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September 4, 1948

James Agee: David Wark Griffith

HE ACHIEVED what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.

We will never realize how good he really was until we have the chance to see his work as often as it deserves to be seen, to examine and enjoy it in detail as exact as his achievement. But even relying, as we mainly have to, on years-old memories, a good deal becomes clear.

One crude but unquestionable indication of his greatness was his power to create permanent images. All through his work there are images which are as impossible to forget, once you have seen them, as some of the grandest and simplest passages in music or poetry.

The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it. I have had several clear mental images of that war, from almost as early as I can remember, and I didn’t have the luck to see The Birth of a Nation until I was in my early twenties; but when I saw that charge, it was merely the clarification, and corroboration, of one of those visions, and took its place among them immediately without seeming to be of a different kind or order. It is the perfection that I know of, of the tragic glory that is possible, or used to be possible, in war; or in war as the best in the spirit imagines or remembers it.

This is, I realize, mainly subjective; but it suggests to me the clearest and deepest aspect of Griffith’s genius: he was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples. If he had achieved this only once, and only for me, I could not feel that he was what I believe he is; but he created many such images, and I suspect that many people besides me have recognized them, on that deepest level that art can draw on, reach, and serve. There are many others in that one film: the homecoming of the defeated hero; the ride of the Clansmen; the rapist and his victim among the dark leaves; a glimpse of a war hospital; dead young soldiers after battle; the dark, slow movement of the Union Army away from the camera, along a valley which is quartered strongly between hill- shadow and sunlight; all these and still others have a dreamlike absoluteness which, indeed, cradles and suffuses the whole film.

This was the one time in movie history that a man of great ability worked freely, in an unspoiled medium, for an unspoiled audience, on a majestic theme which involved all that he was; and brought to it, besides his abilities as an inventor and artist, absolute passion, pity, courage, and honesty. The Birth of a Nation is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country. And among moving pictures it is alone, not necessarily as “the greatest”—whatever that means—but as the one great epic, tragic film.

(Today, The Birth of a Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie. At best, this is nonsense, and at worst, it is vicious nonsense. Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does. I don’t entirely agree with him; nor can I be sure that the film wouldn’t cause trouble and misunderstanding, especially as advertised and exacerbated by contemporary abolitionists; but Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years.)

Griffith never managed to equal The Birth of a Nation again, nor was he ever to strike off, in any other film, so many of those final images. Nevertheless, he found many: the strikers in Intolerance—the realism of those short scenes has never been surpassed, nor their shock and restiveness as an image of near-revolution; the intercutting, at the climax of that picture, between the climaxes of four parallel stories, like the swinging together of tremendous gongs; the paralyzing excitement of the melodrama near the waterfall, in Way Down East; Paul Revere’s ride and the battle of Bunker Hill, in America; Danton’s ride, in Orphans of the Storm; most subtle and remarkable of all, the early morning scene in his German film, Isn’t Life Wonderful?, in which the ape-like Dick Sutherland pursues Carol Dempster through a grove of slender trees. All these images, and so many others of Griffith’s, have a sort of crude sublimity which nobody else in movies has managed to achieve; this last one, like his images of our Civil War, seems to come out of the deep subconscious: it is an absolute and prophetic image of a nation and a people. I will always regret having missed Abraham Lincoln, his last film to be released: a friend has told me of its wonderful opening in stormy mid-winter night woods, the camera bearing along toward the natal cabin; and that surely must have been one of Griffith’s finest images.

Even in Griffith’s best work there is enough that is poor, or foolish, or merely old-fashioned, so that one has to understand, if by no means forgive, those who laugh indiscriminately at his good work and his bad. (With all that “understanding,” I look forward to killing, some day, some specially happy giggler at the exquisite scene in which the veteran comes home, in The Birth of a Nation.) But even his poorest work was never just bad. Whatever may be wrong with it, there is in every instant, so well as I can remember, the unique purity and vitality of birth or of a creature just born and first exerting its unprecedented, incredible strength; and there are, besides, Griffith’s overwhelming innocence and magnanimity of spirit; his moral and poetic earnestness; his joy in his work; and his splendid intuitiveness, directness, common sense, daring, and skill as an inventor and as an artist. Aside from his talent or genius as an inventor and artist, he was all heart; and ruinous as his excesses sometimes were in that respect, they were inseparable from his virtues, and small beside them. He was remarkably good, as a rule, in the whole middle range of feeling, but he was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge. He was capable of realism that has never been beaten and he might, if he had been able to appreciate his powers as a realist, have found therein his growth and salvation. But he seems to have been a realist only by accident, hit-and-run; essentially, he was a poet. He doesn’t appear ever to have realized one of the richest promises that movies hold, as the perfect medium for realism raised to the level of high poetry; nor, oddly enough, was he much of a dramatic poet. But in epic and lyrical and narrative visual poetry, I can think of nobody who has surpassed him, and of few to compare with him. And as a primitive tribal poet, combining something of the bard and the seer, he is beyond even Dovzhenko, and no others of their kind have worked in movies.

