David Wark Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation hit the nation right in the solar plexus when it premiered in 1915. The movie ran more than three hours, and while silent, featured a full orchestra with accompanying score. It was the most advanced film of its day, employing new techniques. It also launched the careers of several young start, including Lillian Gish.
You can watch the film here in its entirety. How, exactly, this is being allowed is beyond my. I talked with the folks at Kino Classics. While they did the digitization years ago, someone who answered the phone there claims not to know anything about the project. Certainly the film is in public domain, but the digitization…! Ah!
I had the great good pleasure of interviewing two film experts, Dr. Ken Jurkiewicz and Dr. Phyllis Vine.
For a time, Ken and I shared an office in the Broadcast and Cinematic Arts Department at Central Michigan University. He taught film appreciation classes there and I taught broadcast journalism. He joked that we were Doctors Schock and Schlock. Earlier–when I was working as a newspaper editor–I did him a bad turn. He had been contributing film reviews to the little little daily paper. The reviews were always excellent, bright and witty. And, alas, he ran afoul of the owner of the local downtown theaters (now all gone, gone, gone). That businessman complained that because Ken would review as he saw fit, people would stay away from stinkers. Well, shucks, what’s review for if not that? The flip side is that audiences would come to something Ken loved. My orders where to fire Ken. I did. This is one of my regrets. I should have taken a right stand and quit. Craven that I am, I did not. And I apologize here.
Even so, Ken was willing to sit down with me long after I left CMU and talk about the film. That says more about him than me.
Here is the interview with Dr. Vine. She also is the author of One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in Defense of the American Dream, what I’ve found as the best accounting of the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet. Simply brilliant.
There is some question about whether President Wilson actually made the apocryphal remark of history being written with lighting. Wilson’s biographer, A. Scott Berg, said that Wilson didn’t (no-one who was avi the showing remembered Wilson saying anything like that), but Griffith, always the promoter of his own work, circulated the account that the President had.
Here is a scan of a Scribners’s Magazine article–heavy on photos–that highlighted the making of the film.