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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on 2 November 2003
It's a great nuisance the Connoisseur Video version is only on video, because to my mind it's considerably superior. This one lacks the tinted sequences (sepia in parts, red for the burning of Atlanta) and, much worse, the music sounds like the third form doing its best. That may, for all I know, be more authentic, but music is so important in a silent that this is authenticity I could do without. On the other hand, the sharpness and overall quality of the print is really quite amazing - especially compared to much more recent films such as Lost Horizon.
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51 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2001
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!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
As good a transfer as you can expect for a film over 100 years old. It is fascinating even if it leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth. I suspect this is only really to be enjoyed by those fascinated by early cinema. The extras are very relevant and the notes interesting. The blu ray delivers as well as one could expect in the circumstances.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2015
Always wanted to see this again, last time some 50yrs ago at the NFT. Well worth the wait.
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on 1 April 2014
aye see why this one caused concern when it was released and people were offended by it,s subject matter and it probably still does to this day but saying that it,s still a great piece of cinematic history,regardless of it,s subject which is about slavery and how they were treated before the American Civil war and after and how they tried to get their own back after the war and failed because of the clan which is what the film is all about more,s the pity highly recommended to all of those who like watching pieces of cinematic history even silent ones give it a try and add it to your collection thank you
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28 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2003
A truely facinating, but hughly alrming film. It is bemusing how a film which lasts over three and a half hours can be so compelling when there is not one word of spoken dialogue! However, the mastiful soundtrack somehow makes the lack of dialogue obsolete.
The story line covers the period of the American Civil War and is littered with huge amounts of racism; look out for the heroic intgerpretation of the Klu Klux Klan charging to the rescue to the "Ride of the Valcaries" in the latter part of the film.
However, the distastefull racist eliments of the film can be overcome when one looks at the film as a piece of cinematic history. The fact that this film was the first long feature film, the melodramatic style of acting, the use of sound track, editing and camera techniques make it a revolutionary film of it's age and well worth watching 88 years on.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Firstly, the cover is highly misleading and the people who claim that this film is about white knights on horseback, with burning crosses, obviously haven't seen the film. They have glanced at the cover and written a review. Strange.

My girlfriend and I just watched this and we were surprised. We were expecting a toe curling Nazi film with bodies of black people piled high up, with lynching's of blacks, and their babies being kicked, and rednecks chasing black people down the street. Well can you blame us? Just skim through the Amazon reviews, this is the impression given! Like I mentioned, the cover of the DVD is very very misleading because there is zero dramatic shots of white knights in the film and the Klan part is at the very end.

Anyway, this film is more a 'big-up' to the white guy! That isn't really racism. And the film claims that after the American Civil War, the North wanted to punish the south by taking the land off the whites and giving it to the freed slaves. In other words, the Civil War didn't end with the surrender of the South. Instead, the North wanted to collectively punish the southern whites. This is why they assassinated Abraham Lincoln. What happened is similar to what the US did to Iraq after the supposed surrender. Americans are still in Iraq plundering the resources. Well the historians reckon this is what happened to the South after the war.

Another big theme in Birth of a Nation is party politics and how politicians can use the engines of voting to influence their own agenda. Sound familiar?

The ancient Greeks had no concept of a mob electorate, you see, and this is the main theme in Birth of a Nation. You would never guess this my mere skimming the opinions of others!

Also, the war scenes are excellent. The actors here are the actual grandchildren of the real warriors of the civil war. Amazing!

