DW Griffith’s American Civil War epic, Birth Of A Nation, has been described as the most controversial film of all time. It measurably aggravated violence towards African-Americans and was condemned as recruitment propaganda for white supremacists, especially the Ku Klux Klan. Widespread protest greeted its US debut on February 8th, 1915, a pattern which was repeated worldwide. Several American cities banned it, despite its massive box office popularity. Distribution rights bought for New England alone eventually bankrolled Louis B Mayer’s launch of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.
Three hours long, the silent era classic featured important technical innovations, imbuing screen action with striking realism. The cutting-edge director was born David Llewelyn Wark Griffiths in 1875 to well-off Anglo-Welsh Kentucky farmers. When he was ten, Griffith’s father, a Confederate veteran, legislator and adventurer, died. When his mother’s subsequent boarding house business failed, bookloving David left school to work in stores. He also toured with stock actor companies. His first play, A Fool And A Girl, flopped, so he turned to the movie business, whose debt to him endures: he was “the teacher of us all”, said Charlie Chaplin.
After starting with the Edison Company in 1907, Biograph Company gave Griffith his chance to direct and experiment. He used close-up and medium shots to build emotional empathy and panoramic long shots to convey spaciousness. Intercutting and a rhythmic editing style heightened narrative tension. He manipulated aesthetic atmosphere by altering lighting and matching locations. He sympathetically revisited earlier themes of class oppression in Intolerance, which was hugely influential, especially in Japan and Russia. Its notorious and rarely shown predecessor, Birth Of A Nation, however, eclipsed his other work.
The Clansman, that film’s working title, derived from the 1905 novel from which it was adapted. The book portrayed the liberation of Southern black slaves as a Republican plot which was destroying civilisation. Its author, Thomas Dixon, practised multiple high-profile professions: he was a preacher, a movie producer and the writer of twenty-two novels, including the Klan trilogy. All adhered to three ultra-conservative principles: keeping women in traditional family places, safeguarding racial purity, and denouncing socialism.
Of Scotch-Irish background and Presbyterian faith, and angry about the recession in North Carolina after the South’s civil war defeat, Dixon exploited new media to evangelise to a larger audience. He dedicated The Clansman “to the memory of a Scotch-Irish leader of the south, my uncle, Colonel Leroy McAfee, Grand Titan of the Invisible Empire, Ku Klux Klan”. Founded in Tennessee in 1866, the KKK’s origins were traced by some to Sir Walter Scott’s writings and the Knights Templar. Convinced that Celtic people were purest of Israel’s lost tribes, and that Jacob rested at the Scottish Stone of Destiny, Dixon credited Ulster-Scotsmen for founding the United States and defending the Aryan race. He died in 1946, two years before Griffith, both suffering cerebral haemorrhages.
Nicholas Miller chose a concurring quote by Griffith for his 2002 book Modernism, Ireland And The Erotics Of Memory: “We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word … the Bible … Shakespeare.” Griffith’s literary fluency helped him harness cinema’s ideological potential.
Until 1927, with no language barriers, silentera cinemagoers enjoyed a cosmopolitan menu. Europeans particularly favoured Danish and Italian films. Ireland kept up. Youghal’s Horgan family exhibited home-made magic lantern slideshows from the 1890s. From single brief shots, films evolved into several edited narrative shots by 1900. Major technical advances were achieved by Georges Mélies, Cecil Hepworth, Pathé’s ill-treated Bernard Natan, the brothers Skladanowsky and Lumière and others, making cinema the most popular late Victorian entertainment.
James Joyce opened The Volta Electric Cinema in 1909 on Dublin’s Mary Street, which limped on till mid-century. Griffith’s contemporary and equal in Hollywood achievement was Dublin-born Rex Ingram. Denis Condon’s blog, Early Irish Cinema. chronicles this nascent scene. From 1910, Canadian Sidney Olcott directed the first Irish-made historical dramas supporting independence, including Rory O’ More, For Ireland’s Sake, and Ireland the Oppressed. Walter MacNamara’s 1914 silent film, Ireland, A Nation, covered events between 1798 and 1803. Ireland’s first full-length talkie was made twenty years later with amateur actors in Killarney by a local, Thomas G Cooper. The Dawn follows three generations of a family, wrongly accused of betrayal during the 1866 Fenian uprising.
Elsewhere, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1930 film Sol Svanetii (Salt for Svanetia), contentiously represented local people as incapable of survival without colonial rule by Russia. World War II saw film increasingly employed for propaganda purposes.
A full house watched Birth of A Nation in Dublin’s Gaiety theatre on September 18th, 1916, months after the Easter Rising. Next day’s review in the Freeman’s Journal noted that “ the film, during its progress, was marked by repeated outbursts of enthusiasm from the audience, who followed the different phases of the story with an unflagging interest …” Miller claimed that Birth Of A Nation helped forge the modern Irish imagination.
A visionary cinematic pioneer of emerging social convictions, DW Griffith made The Struggle, the last of about five hundred films, in 1931.
Caroline Hurley lives near an Irish bird reserve where contact with nature inspires ideas, and occasionally poems. Some have appeared in Poetry 24, anthologies, and elsewhere.