The Birth of a Nation (1915)


Last month, Avatar (2009) reclaimed its throne from Avengers: Endgame (2019) as the top grossing film of all time. However, taking into account inflation, the staggering revenues produced by both of those films pales in comparison to Gone with the Wind (1939).

The highest grossing film before the release of Gone with the Wind was The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith's epic, that stands as the world's most successful early blockbuster. While the actual earnings of the film are unknown, it was a film on a scale so big that it was the first film to be shown inside the White House.

The Birth of a Nation is a three hour epic film depicting the events surrounding the American Civil War including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Part-fiction and part-history, it is based on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s play The Clansman from 1905, and stars the leading actress of the time; Lillian Gish.

While certainly controversial by modern standards because of its favourable presentation of the Ku Klux Klan and derogatory view of black people, it may be easy to dismiss this as a change in public perception over the last 100 years. However, The Birth of a Nation also received its fair share of contemporary critics and received numerous calls for censorship before release.

Similarly, its showing the East Room of the White House caused backlash against President Woodrow Wilson, who would later allege he knew nothing of the film's subject matter, despite both Wilson and Dixon sharing, at the least, a professional friendship, and Wilson, Dixon and Griffith all attending the showing.

Putting the subject matter to one side, The Birth of a Nation was undoubtedly a remarkable technical feat. It was the first 12-reel film, and at around 3 hours long, was also the longest film of the time. Likely due to its length, the story was split into two, designed to allow for an intermission, which was another innovation for the time.

Its scale and success cemented D. W. Griffith as arguably the leading director of the era, and its calls for censorship only spurred Griffith onto grander films. A year later, Griffith hit back at his critics with Intolerance, which despite being a box office failure, received far more favourable reviews and became far more influential.

In a modern world of "cancel culture" or "consequence culture", films like The Birth of a Nation stand as testament to a bygone era. Like Griffith, we are encouraged and entitled to judge and interpret history, only then can we learn from our mistakes.

You can watch The Birth of a Nation in full below.


If you're here because of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge 2021, please stop by the theme reveal page which has a full list of all films used in the challenge.

Comments

  1. Such a tricky and complex film to discuss in modern culture. Undeniably influential, and yet difficult to watch with a modern sensibility due to overt racism. But he could direct an exciting action sequence, that's for sure.
    https://iainkellywriting.com/2021/04/02/the-state-trilogy-a-z-guide-b/

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  2. Three hours???? I didn't realise it was that long.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter - The Great War

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