(1875 - 1948)
Three Key Films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages(1916), Broken Blossoms (1919)
Underrated: Shot on the same trip as In Old California, the first film shot in Hollywood, Ramona (1910) ties together Griffith’s fascination for native and Latino history, his background as an actor and his developing skill as a director. He had been on stage as Alessandro, the Native American lover of Ramona, in 1905, and subsequently became enamored with the story, based on a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona. His fondness of the story is apparent in the intimate framing of especially the burial scenes, and Ramona shows him experimenting with the balance between domestic settings and large-scale panoramic scenes that would be perfected in later works. His use of deep-focus shots and close ups ensured the emotional impact of the narrative on audiences, and perfectly captured the magnanimous California landscape. An early poignant reminder of both Griffith’s skill and the ambiguity of his racial politics.
Unforgettable: The iconic final ride of white hooded Ku Klux Klan members in The Birth of a Nation, led by “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron. The powerful imagery of the Klansmen galloping through a stream and across a ledge is given a sense of urgency by Griffith’s camera movements and parallel editing; the camera anxiously follows the horses down the winding forest road, while at the same time the personal space of the white characters is increasingly encroached upon.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Legend: “The time will come, and in less than ten years… when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures,” David Wark Griffith predicted in 191“Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.” The words are emblematic of the visionary behind them; Griffith had an unwavering faith in the potential of film, and envisioned this as extending far beyond the theatre.
The son of a farmer-turned-Confederate colonel, Griffith internalized his father’s racist ideas from an early age on. His childhood in rural Kentucky was characterized by poverty, only exacerbated by four former slave families that refused to leave the Griffith-land and that formed “four important factors in keeping the family poor.” Griffith’s father Jacob was decisive in shaping his thematic concerns, but the techniques that he remains universally lauded for were the result of his own determination. Credited with inventing both the catchphrase “lights, camera, action” and fake eyelashes, Griffith quickly revealed himself a multifaceted talent. For Biograph, he shot up to 3 films a week, but he dreamed of directing longer features and started independently. He pioneered techniques that have remained in vogue ever since, notably the high angle, the iris shot, cross-cutting, and parallel editing.
All of these can be found in The Birth of a Nation, which also demonstrated Griffith’s aptitude at staging battle scenes of an unprecedented scale. As the themes of his productions are often regarded as distinctly American, his foreign success can be attributed mostly to these technical feats and directorial skill. Indeed, The Atlanta Constitution cited the “excellence of presentation” as the main attraction for Birth when it estimated in November 1916 that over twenty-five million people had seen the film outside of the U.S. But after Birth, Griffith felt betrayed by the negative audience response over the film’s racial content. He filmed Intolerance as a response, but his post-Birth endeavors never enjoyed more than modest success. Social commentary concerning race and class remained integral to his work, and was not as black-white as Birth would lead to believe; in times when public opinion dictated otherwise, he emerged as a defender of Native- and Chinese American rights, and did not hesitate to incorporate this into film. Broken Blossoms, a 1919 production again starring Lilian Gish, is perhaps Griffith’s most intimate and powerful film and a case in point.
While his legacy is tainted by the blatantly racist content of some of his productions, Griffith’s prophesies turned out to be self-fulfilling. He singlehandedly paved the way for innovations in presentation (such as a professional orchestra and in-theatre facilities) that completely transformed the movie-going experience. As such, he persuaded an entirely new demographic—the middle class—to frequent the theatre, and the heterogeneous, national audience that flocked to see Birth would define and feed the industry for decades to come. Appreciating D.W. Griffith thus means understanding him as a product of his time in societal ideas, while at the same time acknowledging that he was light-years ahead of his time in technique. The significance of his work remains two-pronged, functioning as a time capsule on the one hand, and as a blueprint of Hollywood on the other. Suzanne Enzerink
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