The first, and perhaps the greatest of the feature films, D.W. Griffith's wonderful and controversial film is a must have for anyone with any serious interest in cinema.
The beginning of the film deals with life in the old South, and much like Gone With The Wind, showed nothing of the harsh cruelty of slavery. However, this film does not bare the title 'Based on a true story' and so, as with the racist struggle at the end, with a little education, this may be judged purely in terms of cinematography. .. I simply saw it through Griffith's eyes, and could not help but give a broad smile many times at the wonderful atmosphere that the film created.
The film centres mainly around the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, and the relationship between them. The civil war presents some spectacular scenes, including the superb sequence where the eldest Cameron boy rushes forward to the front line towards the guns and rescues the Confederate flag. The horrors and tragedies of war are shocking, but spectacular. What follows is the heartbreak of loss, the surrender of General Lee, the beginning of the revenge that plagues the characters throughout the rest of the film and finally, April 14th 1865. Ford's Theatre is recreated, and one of history's greatest men is gunned down in a tragic scene.
The heroin of the film is a Northerner, played by the ravishingly beautiful Lillian Gish. Her love for the founder of the Ku Klux Klan creates an interesting situation. She condemns her lover but forgives him when the villain of the film, a mulatto named Syrus Lynch tries to force her into marriage and is rescued by our 'heroes' in white hoods. The eldest son of the Camerons founds the Ku Klux Klan, while the head of the Stonemans intends to crush the Southern whites by giving all the power to the blacks.
The film was condemned by blacks and white liberals and not without cause. Syrus Lynch, is given power after the end of the war and becomes Governor of South Carolina. He stands as a symbol for what will happen if the two races were to mix. Another of the bad guys is Gus, who harasses a white girl until she commits suicide to protect her honour. For the rest of the film, the blacks act as the villains while the Ku Klux Klan saves society and restores peace and justice to the land. It's a bit hard to take,.... I console myself by remembering that this film was made in unsympathetic times. It is advisable to read what really happened before seeing this film, but for those glorious 190 minutes, simply take this piece of cinema at face value and you will be the better for it.
This film changed history and movie history, as the Ku Klux Klan rose again in response to it, and the days of the one reeler films came to a close. There have been other films of this quality, but they can be counted on one hand. The Birth of A Nation is an utter masterpiece with no faults other than its political incorrectness. bfi films have painstakingly restored this masterpiece to its full, rich and deserved glory and the result is a superb and delightfully entertaining work of pure genius... It has not aged at all and I cannot recommend it enough. Buy it now!