Anyway, don't trust the uneducated Amazon trolls who probably haven't the attention span to watch an old black and white film. This is a great view with ones girlfriend and a king size popcorn (its over 3 hours)!
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 2 August 2012
One of the greatest films of all time, released in 1915, this film was made only 50 years after the end of the American Civil War and was the most popular film of all time until well into the 1930s. I say this because it must of struck a cord with a huge amount of the public that lived through the events portrayed. The policy of Reconstruction in America, as depicted in the film, was, in my opinion, one of the most destructive and shameful events in its history. The rape of the Southern States was truly a foul and evil act. Finally after unimaginable suffering the people had had enough and rose up against such tyranny. The film explores all the main issues of the day. Today liberals have tried to re-write history and you will be hard pressed to find any contemporary work truly sympathetic to the plight of the Southern States. I do not think any rational human being can condone slavery of any kind. However, the policy of Reconstruction is said to have set back the civil rights of African Americans by over a hundred years. To me the film is as relevant today as when it was first made. It could be argued the resentment caused by polices such as affirmative action only divide a nation not bring it together. As this film was made in the silent era some of the characterisations of some people are over exaggerated and some people may find that offensive. I would recommend all students of history buy a copy and start reading works by people such as Professor William A. Dunning along side the revisionist historians to get a balanced viewpoint.
The 3 disc set that was sent to me is region free.
Product Description
[DISC 1 - : Nearly 100 years after its initial release, THE BIRTH OF A NATION remains one of the most controversial films ever made and a landmark achievement in film history that continues to fascinate and enrage audiences. It is the epic story of two families, one northern and one southern, during and after the Civil War. D. W. Griffith's masterful direction combines brilliant battle scenes and tender romance with a vicious portrayal of African-Americans. It was the greatest feature-length blockbuster yet to be produced in the United States and the first to be shown in the White House. After seeing it, President Woodrow Wilson remarked it was ''like writing history with lightning!'' However flawed, the film made history. In cities and states across the country, it energized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which tried to have the film banned and censored. The film also inspired African Americans to move into filmmaking as a way to offer alternative images and stories. This is a newly mastered (in 2011) version of the film from archival 35mm elements. It includes new music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (2011), in 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 PLUS, spoken introductions by D.W. Griffith and Walter Huston (including the newly rediscovered intermission sequence).

[DISC 2 - SD DVD]: Is a DVD copy of Kino's ''Griffith Masterworks'' edition of the film restored by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates in 1993. It contains an orchestral score adapted in 1993 from the original score by Joseph Carl Breil in 2.0 Stereo and ''The Making of The Birth of a Nation'' (24 min.) Produced by David Shepard and compiled and written by Russell Merritt.

[DISC 3 - SD DVD]: SPECIAL FEATURES (also on DVD ported over from Kino's ''Griffith Masterworks'' edition) that includes a filmed prologue to The Birth of a Nation (1930. 6 mins. Featuring D. W. Griffith and Walter Huston), Civil War Shorts directed by D. W. Griffith: In the Border States (1910. 16 mins.) The House with the Closed Shutters (1910. 17 mins.) The Fugitive (1910. 17 mins.) His Trust (1910. 14 mins. -- courtesy David Shepard. Music by Robert Israel, performed by the Biograph Quartet) His Trust Fulfilled (1910. 11 mins.) Swords and Hearts (1911. 16 mins.) The Battle (1911. 17 mins.), New York vs. The Birth of a Nation -- an archive of information documenting the battles over the film's 1922 re-release, including protests by the NAACP, transcripts of meetings, legal documents, newspaper articles, and a montage of scenes ordered cut by the New York Censor Board. Excerpts from a The Birth of a Nation souvenir book (1915) and several original programs.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 22 October 2000
...Previously, the cinema consisted of short one or two-reelers, which would not have lasted more than forty minutes, whereas The Birth of a Nation weighs in at a hefty three hours. Watching it on a small screen gives only a glimpse of the spectacle which this must have been: the war scenes stand up - along side those of Kurowsawa - as some of the finest in cinema. Not all gave it such a welcoming reception, however. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) were horrified at the creation and reenforcement of a series of black stereotypes: the rapacious "black buck" who preys on white women (represented by "Gus"); the "mammy," seen again later in Gone With the Wind, who implicitly supports the patriarchal, slave-based agrarian society of the south, and the black's place within the hierarchy. The real villans are, however, portrayed as mulatto, and the central ideological message of the film is that, while the Civil War saw "Anglo-Saxon" brothers fighting each other needlessly, when the races merge - as in the case of the mulatto - only bad could result. Both Lydia, the seductress, and Sylas Lynch are mulatto, and without their influence, it is implied that the tragic episodes of the Reconstruction wouldn't have happened. This is a pernicious message, which is luckily very easy to see through, as it is portrayed about as subtley as a poke in the eye. So this film, which led to a resurgence of the KKK in the 1910's and 20s, perculiarly also has the distinction of having largely formed the blueprint for a Hollywood movie spectacular for decades to come- just don't assume it is historically true!
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