What he had above all, his ability as a craftsman and artist, would be hard enough—and quite unnecessary—to write of, if we had typical scenes before us, or within recent memory; since we have seen so little of his work in so many years, it is virtually impossible. I can remember very vividly his general spirit and manner—heroic, impetuous, tender, magniloquent, naive, beyond the endowment or daring of anybody since; just as vividly, I can remember the total impression of various major sequences. By my remembrance, his images were nearly always a little larger and wilder than life. The frame was always full, spontaneous, and lively. He knew wonderfully well how to contrast and combine different intensities throughout an immense range of emotion, movement, shadow, and light. Much of the liveliness was not intrinsic to the characters on the screen or their predicament, but was his own vitality and emotion; and much of itnotably in the amazing flickering and vivacity of his women—came of his almost maniacal realization of the importance of expressive movement.

It seems to me entirely reasonable to infer, from the extraordinary power and endurance in the memory of certain scenes in their total effect, that he was as brilliant a master of design and cutting and form as he was a composer of frames and a director of feeling and motion. But I cannot clearly remember one sequence or scene, shot by shot and rhythm by rhythm. I suspect, for instance, that analysis would show that the climactic sequence on the icy river, in Way Down East, is as finely constructed a piece of melodramatic story-telling as any in movies. But I can only venture to bet on this and to suggest that that sequence, like a hundred others of Griffith’s, is eminently worth analysis.

My veneration for Griffith’s achievements is all the deeper when I realize what handicaps he worked against, how limited a man he was. He had no remarkable power of intellect, or delicateness of soul; no subtlety; little restraint; little if any “taste,” whether to help his work or harm it; Lord knows (and be thanked) no cleverness; no fundamental capacity, once he had achieved his first astonishing development, for change or growth. He wasn’t particularly observant of people; nor do his movies suggest that he understood them at all deeply. He had noble powers of imagination, but little of the intricacy of imagination that most good poets also have. His sense of comedy was pathetically crude and numb. He had an exorbitant appetite for violence, for cruelty, and for the Siamese twin of cruelty, a kind of obsessive tenderness which at its worst was all but nauseating. Much as he invented, his work was saturated in the style, the mannerisms, and the underlying assumptions and attitudes of the nineteenth century provincial theater; and although much of that was much better than most of us realize, and any amount better than most of the styles and non-styles we accept and praise, much of it was cheap and false, and all of it, good and bad, was dying when Griffith gave it a new lease on life, and in spite of that new lease, died soon after, and took him down with it. I doubt that Griffith ever clearly knew the good from the bad in this theatricality; or, for that matter, clearly understood what was original in his work, and capable of almost unimaginably great development; and what was over-derivative, essentially non-cinematic, and dying. In any case, he did not manage to outgrow, or sufficiently to transform, enough in his style that was bad, or merely obsolescent.

If what I hear is right about the opening scene in Abraham Lincoln, this incapacity for radical change may have slowed him up but never killed him as an artist; in his no longer fashionable way, he remained capable, and inspired. He was merely unadaptable and unemployable, like an old, sore, ardent individualist among contemporary progressives. Hollywood and, to a great extent, movies in general, grew down from him rather than up past him; audiences, and the whole eye and feeling of the world, have suffered the same degeneration; he didn’t have it in him to be amenable, even if he’d tried; and that was the end of him. Or quite possibly he was finished, as smaller men are not, as soon as he had reached the limit of his own powers of innovation, and began to realize he was only repeating himself. Certainly, anyhow, he was natural-born for the years of adventure and discovery, not for the inevitable following era of safe-playing and of fat consolidation of others’ gains.

