I’ve been watching a lot of D.W. Griffith recently – both his short films and feature length films – and it’s been bringing me to a greater appreciation of his artistry, if also a greater appreciation of his deep-seated racism.
The curious thing is that in many ways, D.W. Griffith is a humanitarian. He preaches healing between North and South in The Birth of a Nation (1915), bemoans the senseless death of war, expresses pity for both the poor persecuted by the rich and the aristocrats executed by the mobs in Orphans of the Storm (1921) and even manages to give the Native Americans in some of his short westerns – The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch – genuine human emotions motivations for fighting the white settlers. His movies express a deep hatred of intolerance (one of his favorite themes) and a genuine desire for peace, all the while celebrating human endurance and heroism.
The trouble is that there is a very sharp and scary drop-off to that humanitarian sensibility. It does not extend to African Americans and his portrayal of Native Americans remains extremely stereotyped. And the reason is very simple. He does not regard African Americans as fully human in the same way as white Americans, which means there is not an inconsistency in his beliefs so much as there is a gaping hole in his conception of humanity.
This made watching Birth of a Nation a challenge. I knew it was going to be racist, but it was far more racist than I was expecting. I hadn’t realized how saturated the film would be in his vision of separation between African Americans and white Americans and the dangers of mixing.
It’s hard to defend the film, even from an open-minded perspective that allows for differing times.The whole point of the film is – apart from showing the tragedy of the Civil War and how it set friend against friend and lover against lover – that there is a gap between whites and blacks that should never be bridged. People often say that Griffith’s villains are interfering white do-gooders who want to raise the black man as an equal to the white man and stir up the ignorant and child-like blacks to discontentment with their natural place in life. But that’s an incomplete picture, because Griffith’s most villainous characters are actually two people who are half black and half white, people who are in-between, so to speak. In Griffith’s world, racial mixing makes for a dangerous blend of ambition and lack of true equality of mind and morals.
Even if Griffith hadn’t used actors in blackface, it still would have been a poisonous film.
What makes Birth of a Nation such a bizarre film to watch today is that Griffith knows how to manipulate emotions and emotions are not always moved in conjunction with one’s mind. It is entirely possible to be emotionally moved and intellectually revolted. This is partly because Griffith imbues his film with so much genuine conviction, but also because our emotions are trained to respond to certain cues. Heroes riding down the street to rescue the damsel in distress, accompanied by stirring music? Our emotions experience a slight thrill. Our mind revolts. But there is something particularly spine-chilling about watching the KKK charge down the street, shooting black people and accompanied by “Ride of the Valkyries.” No wonder Hitler loved this film.
That ride of the cavalry to the rescue, juxtaposed with scenes of Lillian Gish and others in peril was a quintessential moment for Griffith, one I’m beginning to realize he could pull off in his sleep. I’m sure he didn’t invent the “cavalry riding to the rescue” cliche, but nobody executed it better than Griffith.
In two short films – The Massacre (1912) and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913) – he also employs the charge of the cavalry to the rescue of a beleaguered band of people fending off attacks from Native Americans. You can also see Griffith working out his battle sequences, which are brilliantly in evidence in Birth of a Nation. The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in particular seems like a warm up for the end of Birth of a Nation. There is even the tiny shack that is shown from a distance to be entirely surrounded by enemies (Native Americans in the short film, black Americans in Birth of a Nation). He must have liked the imagery so much that he reused it.
At least in The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and The Massacre he gives the Native Americans plausible motivations for what they are doing, rather than just having been children stirred up by evil men. In The Massacre, the army preemptively attacks a Native American village and massacres everyone, including the chief’s wife and baby. In turn, he attacks a wagon train and slaughters nearly everyone…until the cavalry arrives.
In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, his caricature of Native Americans is rather more stereotypical, but even they are reacting to the death of the chief’s son in what seems to have been a serious misunderstanding. For a short film, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch appears like a clear precursor to Birth of a Nation. Not only the imagery of the cabin, but also much of the cast – Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron. Mae Marsh is the star of the short film and I liked her quite a bit more in this one than I did in Birth of a Nation, where she seemed flighty. In The Battle of Elderbush Gulch she is brave, pro-active and and clever. If she’d been more like that in Birth of a Nation, she wouldn’t have jumped off the cliff when pursued by a black soldier who was proposing marriage.
And then of course there is the inevitable ride of the cavalry to the rescue. Seriously, these kind of nail-biting finales – imminent danger juxtaposed with the rescue on the way – is something Griffith seems to be able to pull off effortlessly at will. It’s been surprisingly to me how often he employs this method in his short films.
Griffith even manages to get horsemen riding to the rescue in Orphans of the Storm, which I did not think he was going to be able to achieve. Orphans of the Storm was far more enjoyable than either Birth of a Nation and even Intolerance. The racism isn’t a factor in the French Revolution and he doesn’t even preach as often. His history is still a mixed-bag; he’s wonderful at recreating details and the feel and look of a time-period, but less reliable at actual events and interpretation – he twists facts to fit his own particular agenda.
The film is a tremendous tour de force for Lillian Gish. She and her sister, Dorothy Gish, play adoptive sisters who venture to Paris, but their timing is terrible. Lilian Gish gets abducted by an aristocrat, rescued by an aristocrat, arrested by an aristocrat, rescued by the revolution, arrested by a revolutionary and finally rescued by a revolutionary. She gets into all sorts of trouble – as does her sister – and all she did was go to Paris.
Lillian Gish is incredible in the film, though. She’s timid and ferocious and heartbreaking…she’s one of the few actresses I’ve seen who can faint and appear vulnerable and yet still project strength and even though I knew that there was no way she would actually lose her head to the guillotine, I still felt totally invested in the rescue and in the touching reunion with her sister. That is powerful film making.
It’s impossible not to admire the scope of D.W. Griffith’s ambitions, achievements and convictions (well, some of them), just as it is impossible not to be shocked at his racism. He can be a difficult director to appreciate now – his racism, his sentimentality, his earnestness and his evident humanitarian vision (blinkered though it is) makes him confusing to us today. One is almost embarrassed to be watching films like Birth of a Nation, which is why I used to dismiss him. But the more I see his work the more I appreciate his inescapable place in film history and his consummate artistry.