The Birth of a Nation was not the first film to make an artistic statement nor was it the first epic film -- that second distinction belongs to Quo Vadis (1912), an Italian film by Enrico Guazzoni.
It wasn’t even D.W. Griffiths first epic. That distinction belongs to Judith of Bethulia (1914).
The Birth of a Nation, however, was a masterpiece of cinema and it brought together much of the narrative technique that had been making its rounds among filmmakers. This includes using some techniques that weren’t being used in the context of the story, they were being used as novelty (like close ups).
While The Birth of the Nation is an extremely racist and bigoted film, it was certainly popular when released. More people saw The Birth of a Nation the year it was released than any film released before it.
That doesn’t excuse the content of the film – but also the content doesn’t change the history it made. D.W. Griffith was a racist pretentious filmmaker. He was also a product of the old South and that’s why he held the views he did. This film did caused a backlash but we’ll get back to that later.
Griffith chose literary vehicles for his films, most are adapted from books, poems or stage plays. That was part of his innovation, Griffith believed all films should be based on a good story. He thought of films as a visual story and he used narrative techniques to tell it. He experimented with these techniques in over four hundred and fifty one- and two-reeler films he directed for American Biograph (Edison Studios’ competitor).
The narrative techniques Griffith experimented with were:
1. Cutting between different spatial shots. Cutting from long to medium shots or close ups in order to make a narrative point. It had been used before but not as frequently or as repetitiously as Griffith used it. It is believe that the first close-up used for narrative purposes was used by Griffith.
3. Cutting between different temporal shots. Cutting between scenes in different times and locations. This experiment was frowned upon by the industry. Today we can hardly find a film that doesn’t make use of it.
2. Extreme long shots. Griffith used them to make things epic. He also liked to intersperse them with other spatial shots for dramatic effect.
3. Giving depth to the shot itself. Have a different foreground and background action and using that difference to further the story. Making the film feel like more than just a piece of film.
4. Using lighting and camera angles to create visual metaphors. Though this was touched on in his earlier films, it really comes into play after The Birth of a Nation.
These narrative innovations are what make D.W. Griffith such an important figure in film history. But what makes him an artist was his reaction to the negative criticism and censorship (perhaps justly deserved) of The Birth of a Nation.
He made a film in response to his critics. That film is called Intolerance and it’s the first film known that is purely an artistic statement.
And that’s when the German’s began to express…
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