His last movie, which was never even released, was made fourteen or fifteen years ago; and for years before that, most people had thought of him as a has-been. Nobody would hire him; he had nothing to do. He lived too long, and that is one of few things that are sadder than dying too soon.

There is not a man working in movies, or a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anybody else.

“(Agee) was superbly intelligent, informed, sensitive, witty; and he could write like an angel. He was the best movie critic this country ever had.”–Arthur Knight, Saturday Review.

“What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity…that his articles belong in that very select class–the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know–of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.”–W. H. Auden.


The Birth of a Nation is a tremendous, heroic, lyrical melodrama about the Civil War and the period of reconstruction. (It’s strange to think that when the film was made, there must have been many people who remembered that historical period just as people remember the 1920s now).

Nobody who has ever seen a major battle scene can fail to see the beginnings in Griffith’s extraordinary stagings, photographed (in part) aerially, at a lower angle than usual, in superb compositions of movement punctuated by clouds of smoke.

Nobody who has ever seen scenes of farewell can ignore the originality of Griffith’s version, in which the screen is alive with outstretched arms and crazily waving handkerchiefs.

No amount of frantic editing can match the excitement and genius of Griffith’s system of intercutting as his narrative reaches its climax.

Moving from roaming marauders to beleaguered victims to the advancing rescuers, the film moves forward with cumulative impulse and tension.

Griffith’s use of fragile, vibrant actresses—Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in this film—remains very moving.

The famous scene in which Miss Marsh welcomes her brother home from the war is as rending as anything ever put ‘n celluloid.

They stand, staring at one another for an aching moment. Then, sudden chatter we can’t, of course, hear it, but can assume its triviality. He picks vaguely at some silly frills that she’s put on her dress, she goes to straighten his hat.


Pause; another aching moment. Suddenly, with all the swiftness of human emotions, she is in his arms and weeping. She draws him into the house, and as they stand framed in the doorway, his mother’s hands are seen moving cut to embrace him. The perfect scene ends.

The Birth of a Nation is filled with such treasures. Most of the sequences are very brief–a matter, of seconds, usually—but they fuse almost subliminally to form a mosaic of illuminated moments in human achievement and personal destinies.

The film is a very great experience.

Urjo Kareda.


A confederacy of Klansmen

Among the many places in America where the Ku Klux Klan rode to the rescue 90 years ago, perhaps the most conspicuous was the White House.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson insisted on it. He’d been hearing about this “photoplay,” directed by the already-famous David Wark Griffith, that people across the country were lining up to pay the unprecedented sum of $2 a head to see.

The year also marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the War Between the States, and popular interest in the still-vivid event was high.

The photoplay was called The Birth of a Nation. It was about how the post-Civil War American South had been saved from rapacious carpetbaggers and marauding former slaves by the Ku Klux Klan.

It was the first nationwide sensation in the history of moving pictures and it made something new of its actors – Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall – something that would soon come to be called “stars.”

It conquered a new frontier of filmed storytelling, a frontier comprised of rhythmic editing; the calculated alteration of camera positions, from the intimate close-up to the panoramic battle sequence; visual compositions in depth and the manipulation of primal emotional response.

This movie juxtaposed the historical with the personal, letting a story of lovers torn apart by war unfold against a backdrop that included dramatic recreations of real events, such as General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Said actor Walter Huston years after first seeing it, “It made the blood tingle.”

The Birth of a Nation created an appetite for cinematic spectacle that still enthralls us.

In the wake of its success, which alerted people like the young mogul-to-be Louis B. Mayer to the potential of producing features like Birth on an assembly line, the nickelodeon era was over and the day of the movies as a mass attraction was established.

President Wilson joined millions of Americans in being impressed. After emerging from the sweeping, three-hour epic (based on two novels by the bestselling white supremacist Thomas Dixon), the president offered what may rank as the first blockbuster blurb: “This is history written with lightning,” he is alleged to have said.

To the extent that it scorched wherever it struck, Griffith’s pioneering long-form feature (previously, the longest American movie, also from Griffith, had run four reels, or 40 minutes) was like American history disgorged by a flamethrower.

The story of two families, one Northern and one Southern, whose fates would be fused together then ripped apart by the Civil War and its aftermath, Griffith’s silent movie was the most significant event in American popular culture of its day.

