closeups, medium shots…it’s all in this film. The film is quite innovative and technically, a major achievement in cinema at the time. Revolutionary is possibly the best way to describe this epic film for its visual and narrative accomplishments.
From the dramatic tragedy of a major character to the chase scene in which the Cameron family are trapped in a cabin trying to survive an onslaught of their enemy trying to get to them. The film manages to capture both action and drama to full effect and it’s not surprising that the film received tremendous applause in theaters. It’s a story of a Southern’s perspective of how good conquers evil.
As for the Blu-ray release, when Kino released their 2002 DVD, it was a magnificent release as it featured David Shepard’s restoration, his documentary and to make things even more exciting, Kino included a good number of Griffith’s earlier Civil War short films as well. It was a wonderful release! And even moreso, the release of the first volume of the Griffith Masterworks DVD box set which was in my mind…the ultimate D.W. Griffith release!
But the detail and sharpness and clarity of the Blu-ray release of “Birth of a Nation” is magnificent. No, it’s not perfect as the video for this nearly century-year-old film does have white specks and scratches but still, it’s complete and it looks much better than its DVD counterpart. And with this Blu-ray release, you get everything that came with the 2002 release plus the newly discovered introduction interview portions that accompanied the 1930 re-release of the film on the Blu-ray.
“The Birth of a Nation” is indeed groundbreaking and controversial. It’s a film that will provoke a response from anyone watching it. But for the sake of the film, for its achievement in American cinema, there is a reason why “The Birth of a Nation” is considered one of the greatest American films of all time. Many may not agree with the racist ideology that is featured in the film but one must remember that it is an ideology that these individuals were raised in believing when they were younger.
As a cineaste, it’s a film worth watching, especially knowing how important it was in reshaping American cinema which would go on to influence cinema in other countries. “The Birth of a Nation” was the birth of the first blockbuster, the first feature-length film but also showcasing the magnificent D.W. Griffith as a filmmaker and his ambition to create a film like no other. For the true cineaste, this is an essential film to have in your cinema collection! It’s too important of a film to ignore.
And as for the HD release of this film and for this magnificent Blu-ray release which includes the original 2002 DVD version of the film plus the many Civil War Griffith shorts from 1910-1911, rating the package as a whole, “The Birth of a Nation” is most deserving of all five stars!
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