“To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. ” -
James Agee of D.W. Griffith
On January 22, 1875, David Llewelyn Wark “D.W.” Griffith, the American film director, producer, actor, and writer, who shepherded in the feature length film and improved on camera and acting techniques, was born to the world. The sixth of seven children, he was raised on a 264-acre family farm, known as the “Lofty Green”, in Oldham County in the state of Kentucky. He was the son of Jacob Wark Griffith, often referred to as “Roaring Jake”, a former Confederate army colonel, who served in the Civil War and Mary Perkins Oglesby, the daughter of respected Oldham countians, Thomas Oglesby and Nancy Elizabeth Carter.
Griffith was a quiet boy, who enjoyed sitting under a tree reading history books. He attended a one room schoolhouse, where his eldest sister, Mattie, was his educator. At the age of 10, young Griffith’s father passed away, leaving the family in poverty. Mary, Griffith’s mother, moved her family from the farm to live with relatives, but moved a second time to Louisville. At the age of 14, Griffith quit high school to work various odd jobs, including working in a bookstore, to help support the struggling family.
In 1907, Griffith made his way to New York, in hopes of selling a script idea to Edwin Stanton Porter, a producer and director for the Edison Film Company. He rejected it. Instead, Porter offered him an acting part in a short film he was to co-direct with J Searle Dawley, “Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest” (1908). Broke and stranded in the city, Griffith accepted. Over time, he would appear in many other films as an extra. However, it wasn’t until the following year that his biggest break would come, changing his life and his career in the industry forever.
In 1908, Griffith moved on from the Edison Film Company and joined the Biograph Company as a writer and actor. Within months, he was hired as a director by the co-founder of Biograph, Harry Marvin. This was on the suggestion of his brother Arthur, after the head director, Wallace McCutcheon Sr. fell seriously ill and his son, Wallace McCutcheon Jr, who replaced his father, failed to produce the success the company was seeking.
Griffith’s directorial debut film was a 12-minute film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). The tale of a young girl trapped in a barrel floating down the river, headed toward a waterfall after being kidnapped by an angry gypsy peddler. It was a modest successl for the newcomer. He would go on to direct 48 short films in that year.
In 1910, his short, In Old California, was the first film ever shot in Hollywood, California. It was a melodrama about the Mexican era of California. In 1913, Griffith produced and directed his first feature length film, Judith of Bethulia (1914). The drama was one of the earlier feature length films produced in the US, running one hour, one minute in length. Griffith desired to produce more. However, the executives felt longer features were not viable. Griffith left Biograph.
Griffith soon formed his own production company, David W. Griffith Corp., and on July 4, 1914, tapes began to roll on his most notable and controversial achievement to this date – “A Birth of a Nation”. The story of two families, the Stoneman of the North, and the Cameron of the South, and how their friendship is affected by the outbreak of the Civil War. The silent epic drama was based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The three hour, thirteen minute feature, which also addressed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, was the longest film of its time. It was originally shown in two parts with an intermission and the first to have a musical score for an orchestra.
A Birth of a Nation was a box office smash, breaking all records of its time. Though a highly profitable, it was plagued with controversy, prompting widespread protests as many criticized the film for its racist stereotyping and glorification of the KKK. The NAACP attempted to have the film banned from theaters. When unsuccessful, they tried to have some of the more extreme scenes censored. The following year, “Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages hit the screens. In part, it was Griffith’s reply to the criticism received for Birth of a Nation. The film showcased the problems with intolerance of other people’s point of view. The picture was a financial failure.
In his twenty three year career, Griffith would produce nearly 500 films before retiring with his final film “The Struggle” (1931), his second talkie. His first being Abraham Lincoln in 1930.
On July 23, 1948, at the age of 73, Griffith passed away from a cerebal hemorrhage. His final resting place is the Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Centerfield, Kentucky.
In summary, A Birth of a Nation is the selected film to demonstrate D.W. Griffith’s natural artistry. Through shrouded in disturbing imagery of African American people as mindlessly, murderous brutes terrorizing the whites and the Klu Klux Klan riding in on white horses as their heroic saviors, there’s no denying that Griffith had quite a masterful eye for direction. Using cinematic techniques such as the long shot, night photography, and close ups, he produced a beautifully shot picture. The skillful genius of staging of hundreds of extras to make it appear to be thousands on the battlefield scenes only added to this visual work of art.
This film is an important piece of history, whether one agrees with this statement or not. For it assisted in launching studios such as Paramount Pictures and Triangle Film Corp by providing its film investors, Jesse L. Lasky and H.E. Aitkens, the financial means to do so. It inspired African Americans to make their own films, telling their own stories, offering a more human and positive image to the theater going public. In fact, the film gave birth to the look of Modern Cinema. If not for DW Griffith’s vision, I believe that the way we view film today might very well be different.
So, grab a cup of coffee or tea., pull up a couch, and flip on A Birth of A Nation, if you dare. You can find the film on Prime Video for $4.99, Sling TV with a subscription, or for free on YouTube.