This film consolidated just about every narrative and stylistic development in the barely two-decade-old medium into a powerful and propulsive experience.

It also single-handedly redefined the business and established movies as the century’s most influential form of mass communication. All we know of movie culture today began with The Birth of a Nation.

But Wilson’s legendary assessment was also a masterstroke of political doublespeak, because lightning can dazzle but also destroy.

Almost immediately after Birth began a commercial run that would continue in one fashion or another into the early years of the sound era – the most popular silent film ever made, it eventually reaped an astounding $60 million (in pre-Depression U.S. dollars) on a $110,000 investment – Griffith’s vision of the South ravaged by Reconstruction generated a massive backlash.

Led primarily by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the anti-Birth movement decried the film’s sensational depiction of freed black slaves as lazy, lecherous, ignorant and vindictive.

In one sequence, the virtuous “Little Sister” (Mae Marsh) of the once-genteel, Southern aristocratic Cameron family is driven to suicide by a lust-crazed black soldier (a white actor in blackface). Another features the spectacle of a state assembly dominated by blacks guzzling booze, gnawing fried chicken and plopping dirty bare feet onto desks (images Griffith drew from racist editorial cartoons of the Reconstruction period).

Not surprisingly, the NAACP and its supporters sought to block the film’s release.

As aesthetically and technically groundbreaking as it was, The Birth of a Nation is virulent and unequivocal in its depiction of the former Confederacy (for which Griffith’s father fought as a colonel) as a fallen Eden beset by black devils and sneering Yankee exploiters.

In the movie’s climactic moment – which must have had audiences cheering, crying and howling – the humiliated Cameron patriarch holds a pistol over his only living daughter’s head as black soldiers attempt to pound their way into the cabin where a small group of white people have barricaded themselves against the dark hordes.

This man is ready to sacrifice his own child if the brutes get in, but then a sound is heard – or, to be precise, is suggested by Griffith’s evocative editing. It’s horses. It’s a rescue. It’s the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan. In the nick of time.

For the rest of his life, Griffith claimed not to understand what upset so many people about the movie. As far as he was concerned, he was simply chronicling his personal experience listening to his parents describe the deprivations that had befallen his childhood home of Kentucky during Reconstruction.

In 1930, at the time he was making his penultimate movie – a historical biopic of Lincoln – the 55-year-old Griffith filmed an interview defending The Birth of a Nation. Clearly well-rehearsed, conducted over cigarettes by Abraham Lincoln star Walter Huston in a plush sitting room, the interview ran prior to the film in a fresh commercial release.

In this interview, Griffith – who had not had a successful film in nearly a decade – defends the movie’s heroic portrayal of the KKK.

Wistfully, he claims the Klan had “a purpose” in those days, that it “saved the South.”

The great contradiction of Birth, between the monumental nature of its expressive achievement and the reprehensible message it expressed, has always tempered its historical status.

Over the years, many have attempted to either defend Griffith or mitigate his prejudice by insisting he be granted consideration in context – that is, as a 19th-century sentimentalist and southerner for whom the post-Civil War south really seemed a ravaged place saved by the KKK. But it’s simply impossible today to watch the film and not be appalled.

In his Griffith entry in the most recent edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls the movie’s racial politics “embarrassing.”

In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan, which had originally formed as a secret society dedicated to exacting vigilante justice against what it saw as the enemies of the defeated South, was a moribund, depleted and antiquated organization. That changed with the movie’s release. In Georgia alone that year, KKK ranks ballooned to 8 million, and 22 Klan-related lynchings took place. This is historical fact. But it is also something else: The birth of history as something shaped by the movies.

While Griffith’s film proved an effective recruitment campaign for a reborn Klan in throughout the 1920s, the popular image of the organization itself tarnished immediately. It would seem that the backlash, combined with the growing civil rights consciousness of the 20th century, prevailed.

Few, if any, heroic portrayals of the hooded, white vigilantes followed. If anything, the image that stuck was one of irredeemable ugliness. The Klan became the symbol of white Southern race hatred, and the figure of the hooded Klansman was invariably associated with burning crosses, redneck ignorance and gruesome lynchings.

By 1939, the year that Gone With the Wind was released, the most popular and eagerly anticipated American movie since The Birth of a Nation conspicuously omitted the KKK subplot in Edna Ferber’s original novel.

