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Some Thoughts on D. W. Griffith…and His Cavalry Charges

Orphans_of_the_Storm_(1921)_-_L_Gish_&_Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

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.

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The KKK ride to the rescue…we were supposed to cheer, but it’s all a bit sickening

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 NationThe 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.

the small cabin under attack

the small cabin under attack – looking very similar to scenes in Birth of a Nation

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 in Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

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.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2016 in Movies

 

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Intolerance (1916)

this poster doesn't begin to capture the sheer ambitious scope of this film

this poster doesn’t begin to capture the sheer ambitious scope of this film

I’ve been on a serious silent movie kick this past week. There is something addictive about silent movies. According to author Scott Eyman, people watch silent films differently than talkies, with silent films putting our minds into something that resembles a hypnotic state. But whatever the cause, when I watch a silent film, I only want to watch other silent movies. The idea of someone actually speaking feels crass.

Often spoken of as one of the most highly influential, important and impressive silent films, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance has been on my radar for some time and last week, with some trepidation, I finally saw it. My reaction was mixed, but my overwhelming impression was of Griffith’s colossal ambition. His theme is intolerance – which he never lets you forget for one moment – and he weaves together four separate stories in four separate historical times to illustrate his point.

I’m not sure he entirely succeeds, but it’s not from aiming too low. I don’t know if anyone could have done better. He practically out-DeMilles DeMille.

The four stories are set respectively during Ancient Babylon before the city was capture by Cyrus and the Persians, in Jerusalem at the crucifixion of Jesus, in 1572 during St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when the Huguenots were slaughtered, and in the modern time of 1916. In each story, Griffith endeavors to show how intolerance has led to the suffering and persecution of the innocent.

There is a difference of opinion about whether or not D.W. Griffith made Intolerance as an apology for the racism in Birth of a Nation or as a defense against his critics. I fall into the latter category. He seems to have an ax to grind with progressive reformers (presumably those who called his movie racist) and his tone is more that of offense than defense. This is especially evident in the modern sequence of the film, where he makes the case that society’s ills are brought about by do-gooders, who are represented as frustrated old maids who cannot stand to see young people happy. Griffith lays it on so thick that he occasionally comes off as obnoxious.

Intolerance contains a massive cast, mostly made up of people he had worked with before while making short films at Biograph Studios. In the modern section, we have The Dear One (Mae Marsh) and The Boy (Robert Harron) trying to make a life for themselves in the face of interfering intolerance. His father is shot during a strike (brought about by decreased wages so the factory owner could have more money spent passing reforming laws). He goes to the big city and gets caught up in a gang, but falls in love with The Dear One and tries to reform. But reformers (and the gang) won’t let him reform and he faces prison while their baby is taken away from them. He is later accused of murder and there is a mad rush to save him at the end before he’s hung (involving a car chase and everything).

Lillian Gish as the mother who is eternally rocking - the image of her rocking the baby is shown between scenes from the different historical eras - that must have been the easiest job she ever had

Lillian Gish as the mother who is eternally rocking – the image of her rocking the baby is shown between scenes from the different historical eras – that must have been the easiest job she ever had

Both the Huguenot section and the Jerusalem section are actually given short shrift. I can understand why he didn’t dwell on the Jerusalem section (he uses it so he can cut to key moments to make a point – like cutting from disapproval of alcohol in the modern section to the miracle where Jesus turns water into wine), but it’s a little puzzling he didn’t better develop the story of the Huguenots, That is the one story he is telling that is genuinely about intolerance and his characters come to particularly bad ends in this one. But instead he lavishes his time and money on the Babylon sequence, which is pretty spectacular, but doesn’t exactly work as a warning against intolerance.

However, the story set in Babylon is probably the more entertaining story. The sets are huge! He out-DeMille’s DeMille in spectacle. The pageantry, an impressive battle and siege of the city (seriously, it is a really cool siege), priestesses writhing about half-clothed in the temple of Ishtar.

The hero of this sequence is The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge), who is such a free-spirited gadabout that her brother decides to sell her as a wife in the bride market. But the wise king Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) comes by and decrees that she does not have to marry if she chooses. Instead, she vows eternal loyalty to the king, going as far as to fight in the battle (it occurred to me that feisty heroines with bows and arrows is a surprisingly old movie trope that is enjoying a modern renaissance in films like The Hunger Games) and stealing a chariot to warn the king that he has been betrayed to the Persians by the jealous priest of Bel-Marduk (he’s jealous because everyone is worshiping Ishtar, which I suspect is because he doesn’t have any half-naked priestesses).

To be honest, the Babylon sequence really seems out of place in the film and could have stood on its own just fine. In fact, The Mountain Girl character was so popular that the Babylon sequence was released on its own and she was given a partly happy ending. As The Mountain Girl, Constance Talmadge comes across as the most vibrant personality in the film and it apparently made her a star. The modern sequence was also released as one film, but I found that story more uneven.

The first half of the film is rather slow, but things really pick up in the second half. As annoying as his preaching is (and his self-seriousness – he’s always putting historical footnotes at the bottom of the titles cards to assure us that he’s done his research), I had to admire his skill. He seems to have invented so many movie cliches and the way he juxtaposes all four stories in an exciting climax is quite thrilling. The ending left me feeling more charitable than I actually felt for most of the film.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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