D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation was the cinematic supercolliding superconductor of its day. Although odious in many respects, it helped shape film into a sometimes-more-than-middlebrow endeavor in the United States.
Its reissue last month by Kino International in Blu-Ray ($39.95) and DVD ($29.95) versions prompted the New York Times to look back at its original launch. Already fabled for its budget – “a then-staggering” $110,000 – it ran well over three hours, employed 18,000 people and 3,000 horses, and was the first movie to open at a “legitimate” theater on Broadway. And what an opening: tickets were $2 at a time when 15 cents was the going rate. Seats could be reserved, all the better to snuggle up to the 40-piece orchestra. It played for 804 consecutive performances, a record, and then repeated its success in other cities. By 1922, more than five million Americans had seen it.
That was thanks to not only the film’s unprecedented scale, but also its glorification of the harmonization and unification of the opposing regions and political visions into a United States of America.
The Times’s Dave Kehr also noted that Walter H. White of the NAACP described it in a 1922 letter to the Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York as “a glorification and exaltation of the Ku Klux Klan,” and “a malicious misrepresentation of colored people, depicting them as moral perverts.”
Kehr ventures: “Griffith’s racial caricatures were crude in 1915; seen today, as the film approaches its 100th anniversary, these images may seem more ludicrous than dangerous (watermelon plays a major role).”
As spectacle, however, the film had power to burn. Writes Kehr: “More than any other movie, The Birth of a Nation demonstrates how thoroughly form can trump content in the cinema — how even our deepest convictions can succumb to the power of the moving image.”