Birth of a Nation‘s “history written with lightning” struck the KKK only once. The fire burned bright but left only ashes.

Sources: The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz.; Griffith Masterworks, Kino on Video (DVD); The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson; The Silent Cinema, by Liam O’Leary; The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, by David Thomson.

While I like Geoff the hard truth is that he is the laziest writer I have ever read. After the above was first published I wrote him stating that what he had written had more holes in it than Swiss Cheese. Geoff also received correspondence from acclaimed D. W. Griffith scholar and writer William M. Drew. Geoff passed this on to me thus beginning for me with William M. Drew a great friendship. Geoff never acknowledged his errors in print.

Dear Geoff Pevere,

In your zeal to denigrate D. W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation,” you are guilty of several gross errors and untruths.

As a film historian who has for years attempted to bring recognition to Griffith’s  relevance as a great artist (among my publications is the 1986 book, “D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’: Its Genesis and Its Vision”), I have had to continually respond to those who, under the guise of presenting facts, consistently perpetrate myths and outright falsehoods about the director. The apparent objective is to unmask Griffith as an evil-minded racist who caused great harm to American society, and in the service of such an endeavor accuracy is of no concern whatever. I do not believe these inaccuracies and misstatements are all accidental slip-ups but represent a calculated effort on the part of these critics to justify censorship and military occupation, things which they would normally oppose After a lifetime of battling people such as yourself, I am frankly sick and tired of the controversy and am presently debating with myself whether I should even bother to respond to your reckless disregard for the truth. Nevertheless, I will point out several gross errors in your article:

1. Margaret Mitchell, not Edna Ferber, was the author of “Gone With the Wind.” This bizarre inaccuracy has already been pointed out on the newsgroup, alt.movies.silent. It seems to be typical of your approach to scholarly research in general.

2. You state that the longest American film made prior to “The Birth of a Nation” was a four-reel film by Griffith running 40 minutes (presumably, you mean the 4-reel “Judith of Bethulia” which, at the proper projection speed, runs about one hour). In fact, most of the early American features of 1912, 1913 and 1914 were five or six reels in length. The first full-length US feature, “Richard III” (1912), the rediscovery of which received great publicity some years ago, was 5
reels in length; Helen Gardner’s “Clipart” (1912) was 6 reels. In 1914, Mack Senate’s famous comedy feature, “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” was 6 reels, as was the “The Squaw Man,” co-directed by Oscar Capful and Cecil B. deMille. Other films demise directed that year, such as “The Virginian,” were 5 reels long. In the case of Griffith, the four reels of “Judith,” his final film for Biography (filmed in 1913, released in 1914), was a compromise between the studio’s insistence on shorter films and his desire to expand with longer films. After that, Griffith left Biography and, in partnership with the Aitken brothers, formed his own company for the purpose of making feature films. In 1914, he directed the following four features prior to “The Birth of a Nation”: “The Battle of the Sexes” (5 reels), “The Escape” (7 reels), “Home, Sweet Home” (6 reels), “The Avenging Conscience” (7-8 reels). I believe the longest American feature released in 1914 may have been Selig’s version of the famous Western story, “The Spoilers,” 9 reels in length or nearly two hours running time at silent speed. 1914 also saw the release of the first Canadian feature, “Evangeline,” produced by Bioscope at 5 reels. (It was also shown widely in the US.) I guess you simply didn’t bother to look up the acknowledged facts in making your statement that a four reel film was the longest American feature prior to “The Birth.”

3. You state that “The Birth” was the most popular film of the entire silent era. This may be more excusable than the others, but it is still something which has long been refuted by more scholarly studies. The biggest box office hit of the whole silent period was King Vidor’s World War I epic, “The Big Parade,” released in 1925. “The Birth” was the
single most popular American film of the 1910s, no question about that, but the exaggerated claims of how much money it made and how many people saw it stem from the Griffith company’s publicity department and the film’s various distributors over the years. Initially, it was an understandable way of attracting favorable publicity and increasing its
box office pull during its later revivals. More recently, however, it has been used as a tool against Griffith and the film by those who, by accepting the inflated numbers, now assign the film to the central position in American race relations, in effect, making Griffith responsible for the entire course (in a negative sense) of the black experience in much of the 20th century.

