After having his sophisticated way of living interrupted by the imported African slaves, a Confederate soldier in post-Civil War America decides to set up the Klu Klux Klan as a way of keeping the 'black's' in line.
Erich von Stroheim claimed that D.W. Griffith put `beauty and poetry into a cheap and tawdry sort of entertainment'. But Griffith was always a refiner and extender of existing techniques rather than an innovator and the conventions of Victorian art, literature and melodrama always counted for more than cinema in his storytelling style. Consequently, sentimentality, pretentiousness and political naivete permeate much of Griffith's work.
Yet few contemporaries could have attempted to produce a film of such scope and significance as The Birth of a Nation and it remains among the most ambitious pictures ever produced. However, it exposed more of Griffith's weaknesses than his strengths and its intellectual poverty has continued to haunt it since its contentious release over 90 years ago. Adapted from two Civil War novels by the negrophobic Thomas Dixon Jr, The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots, the film was constructed from 1544 individual shots into a laudably coherent series of imposing tableaux. But while the authenticity of battle sequences inspired by Matthew Brady's celebrated photography prompted President Woodrow Wilson to opine that the action was tantamount to `history written in lightening', the picture's racist rhetoric was condemned by many viewers (not least for the fact that its success helped rejuvenate the moribund Ku Klux Klan), who lamented the presentation of the `good' blacks as Uncle Toms as much as they did the degenerate depiction of the villains. Yet opponents proved to be very much in the minority, as this monumental epic earned greater profits in proportion to its cost ($100,000) than any film in history. By 1931, it had taken $18 million and by 1946 (the last date for which accurate records exist) it had been seen by over 200 million worldwide. It's not surprising, therefore, that some consider The Birth of a Nation to be the source of the more pernicious myths that have since sustained America's self-image.
The Birth of a Nation has become a staple of any film studies course, for it's excellent performances, thrilling action sequences and epic landscapes. However it's subject matter is much more controversial now, ensuring it to be a film not easily forgotten.