Blu-ray review: The Birth of a Nation

Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh
Director: D.W. Griffith

birth-of-a-nation 1Infamous for its racist views, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic is also an undoubted landmark of cinema’s silent era. And in the first half at least there’s still a lot to enjoy. The early scenes establishing the Camerons and the Stonemans – two families linked by ties of friendship who find themselves on opposite sides of the Civil War – have a breezy, relaxed charm that’s still infectious, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in set-pieces such as the burning of Atlantic, with its pioneering use of optical FX and red tinting to sum up a hellish vision of warfare, or the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth (meticulously recreated to the last detail, down to the exact dimensions of the theatre where the murder took place).

It’s hard to imagine anyone, though, not having a problem with the second half, which recounts the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (“the organisation that saved the South from the tyranny of black rule,” as the film’s intertitles would have it). But even here, Griffith’s flair for the picturesque and the lavishness of his art design are constantly in evidence. As you watch, you can practically feel Griffith shaping the medium of cinema in front of you, with sequences such as an impressive shootout in a shack which seems to foreshadow ones in The Outlaw Josey Wales and Heaven’s Gate to name but a few. And then there are strange, hyper-real moments which seem to leap out at you from the distant past, such as an off-the-cuff vignette of Elsie and the Little Colonel taking turns kissing a dove. Like it or loathe it, it’s a film whose DNA has seeped into movie history. 7/10

TRANSFER
Probably no other director of the silent era benefits from the upgrade to Blu-ray quite as much as Griffith, because of his control of atmosphere, his use of plumes of smoke and dust to give depth and a living bloom to his scenes. Aside from a few lower-grade inserts, this is a lovely transfer, with hardly any print damage and a sharp, crystalline quality different from the soft, grainy texture you so often get with silent movies. The early scenes in the cotton fields have a gauzy beauty, and the long shot of the army marching on Atlanta by night is packed with detail. The sequence in Ford’s Theatre looks particularly rich and flamboyant. 8/10

EXTRAS
This 100th anniversary release from the BFI comes with a whole slew of extras which birth-of-a-nation 2help to put the film in context. ~ Stilted yet revealing 5-min chat between Griffith and Walter Huston from 1930, in which the director reminisces about his mother sewing costumes for the clan. ~ 38-mins of outtakes and camera tests, with a lot more battle footage. ~ Concise, interesting 20-min piece in which expert Melvyn Stokes gives a potted bio of the director (whose parents were slave-owners) and discusses the origins of the film and its critical reception (it received the accolade of being shown in the White House. ~ 32-min panel discussion which gives further historical background to the movie. ~ 21-min behind the scenes at the recording sessions for John Lanchberry’s orchestral score, with the relevant scenes shown in split-screen.

Also included in the extras are a series of other Civil War-themed shorts by Griffith. ~ The Coward, 68 min. A yarn in which a callow youth discovers his courage at the propitious moment, rather slow to begin with but with a decent battle scene towards the end. A clean, fresh tinted print with chamber music score. ~ The Rose of Kentucky, 16 min. A romance of the cotton fields, in which, interestingly, the Clan are baddies. Grainy picture but some nice location shooting. ~ Stolen Glory, 13 min. Lightly comic piece about an old soldier telling war stories. ~ The Drummer of the 8th, 28 min. A charming piece about a boy determined to follow his elder brother to the front, well acted by the juvenile lead and once again showing Griffith’s feel for period detail. A lovely tinted print. 10/10

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