4. This leads to your most egregious misstatement, one that is absolutely unforgivable. You write that, in the year of 1915, membership in the revived Klan in the state of Georgia alone suddenly “ballooned to 8 million, and 22 Klan-related lynchings took place. This is historic fact.” Er–not quite. In 1915, the total population of Georgia was between two and three million people. 50 years later, the state’s population was just under four million. It has only been in
recent years that Georgia’s population reached and then surpassed eight million. As for the figures regarding the number of Klan members in the US in the period beginning in 1915, membership grew slowly; it was only in 1920 and 1921, following the breakdown of Progressivism in World War I and the Red Scare, that the Klan emerged as a powerful
organization in the US. Even so, it never attained 8 million members nationwide, much less in the state of Georgia. In 1921, it was estimated that over 100,000 people had joined the Klan; at its peak of popularity in the mid-20s, membership is estimated to have been 6 million for the entire country. After that, however, it quickly declined after a series of scandals and widespread corruption brought upon them well-merited scorn.

The attempt to blame the whole thing on Griffith, which, as the title of your article suggests, seems to be your main point is excessively misleading and simplistic. The immediate spark that brought the Klan back into existence in Georgia was the sensational Leo Frank case which raged in Georgia throughout 1913 and 1914, climaxing in his lynching in 1915. A Jew from the North, he had been falsely accused of raping and murdering a young girl named Mary Phagan. Ironically, the real culprit was a black man who falsely implicated Frank. Members or supporters of Frank’s lynch mob, calling themselves the Friends of Mary Phagan, soon started a new Ku Klux Klan, which first appeared in Georgia in November of 1915. However, they were only a minor organization at that time. Had the United States managed to stay out of involvement in World War I, the new KKK would probably have gotten nowhere. What provided the shot
in the arm to turn them into a national phenomenon was the hatreds and repressive climate spawned by World War I and the reaction to the demands for greater equality by minorities and labor. The KKK rode the wave of this reactionary mood for several years, not because of Griffith’s film (which, in 1920, when the Klan began its first major recruiting drive, had not been screened for several years) but because of the right-wing climate of the time. However, most people these days,instead of undertaking a sophisticated examination of the social, economic and political strains that gave rise to the revived KKK, prefer a simple demonization of D. W. Griffith. That Griffith had earlier directed a film in 1911, “The Rose of Kentucky,” which depicted the Klan as heavies, and that his pleas for tolerance in “Intolerance” (1916) and”Broken Blossoms” (1919) were totally opposed to the kind of bigotry embodied by the revived KKK is something his critics now choose to forget.

