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Connoisseur VHS release is the best I've yet seen
on 25 July 2014
I've seen several video editions of this movie, but for my money this Connoisseur VHS, produced by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is the best of them all. It was taken from a slightly damaged original nitrate print from 1921, and so the imperfections were maintained. There are several shots that had been shattered and survived as only maybe three frames each, which were stretched out. This is not a problem in the other video editions, certainly not in the current blu-ray. But on this positive side, despite the occasional damage, the tinted/toned 1921 reissue print was transferred at the proper speeds (unfortunately through a prism, the only option available in the 1990s), and the visual quality is staggering. Furthermore, this has the original Joseph Carl Breil 40-piece orchestral score, though it is 'adapted' by John Lanchbery. I'm not sure what the word 'adapted' means in this context, but as far as I am aware, this rendition does not violate the integrity of the original, and after hearing this score, I would never want to hear a different accompaniment. Previous video releases from Lumivision and Triton attempted to re-create this score on synthesizer. The Kino had a small ensemble perform several rearranged excerpts from the Breil score, which excerpts were re-edited and repeated to fill out the full running time. But here, on this VHS, we get a full orchestra playing the entire score. Hooray!
As for the movie itself, yes, it is every bit as magnificent as you've heard. The film's magnificence is diminished to the point of imperceptibility in many other video releases. But in its original form, as shown in this VHS, it is beautifully made, beautifully designed, beautifully shot, beautifully performed, and it demonstrates that little progress in the filmic arts has been made since its time. Despite the occasional corniness (for instance, Jesus coming down to end wars), it was and remains a milestone. The acting is an entrancing mix of modern naturalism and the exaggeration of the nineteenth-century stage, and I love it.
And yes, it is every bit as unsettling as you've heard. Anyone born much after 1900 will probably have a difficult time with this flick, for the heroes are the KKK and the villains are the northerners and many of the blacks. The idea that the whites in the American South were suffering under the tyrannical rule of the blacks is simply so laughable that there's no point in even bothering to refute it. Yet this is the 'history' that many people of the time believed to be true (in the same way that many people nowadays believe that Israel is suffering under Palestinian occupation). No one on this film's production saw anything askew about the story, and probably no one on the production had any personal animosity towards blacks. Griffith certainly didn't. Griffith and others on the production were genuinely shocked that the film raised such heated passions. Griffith and the others were fully expecting the film's pacifist sentiments and anti-war message to result in some ire, and were even anticipating legal actions to have the film banned, which explains the opening disclaimer, but they were all bewildered that the film was seen as racist. Tom Dixon, the author of the original works on which this movie was based, was the sole exception. He was adamantly opposed to intermarriage and was horrified at the very idea of the mongrelisation of his beloved Aryan race. (Until seeing this movie, I had been unaware that the word 'Aryan' was used with this definition, in this context, in the US this early.) Dixon's ideas came through all too clearly, and he was quite public about this being the movie's principal message. For his part, Griffith did not see this as bigotry. Neither did millions of others. From our present perspective, this is all very bizarre.
There is another issue of some contention. People nowadays tend to be upset that several of the black parts were performed by whites in blackface. That was a stage convention. Besides, if real blacks were to interact with whites on screen, the movie would have been banned nearly everywhere. Griffith was gracious enough to hire blacks to portray the extras who were not required to interact with whites. That in itself risked getting the film banned, at least in the Deep South, but it was a risk he took.
The Kino DVD and the current blu-ray both contain a fascinating staged-and-scripted conversation between Walter Huston and Griffith, which is not included in the Connoisseur VHS. Huston asked Griffith if any of his own personal story was in evidence in the narrative, and Griffith, after pondering it for a bit, admitted that there were a few autobiographical hints, and he went on to explain that after the war his mother made garments for the Klan. Now, if his mother made garments for the Klan, it almost certainly follows that his father was a Klan member! That goes a great way towards explaining the passionate defense of the KKK exhibited in this movie. When watching this movie, we should remember the context: by the time The Birth of a Nation was filmed in 1914, the KKK had been dead as a doornail for decades, and Griffith could never have guessed that it would be revived. But revived it was, in a very different form from the original, coincidentally at the same time as the film's release! And yes, it was coincidence, as Ira Gallen has proved.
The ceaseless attacks on the movie, many of them marvelously articulate, eventually had their effect, not on getting the movie banned, but on the filmmaker's attitudes. By 1941 Griffith had changed his tune. He told Barnett Braverman, 'If The Birth of a Nation were done again, it would have to be made much clearer. Although the picture was made with no intention of embarrassing the Negro, as it stands today, it should not be shown to general audiences. It should be seen solely by film people and film students. The Negro race has had enough trouble, more than enough of its share of injustice, oppression, tragedy, suffering, and sorrow. And because of the social progress which Negroes have achieved in the face of these handicaps, it is best that The Birth of a Nation in its present form be withheld from public exhibition.'
It is fortunate that film people and film students can now see the movie pretty much the way it was shown in its 1921 reissue. It is unfortunate that this Connoisseur VHS is out of print. It is also unfortunate that the original 1915 version, previewed at the late mourned Loring Opera House in Riverside, California, and premiered at the late mourned Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, seems to have vanished. It ran as much as two minutes longer and contained scenes depicting Lincoln's proposed (and quickly abandoned) 'final solution' to the black problem: ship 'em all to Liberia! The censors quickly swooped down to order a deletion, and Griffith, as far as I am aware, never contested that particular censor cut, and he never sought to reinstate it. If you know where that footage is hiding, please let me know. We simply MUST preserve it. (And no, despite the rumours you've read, the infamous extra scene of Gus never existed.)
When all is said and done, The Birth of a Nation remains one of my personal favorite movies, and not as a 'guilty pleasure.' I'm thrilled at long last to obtain this Connoisseur VHS.