Welcome to this week's "Movies... For Free!" column, where we showcase classic movies freely available in the public domain (with streaming video!). Read the article and watch the movie right here!
The Birth of a Nation, 1915.
Directed by D. W. Griffith.
Starring Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall and Mae Marsh.
Based upon former minister and North Carolina state legislator Thomas Dixon's bigoted 1905 novel The Clansmen: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, pioneering filmmaker D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is credited as the first true 'blockbuster' feature, despite being one of the most bigoted and controversial films in motion picture history. Dealing with two families (one from the North and one from the South) during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, The Birth of a Nation presents a revisionist interpretation based upon the belief that Reconstruction had ruined the South and that racial integration was impossible.
Griffith brought together a number of early filmmaking techniques to demonstrate the artistic and commercial viability of feature-length productions, and the subsequent film proved to be the most profitable in history until Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. Such techniques included cross-cutting, fading and dissolving between scenes, elaborate montage editing and camera framing, the staging of large-scale battle sequences, complex narrative structure, the introduction of night-time filming, and a dedicated musical score to enhance the visual imagery and action.
While the innovative techniques of The Birth of a Nation were highly influential to the craft the film's subject matter is also disturbingly racist, presenting blacks (or rather 'black-faced' white actors) as savage and sub-human, while its heroic portrayal of the KKK is credited (along with Dixon's novel) with reviving The Klan, and its release would lead to a surge in the number of lynchings and racial killings across the country (imagery and clips from the film were also said to be incorporated into Klan recruitment videos as late as the 1970's).
President Woodrow Wilson allegedly commented that the film was "like writing history with lightning", while Roger Ebert describes it as "a great film that argues for evil [and] to understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil." Almost a century after its release, the historical significance of The Birth of a Nation remains impossible to ignore.
Embeds courtesy of Internet Archive.
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