Theres little doubt that much of what we now take for granted about cinema owes much to the vision of director D W Griffith. Monumental Epics
collects five of his most influential silent masterpieces.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) is also the birth of the epic film. Made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War this provocative film unflinchingly shows the humiliation of Southern culture, the "heroism" of the Ku Klux Klan, and links the Union and Confederacy by a common Aryan birthright. All of which has to be viewed in its period context if it is to be viewed at all.
Intolerance (1916) is film-making of epic complexity. Human intolerance is related through a modern tale of wrongful conviction, intercut by three stories from Babylonian, Judean, and French history to point up the issue through the ages. The intricacy of the intercutting is breathtaking even now, but those as confused as the first audiences evidently were can opt to see each story separately. Sensitively tinted, this is Griffith's finest three hours.
Broken Blossoms (1919) has Griffith venturing into domestic melodrama. Although there's a clear moral to be drawn from this tale of compassion in the face of ignorance and brutality, neither the over-acting of Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp, nor the vein of sentimentality that creeps into their characters' relationship allow the viewer to forget the period-piece nature of the film. Here an appropriately expressive musical score helps keep viewing at an attentive level.
Way Down East (1920) shows Griffith moving from the epic to the personal, though still on a large scale. The combining of old-style melodrama with latter-day female emancipation is tellingly brought off, and Lillian Gish excels as the country girl used and abused by male society, until "rescued" by a farmer of true moral scruples. Unconvinced? Then go straight to the climactic snowstorm and ice floe sequences--Eisenstein et al are inconceivable without this as trailblazer.
Abraham Lincoln (1930) marked Griffith's entry into the talkie era. Tautly directed, it offers a historically accurate account of the 16th US President's rise to power and his visionary outlook on American society. Civil War scenes are implied rather than enacted, and its Walter Huston's robust yet understated acting that carries the day, with sterling support from Una Merkel as Ann Rutledge and Hobart Bosworth as General Lee.
On the DVD: Stylishly packaged, restoration and digital remastering has been carried out to Eureka's usual high standard, and the 4:3 aspect ratio has commendable clarity. Birth of a Nation has Joseph Carl Breil's original orchestral score and a pithy "making of" film by Russell Merritt. Intolerance contains a useful rolling commentary and a great wurlitzer soundtrack too. Way Down East includes a commentary. Abraham Lincoln also has a commentary, though Hugo Riesenfeld's score often verges on the mawkish. Overall this set is a must for anyone remotely interested in film as a living medium.--Richard Whitehouse
DVD Special Features:
This Box set contains:
The Birth of a Nation (run time approx 190 mins)
Intolerance (run time approx 177 mins)
Broken Blossoms (run time approx 88 mins)
Way Down East (run time approx 145 mins)
Abraham Lincoln (run time approx 94 mins)