BOOTLEG FILES 211: “The Birth of a Nation” (D.W. Griffith’s 1915 landmark epic).
LAST SEEN: Available on several Net sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Available in public domain dupes from any label that wanted to release it.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film’s copyright expired long ago.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is impossible to present a fully-restored version based on the original negative.
The American independent cinema began with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” Yes, that film.
It is impossible to discuss “The Birth of a Nation” today without being tripped by the film’s grueling racism and wildly misguided sense of history. So let’s put the obvious out front – “The Birth of a Nation” represents the most malignant example of an American artist’s use of motion pictures to promote racial hatred. The film’s value as a work of art is damaged by its vituperative intellectual corruption.
But to ignore “The Birth of a Nation” and Griffith is to ignore the fundamental development of independent film production and distribution. For better or worse, it all started here.
“The Birth of a Nation,” not unlike many contemporary independent films, was a combination of its creator’s artistic pretensions and pie-in-the-sky concept of getting rich by filling a cultural void. In the nascent years of silent movies, failed stage actor David Wark Griffith somehow wound up behind the camera at the Biograph studios. From 1908 through 1913, Griffith directed hundreds of one-reel and two-reel films for Biograph – the exact number is uncertain, since Griffith did not receive on-screen credit for his work and many of the films are now considered lost.
Despite his prolific output and growing proficiency in the direction of films, Griffith was stifled at Biograph. He wanted to emulate the growing success of feature-length films being imported from Europe, including the French drama “Queen Elizabeth” and the Italian epic “Quo Vadis?” from 1912. But Biograph did not wish to expand into feature films. The company enjoyed its take on American capitalism – making the greatest amount of profits from the lowest level of investment – and balked at the expensive financing longer movies. Furthermore, Biograph strictly saw itself as an entertainment outlet while Griffith was growing interested in using film as a tool to expound his notion of social injustice.
Griffith left Biograph in 1913 to join the Mutual Film Corp., an independently-operated film production and distribution company. But, again, Griffith faced the same problem that he encountered at Biograph: an executive unwillingness to devote time and money to creating epic American features. Within a year of joining Mutual, Griffith began work on the film that would change both his life and his industry.
“The Birth of a Nation” was culled from a pair of a novels written by Rev. Thomas A. Dixon, “The Clansman” and “The Leopard’s Spots.” The project was originally called “The Clansman,” but its title was changed at the time after production was completed. Dixon’s work had limited popularity and there should not have been problems in obtaining the properties for a film. But Griffith’s attempts to purchase the screen rights to Dixon’s books were stymied when the author demanded a $25,000 advance and 25 percent of the film’s box office receipts. The Mutual executives refused to agree to that, citing Griffith’s projected budget on the film was a total of $40,000.
Griffith then took an unprecedented step that other filmmakers would duplicate for years to come: he began to raise his own funds for his film. His pass-the-hat routine was extremely successful, and Griffith’s salesmanship helped shake loose money from the individual members of the Mutual executive team and even his production staff (cinematographer G.W. Bitzer reportedly gave Griffith his $7,000 life savings). Dixon, for his part, lowered his advance asking price to $2,000 but insisted on the 25 percent box office take. Griffith agreed, and “The Birth of a Nation” began shooting in July 1914.
“The Birth of a Nation” also influenced modern independent cinema by its daring to address themes that the so-called mainstream film companies were too afraid to consider. The film’s view of the Civil War from the Southern point of view and its retelling of the socio-economic abuses heaped on the former Confederate states during the Reconstruction period was still controversial in Griffith’s era, even though five decades passed since the Civil War ended. After all, no one ever presented a history lesson from the perspective of the conflict’s losing side – Griffith, in his film, took a broad assault on popular history as written by the victors of the Civil War.
Of course, Griffith’s grasp of history was highly subjective, and that also influenced independent filmmakers who still use their medium to present highly subjective and deeply personalized visions of events and issues. Before “The Birth of a Nation,” movies were seen as a vehicle for entertainment and not provocation. Griffith, by championing the Ku Klux Klan and depicting the freed black slaves as a force of evil, was taking an outsider’s perspective and daring to challenge American society to accept his political opinions as facts. Filmmakers continue to take this route, both in narrative features and (increasingly) in non-fiction films.
Griffith also pioneered the use of publicity to stir debate over his work. Prior to “The Birth of a Nation,” no American film ever generated controversy at a national level. But Griffith, with surprisingly vigorous support from Dixon, helped to push the film front and center through the media and even into the upper levels of the federal government. Dixon arranged a screening for President Woodrow Wilson at the White House, which marked the first time a movie played at the presidential residence. By doing this, “The Birth of a Nation” sought out a specific audience endorsement in an attempt to give the film prestige-by-association. (Mel Gibson would do the same thing when he brought “The Passion of the Christ” to the Vatican as a private screening for Pope John Paul II.)
The Wilson White House screening also created the first “blurb” to go with the marketing of a film: Wilson’s alleged claim that Griffith’s work was “like writing history with lightning, and one regret is that is all so terribly true.” Actually, there was no evidence Wilson said anything of the sort – Dixon initiated the claim of that quote and, years later, his widow continued to insist on its authenticity despite no independent verification. (Ironically, Mel Gibson pulled the same stunt by claiming Pope John Paul II approved his film, despite claims by Vatican officials to the contrary.)
The impact of “The Birth of a Nation” was without precedent. Attempts to censor the film and halt its release only added to its mystique and drummed up further box office. Public leaders ranging from Jane Addams to Booker T. Washington chimed in on the controversy. Many white moviegoers became too caught up in the film’s story and were inspired to launch their own violent attacks against African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan, which was dormant prior to the film’s release, was inspired to regroup thanks solely to the movie.
Finally, Griffith’s greatest impact on independent cinema was elevating the filmmaker’s visibility as the driving artistic and emotional force behind the production. Before “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith was unknown to the general public. With the film, he became a public figure and established the concept of the director as the intellectual driving for in popular culture.
There is no possible way to determine the financial success of “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith also had another trait that independent filmmakers would adopt for years to come: a terrible sense of financial management. In his case, “The Birth of a Nation” was sold on a states right basis to regional salesmen who, in turn, played the film in theaters within defined territorial parameters. One of the states right distributors for “The Birth of a Nation” was Louis B. Mayer, who used his box office receipts to launch a production career that culminated in his rule over the studio that became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Hollywood’s most influential company during American cinema’s so-called golden age. Griffith made a profit, but he never truly enjoyed the fullest returns of the film’s release.
“The Birth of a Nation” was still being shown theatrically as late as the 1950s, but during its long run the movie was frequently bootlegged. Today’s circulating prints are all based in dupes that are several generations removed from the original source material – Griffith’s original negative deteriorated from the high number of prints required for its release, so subsequent distributors (authorized and otherwise) simply made dupes that devalued the pristine visual quality of the original cinematography.
Had Griffith never made the film – indeed, had Griffith been absent from films altogether – it is impossible to imagine how the American movie industry would’ve progressed. Granted, the movie is an embarrassing ancestor. However, to ignore “The Birth of a Nation,” at least from a historical standpoint, is to ignore the beginnings of independent cinema and its impact on society.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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