The Birth Of A Nation
Way Down East
Way Down East
The Birth Of A Nation, adapted from The Clansman by white supremacist
Thomas Dixon, was Griffith's feature-length debut. It tells of two families, the Camerons and the
Stonemans, whose sons take opposite sides in the Civil War. The uneven balance of domestic melodrama
and national epic is more ideological statement than history lesson, and Griffith's landmark film
sparked a controversy over its abhorrent racism that still burns today, making it the most successful
and popular silent movie ever. It has proved remarkably influential, too. A scene with a white girl
jumping off a cliff to avoid a Negro rapist was re-enacted, albeit somewhat differently, in Michael
Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), while the helicopter assault in Francis Ford Coppola's
Apocalypse Now (1979), like the gathering of this film's Ku Klux Klan horsemen, is accompanied
by Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries.
"Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking -" Grandly ambitious, but unable to avoid its gross
pretensions and sentimentality, Intolerance tells four interlinked stories (united by the
above Walt Whitman quote), of "Love's struggle throughout the Ages" with dramas of
inhumanity, and hate versus charity, in settings that weave from modern America (The Mother And
The Law), 16th century France (The Medieval Story), biblical Judea (The Nazarene),
and ancient times (The Fall Of Babylon). Prominent, and by far the most spectacular, of these
lyrical morality plays is the Babylonian strand. The revels of Belshazzar's magnificent feast were
filmed on a gigantic mile-deep set, approximately 120 feet high, and have retained the power to amaze
us. Despite the film's epic nature, and its reputation as an enduring classic, Griffith's follow-up
to Birth Of A Nation seems too artificial now in its thematic construction to enjoy as
anything other than an old cinematic curiosity. And so, with this in mind, it's interesting to find
that DVD indexing of 62 chapters enables the whole film to be played as Griffith intended, but also
untangled into its four distinctive stories, which may now be played separately for the first time
ever, via the special menu option. Although this subverts the snowballing impact of the simultaneous
climaxes, it certainly does make for some fascinating re-viewing.
After the above strikingly impressive films, Broken Blossoms offers a quieter, character
driven tragedy. A disillusioned Buddhist missionary finds his place in modern London as a shopkeeper,
and tries to help young waif Lucy (Lillian Gish, Griffith's favourite actress), regularly beaten by
her stepfather, a racist boxer...
Although based on a stage play full of Victorian melodrama, Way Down East is one of Griffith's
most accomplished works - a confidently produced picture about betrayal and heartbreak, with high
suspense during the finale's rescue sequence.
Abraham Lincoln was a safe project for Griffith's first sound picture. It's one of only two
cradle-to-grave movie biographies of the greatest American President, here played with measured
assurance by Canadian-born Walter Huston. As with Birth Of A Nation, Griffith's film
reconstructs Lincoln's assassination in 1865 (at the Ford Theatre by demented actor John Wilkes
Booth), and it's interesting to be able to compare both screen versions of this event. As the only
proper sound film in this boxset, Abraham Lincoln is available to buy separately.