Earlier this month, when NewSouth Books announced it would republish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with all 219 instances of the word nigger replaced by slave, I was reminded of The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith’s landmark movie of the Civil War and Reconstruction. When Ernest Hemingway famously remarked that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” he meant that Twain had succeeded like no American writer before him in elevating the colloquialisms of American speech to literature; in the same way, Griffith marshaled all the current innovations in film grammar—the close-up, the staggering wide shot, character perspective, editing for tension, fades to suggest memory or passage of time—into a project so epic it single-handedly established film as an art form. But unlike Huckleberry Finn, whose title character undergoes a moral transformation, The Birth of a Nation is an authentically racist narrative, demonizing free blacks and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the great original sin of the American movie industry, and there’s no way to correct it but to destroy the entire film.
With a three-hour running time and a two-dollar ticket, The Birth of a Nation made a staggering amount of money for its time—$18 million—and created an audience for longer and more ambitious motion pictures. Griffith followed it with a mammoth historical epic, Intolerance (1916), and such successful dramas as Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920). But in the 20s he gradually dropped from the artistic vanguard as younger filmmakers built on his earlier innovations. “D.W. Griffith Act Two,” a Sunday-night series running through March 6 at University of Chicago Doc Films, revisits his rarely seen features from this decade; this weekend Doc will screen America (1924), a beautifully mounted drama of the Revolutionary War that was Griffith’s last silent epic and a conscious attempt to recapture the historical grandeur of The Birth of a Nation. As in the earlier movie, awesome battle scenes are woven into the story of a family caught up in the currents of history. What’s missing is the strong personal feeling that Griffith—whose father fought for the Confederacy—brought to his story of Reconstruction.
Griffith once said his first memory was of a sword—his father’s, as Jacob Griffith paraded around in his old Confederate uniform for the entertainment of his children. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Jacob left his Kentucky farm at age 42 and rode off with the First Kentucky Cavalry, a unit of local men fighting for the southern cause. Eventually promoted to lieutenant-colonel in the Confederate army, “Roaring Jake” was wounded twice in battle and finally taken by Union soldiers in May 1865 as he tried to escort President Jefferson Davis to safety. The failure of the Confederate cause robbed Jacob of purpose, and he spent the last 20 years of his life struggling to salvage the family farm even as he fell prey to drink, gambling, and bitterness. David Wark Griffith adored his father and was only ten when the old man died, leaving the family in dire financial straits. They eventually moved to Louisville, and by the late 1890s David was performing as an actor with local theatrical companies. He spent a good ten years traveling around the country as a performer and trying his hand as a playwright before he got involved with the movies in 1908.
One of the plays he wrote, around the time of his first movie job, was an ambitious four-act drama called War that was set during the American Revolution and in many ways prefigured the movie he would make in the 1920s. Jack White, an indentured servant, pines for Jennie, the lovely daughter of a respected Virginia family. Eventually Jack sets off on a spying mission for General George Washington, and when he arrives in disguise at the Hessian camp at Trenton, he learns that Jennie has been captured and will be ravished by the villainous Captain Robert Cunningham, a sadistic officer of the British crown. Griffith biographer Richard Schickel has pronounced War to be wanting in both dramatic tension and historical insight. But the elaborate play, which included stagings of events from the Revolutionary War, did reveal a storyteller eager to get his arms around the nation’s history. Once Griffith established himself as a writer and director for the Biograph movie company, the tools to tell such a story lay within his grasp.
The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman, was a similar combination of historical event and high romance: young lovers born to two prominent families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, are divided by the Civil War and the inequities of Reconstruction. The romances are handled with great delicacy, and the historical events—among them the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—are powerfully staged. But Griffith’s Reconstruction is less history than historiography, a nightmare world in which northern carpetbaggers and animalistic blacks conspire to crush the southern white man. Wounded in battle, the dashing Ben Cameron returns to the family seat in South Carolina, where blacks stuff the ballot boxes at election time and elect their own people to the legislature (at their desks, they kick off their shoes, break open the liquor, and eat fried chicken). Incensed, Ben forms the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who ride to the rescue of the American way. The Birth of a Nation was immediately condemned by the NAACP and other liberal voices, but in the south it helped revive the Klan, which used the movie as a recruitment tool into the 1970s.
More ignorant than malicious, Griffith was stunned by the criticism and spent the rest of his life backpedaling from the inherent racism of his masterpiece. America, made nine years later, must have seemed to him like a less controversial route to the same cinematic payoff. The Daughters of the American Revolution had been lobbying for a picture about the founding fathers, and Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, seized on the idea as a way to clean up Hollywood’s image after a slew of recent scandals. Approached by Hays, Griffith considered making a movie about Nathan Hale, the American spy who was hanged by the British, then settled on Robert W. Chambers’s historical novel The Reckoning, which centered on a real-life figure, Captain Walter Butler. An Indian agent of King George III in upstate New York, Butler commanded the Cherry Valley massacre in November 1778, in which British loyalists and Iroquois warriors killed some 32 settlers, mostly women and children. For the role of Butler, Griffith turned to the commanding, 46-year-old Lionel Barrymore, who’d first worked for him as an extra in 1911. Barrymore makes a classic Griffith villain—fierce, intelligent, and brutal.
To this material Griffith attached a class-conflicted romance similar to the one from his old play. Nancy Montague, daughter of a prominent Virginia family, is promised to the nefarious Captain Butler, but she pines truly for Nathan Holden, a daring express rider and secret revolutionary in Lexington, Massachusetts. (Soulful Neil Hamilton, who played Nathan, had already appeared in one Griffith drama, The White Rose, and would permanently enter the pop-culture firmament in 1966 as the police commissioner on the campy Batman TV series.) The character of Nathan allowed Griffith to pull in all manner of historical events, as the intrepid rider races off on one desperate mission after another. In fact, America often plays like the revolution’s greatest hits: William Pitt defending the colonies in the court of King George III, Sam Adams and John Hancock conspiring with the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere setting off on his midnight ride, British and American forces clashing at Lexington and Concord, the founders signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, General Washington praying for his troops at Valley Forge.
From the beginning Griffith seems to be looking over his shoulder at The Birth of a Nation, explaining in a title that “the story of the sacrifice made for freedom in the American Revolution is that of a civil war between two groups of English people; one group, the Americans, being merely Englishmen who settled on the American continent.” After the controversy that swirled around the earlier film, he must have relished the chance to wrap himself in the flag, and he spared no expense in making America, seeking out historic locations and meticulously re-creating battles between British redcoats and American soldiers. But in fact, this war was much different from the one where Roaring Jake Griffith had found glory, and his son was too many generations removed from the conflict to invest it with anything like the malign passion he’d brought to the Civil War and Reconstruction in The Birth of a Nation. With his mastery of the motion picture, D.W. Griffith found a sword far mightier than his father’s, and to this day we live with its double-edged blade.