Edison was perhaps the most ambitious and ruthless of the early film moguls; though film production was just a sideline for him, he rapidly sought to make the cinema an industry operating in an assembly-line manner. In the wake of his vision of film as commerce, other pioneers rapidly crowded into the new medium. But it was a relative Johnny-come-lately, D. W. Griffith (born David Llewelyn Wark Griffith), who through shrewd self-promotion and sheer industry rose to the greatest prominence.
Initially hostile to the fledgling medium, the theatrically trained Griffith made his screen acting debut (as Lawrence Griffith) in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908; directed by J. Searle Dawley, with Edwin S. Porter as cine-matographer), simply because he was low on funds. Gradually, Griffith saw the potential of film as a narrative form, and, borrowing techniques from Porter, Guy, Méliès, and other early cineastes, he directed his first one-reel short, The Adventures of Dollie. Once launched as a director, Griffith found that he liked the speed and immediacy of film. Between 1908 and 1913, he directed roughly 450 short films, mining not only cinema’s technical and narrative past but also Victorian literature and drama to create a style that owed much to his literary predecessors yet was deeply popular with the public. In addition, Griffith was not shy about touting his accomplishments, creating a public image as the sole narrative innovator in the industry and the inventor of cinematic grammar, which he manifestly was not. What Griffith brought to his films was a sense of speed, pacing, and an amalgamation of existing techniques to create a deeper use of close-ups, cross-cutting for suspense, the use of fade-outs to express the passage of time, and other refinements that gave his films a style all their own, along with his use of a recognizable stock company of players.
While his early films used intercutting of simultaneous events to create suspense— and The Lonely Villa (1909), for example, used a then-unprecedented number of camera setups to enhance the speed of the narrative—Griffith was most at home with the conventions of Victorian melodrama. Working with his favorite cameraman, G. W “Billy” Bitzer, Griffith nevertheless enlarged the technical grammar of the cinema, and, like Alice Guy before him, insisted on rehearsals and on reducing actors’ movements to make his scenarios seem more natural. At the same time, like Guy, Griffith cut across film genres, creating gangster films (The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912); “message” pictures that critiqued social ills (A Corner in Wheat, 1909); and a raft of westerns, romances, and comedies. However, by 1913 he was aware of the fact that European filmmakers were having commercial and critical
Billy Bitzer at the camera (left) and director D. W. Grif-success with longer films, such as Henri fith (right) on the set of one of Griffith’s films.
Desfontaines and Louis Mercanton’s Queen Elizabeth (Les Amours de la reine
Élisabeth, 1912), part of the film d’art movement, starring the great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Even more influential for Griffith were Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? a nine-reel (roughly 120 minutes at silent speed) Italian film produced in 1912, which was released internationally to considerable acclaim, and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), another Italian epic that demonstrated that audiences were begging for both spectacle and lengthier narrative structures. Griffith had experimented with longer-format films as early as 1911’s Enoch Arden, a two-reeler that was finally released in two parts, much to Griffiths displeasure. He therefore embarked upon the production of the four-reel Judith of Bethulia (1914), working in secret, with a budget of
A scene from Queen Elizabeth (1912), Henri Desfontaine and Louis Mercanton’s
film d’artstarring Sarah Bernhardt (standing, right). him to press ahead with the film for which he is best known, The Birth of a Nation. This film reflects Griffith’s stubborn prejudices, for which he is also well remembered. He was a deeply patriarchal director who viewed women as either icons of virtue or maidens in distress, and he was also a thoroughgoing racist. Like most of his films, The Birth of a Nation reflects a narrow world-view based on the director’s limited social experience. A sweeping epic of the South during the Civil War, the film used meticulous period reconstructions, a large cast, and a then-unheard-of budget of $110,000. The Birth of a Nation opened at the Liberty Theater in New York on 3 March 1915, with a running time of nearly two and a half hours and an unprecedented admission price of two dollars. As commercial entertainment it was an immediate box office success. After viewing the film at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson said that “it is like writing history with lightning, and my one regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
The film’s final sequence, in which the Ku Klux Klan rescues Lillian Gish and Miriam Cooper from attempted rape by a band of marauding blacks, is one of the most astonishing and repellent sequences in motion picture history. Blacks protested in Boston even before the film opened, decrying the project’s unrelenting racism, but Griffith, who had seen his family’s fortunes brought low in the aftermath of the Civil War, felt that his portrayal of the conflict and its social ramifications was fair and evenhanded. The director was bewildered by the reaction of African American church leaders and organizations, insisting that the film was simply the truth and that he “loved the Negro.” Both he and Thomas F. Dixon Jr., the author of the books (The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots) upon which the film was based, reveled in the storm of controversy. Neither man admitted to the depth of the film’s unrelenting racial hatred or to the damage that it caused to American race relations—including a revival of activities by the Klan, who used the film as a recruiting tool.
Technical sophistication notwithstanding, The Birth of a Nation remains at the center of debate and controversy. But it is important to note that the African American community responded to the release of the film with urgency, consistency, and organization. One African American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, made a film entitled Within Our Gates (1919) as a direct response to Griffith, alluding to white-on-black rapes and lynchings to counter the false and backward representations of black-on-white rape obsessions in The Birth of a Nation.
A panoramic shot from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).
Griffiths ultimate response to his critics was to create the massive epic Intolerance (1916), intercutting four different narratives of social and political intolerance from history—war in Belshazzar’s Babylon, the persecution of the Huguenots in Renaissance France, the story of a
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