Some directors may have been prolific, but then there are directors like D.W. Griffith. In the 23 years of his career, he directed over 500 movies. Most of these films were directed before 1914, as Griffith made the newfound medium of filmmaking his playground to discover and cement many of the film techniques we know today. It’s weird to think the close-up shot wasn’t widely used before Griffith made it a standard. It is also interesting to note that Griffith worked almost exclusively in the medium of silent films. Of his 518 movies, only two were with sound: Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931). These were the last two films he ever directed. With a catalog of movies this large, there are bound to be a few gems. This week’s two films highlight some of the most significant films D.W. Griffith ever directed.
The Birth of a Nation
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 195 minutes / 3.25 hours
Partly because the length of a reel of film was a technical limitation, many directors of the silent era made their movies on a single reel of film. At a length of 1,000 feet, silent movies could fit about 15 minutes of footage on a single reel. Longer movies would often advertise their run-time in terms of reels. With so many short films in circulation, it was a little odd to find D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was comprised of a whopping 12 reels. Even modern movies rarely break a three-hour run-time, but this silent spectacle certainly does. With movies like this, D.W. Griffith ushered in the era of the “feature-length” movie. He showed how much could be done in 12 reels of film, not only in terms of plot but also in terms of the creative and artistic methods used to tell a story of this length.
The Camerons of South Carolina enlist to fight the Civil War and soon find that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is the only surviving son of his two brothers. His headstrong attitude caused him to lead a charge at a major battle and earned him a nickname: “The Little Colonel.” Unfortunately, he is captured after being wounded in battle. While he is accused of treason by the Union and sentenced to hang, his mother asks Abraham Lincoln to pardon him and has her request granted. After Lincoln is assassinated, Ben finds the freed slaves of the South are using underhanded techniques to become elected officials. These former slaves don’t seem to know proper manners for governing individuals, which is why Ben tries to “scare” them into behaving by starting the ghost-themed Ku Klux Klan. Soon, order returns as the Klansmen ensure the slaves are no longer stuffing ballot boxes.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours
If The Birth of a Nation was long, Griffith’s follow-up, Intolerance (1916) was even longer. Around 200 minutes long, this epic is actually four different stories told in parallel. Because of the backlash he received for the racially insensitive The Birth of a Nation, Griffith answered the only way he knew how: through film. He wanted to show intolerance in its many forms as a form of apology for glorifying the racist ideals of the Ku Klux Klan in his previous movie. Fortunately, this apology seemed to work, as he continued to direct many films after this point, including the classics Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Regarding his legacy, the American Film Institute originally put The Birth of a Nation on its Top 100 list in 1998, replacing it with Intolerance during the 10th Anniversary list. A fitting substitution, considering the original circumstances.
To show “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages” (the subtitle for this film), Griffith follows four instances of intolerance across history. The oldest story is from the Babylonians, whose intolerance between different sects of followers of two different gods led to their demise. Even Jesus Christ (Howard Gaye) Himself experienced intolerance, the penultimate result of which was His eventual crucifixion. Centuries later, Catholics were intolerant of Protestants, which resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Finally, in the modern times of 1914, the socially backward situation that leads to a man being sentenced to hang just for protecting his wife from the boss who put him in prison the first time. Most of these moments of intolerance end in tragedy. There is one story that does manage to pull out a happy ending, while still enforcing the huge influence intolerance has over people.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great D.W. Griffith movies
Bacon #: 3 (San Francisco / Roger Imhof -> Man Hunt / Roddy McDowall -> The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)