The myths, exaggerations and total fabrications have had their effect of erasing Griffith’s reputation in his own country. It was 30 years ago that his centennial was widely observed here and a postage stamp issued in his honor. Griffith was largely revered as, in the words of Orson Welles, “the premier genius of our medium.” Sadly, with the passing of the “Griffith generation” (those directors from Allan Dwan and King Vidor to Orson Welles and John Huston who were most directly influenced by him) as well as close associates like Lillian Gish, there were elements who emerged that were bent on destroying him. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, symbolized several years ago by
the Director’s Guild of America dumping their DWG lifetime achievement award amidst a torrent of anti-Griffith invective justifying the move. In his own country, Griffith is now largely remembered, not as the visionary who transformed an art worldwide but merely as the “racist” who allegedly poisoned American race relations. His detractors never mention his criticism of the capitalist system in his films, his championship of women, the poor, the Native Americans, his opposition to war, the death penalty and (in a number of films) racism. Instead, they have created a monster bearing no resemblance to the real individual. In order to create this unlovely, fanciful portrait, they will not
hesitate to make up any story, circulate any outrageous claim. A number of years ago, a writer named Homer Croy wrote a fictionalized account of Griffith’s life in which he included an invented tale and character, a black maid of Griffith’s who was allegedly so offended by “The Birth” that she angrily departed his service. Although this incident never took place nor did the woman even exist, the story of Cora the black maid who stood up to the nefarious Griffith was related as fact in a widely-seen PBS documentary on black filmmakers and has continued to circulate ever since, despite my own efforts to point out the falsity of this anecdote. I would be typing a far longer letter than this if I
were to point out the errors and outright lies that inevitably crop up in articles, books, documentaries etc. intending to malign Griffith. In fact, I have never yet seen an article slamming Griffith over “The Birth” without its including at least one or two such falsifications. The beleaguered few who still try to uphold his reputation are, by contrast, usually much more accurate. As to why people persist in this pattern of distortion instead of relating the simple facts, I believe it is largely because they subscribe to the same kind of “noble lie” advanced by the Straussian neocons to justify such actions as the US conquest of Iraq. After all, if the goal is the lofty one of creating a democratic Middle East or a racially egalitarian society, why bother with a little thing like the truth? So go ahead–repeat the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was in league with Al Qaeda–and that Griffith was the main source of all of America’s racial problems and that his film led to hundreds of people being killed. (I’ve done considerable research in the papers of that period, and I’ve yet to uncover a single instance of a showing of “The Birth” provoking a lynching or a deadly race riot.
The violence it caused was mainly in the form of scattered fist fights and vandalism during the course of protest demonstrations. Significantly, no one has ever sought reparations because of some supposed harm done to them or their family because of the release of “The Birth.”) However, if Griffith’s enemies have their way, the film may finally lead to bloodshed–any individual publicly showing “The Birth” in the US today runs the risk of being killed. Just last year, when Charlie Lustman announced his intention of screening “The Birth” for one night only at his Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, his life was threatened and protestors spoke of burning down the theatre. Thus, Griffith’s foes through their litany of errors and falsehoods have succeeded in creating such a climate of fear that it is virtually
impossible now to have even a limited public screening of the film. Andthey have so tarnished Griffith’s name that few people here are even willing to discuss any of his work with the blending of sympathy and objectivity that is essential to all valid aesthetic criticism. That in discrediting the film’s depiction of history in favor of a rosy picture of the Reconstruction era they are also trying to justify military occupation is perhaps another reason for their persistence. In their heart of hearts, they know “The Birth of a Nation” is essentially truthful in its portrayal of the harshness of a civilian population being subjected to military rule. The nagging feeling that many of these critics have that Griffith’s film IS valid is one reason they are driven to such frenzies. An outrageously foolish distortion of historical reality would hardly arouse such fierce opposition for such a long time. It is the truth which hurts–and the truth which must be
suppressed. There is no such thing as a “nice” military occupation–as is being demonstrated once again in the US aggression in Iraq and was also true in the defeated South in the 19th century. Given my great respect for Canada and Canadians, I am sorry to see that even a Canadian publication has signed on to the mountain of misinformation that has destroyed D. W. Griffith’s reputation in his own country. Griffith was very much a friend of Canada and in the mid-20s made a speech in the Canadian parliament in which he urged them to develop their own film industry independent of both Hollywood and Britain. However, it appears that the use of a common language, English, facilitates the spread of the anti-Griffith propaganda since it is largely in the non-English-speaking world (countries like France and Japan) that Griffith is now most highly regarded. Perhaps this letter has been another exercise in futility on my part.  But in closing, I’m providing a link to my own online article on Griffith which, I believe, places his achievements in the proper perspective. The URL is:

Stanley Kubrick’s Acceptance Speech

Director’s Guild of America DW Griffith Award


“Good evening. I’m sorry not to be able to be with you tonight to receive this great honor of the D.W. Griffith Award, but I’m in London making Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and, just about this time, I’m probably in the car on the way to the studio.

Which, as it happens, reminds me of a conversation I had with Steven Spielberg about what was the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film. And I believe Steven summed it up about as profoundly as you can. He thought the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film was getting out of the car. I’m sure you all know the feeling.

But at the same time, anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.

I think there’s an intriguing irony in naming the lifetime achievement award after D.W. Griffith because his career was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. His best films were always ranked among the most important films ever made. And some of them made him a great deal of money. He was instrumental in transforming movies from the nickelodeon novelty to an art form. And he originated and formalized much of the syntax of movie-making now taken for granted.

He became an international celebrity and his patronage included many of the world’s leading artists and statesmen of the time. But Griffith was always ready to take tremendous risks in his films and in his business affairs. He was always ready to fly too high. And in the end, the wings of fortune proved for him, like those of Icarus, to be made of nothing more substantial than wax and feathers, and like Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun, they melted. And the man who’s fame exceeded the most illustrious filmmakers of today spent the last 17 years of his life shunned by the film industry he had created.

I’ve compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth, but at the same time I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, “Don’t try to fly too high,” or whether it might also be thought of as, “Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”

One thing, however, is certain. D.W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of you, very much. ”

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