Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical
hermionesviolin

154 minutes of this is tough to sit through.

From the entry of Birth of a Nation in the online catalog for my library network:
Videocassette release of the 1915 silent motion picture.
Based on the novel, The Clansman, by Rev. Thomas Dixon.
Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, Wallace Reed, Robert Harron.
A civil war spectacular that portrays life in the South during and after the Civil War. The story depicts the war itself, the conflict between the defeated Southerners and emancipated renegade blacks, the despoiling of the South during the carpetbagger period, and the revival of the Southern white man's honor through the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan.
I am disturbed that this doesn’t mention anything like, oh, the fact that its depiction of the South under Reconstruction is so historically inaccurate, not to mention of course the brutally racist depictions of black and mulattos.

Reading the IMDB user comments is, well, interesting. Probably the most frustrating part is the repeated assertions that the Reconstruction being portrayed is historically accurate.

My dad says President Wilson loved the movie and has in some ways an undeservedly good reputation, that people don’t talk about what he did for Jim Crow. (Relatedly, check out the NYT Stalin obituary. I guess this editorial is an improvement.)

Griffith may have been a pioneer as far as cinematic techniques, i don’t really know, and as i’m not a film person i really don’t care. I eventually got into the silent movie-ness of it (watching people talk and barely ever getting a dialogue card made me think perhaps everyone should have just learned American Sign Language) though even understanding the necessity of “overacting” in a silent movie i thought the youngest Cameron girl was obnoxious.

I read the book a few weeks ago, so some of what i found interesting was how the movie changed from the book it was based on. For example, the book starts in the hospital, whereas the movie begins much more propagandistically. Also, the movie can’t do some of the subtler stuff in the book (though really, at two and a half hours already, one doesn’t miss the lengthy characterization of Lincoln -- someone please explain to me why the actor was wearing a mask, by the way).

One thing i thought was interesting was that the movie seems to conceive of itself as an anti-war piece. One of the first intertitles says:

If in this work we have conveyed
to the mind the ravages of war to
the end that war may be held in
abhorrence
, this effort will not have
been in vain.

Then there’s the depiction of the Civil War battle. “War claims its bitter, useless, sacrifice” before the two chums die in each others arms on the battlefield (and they so wanted to kiss). “Others also read war’s sad page.” “War’s peace” before a shot of dead bodies on the battlefield. “War, the breeder of hate.”

Given how inaccurate its portrayal of Reconstruction is, it’s interesting the emphasis given to historical accuracy in the Washington scenes and Lincoln’s assassination (intertitles saying “an historical facsimile” based on such and such an account)

Interestingly, the second part opens with an intertitle saying:

This is an historical presentation
of the Civil War and Reconstruction
Period, and is not meant to reflect on
any race or people of today.

Though the next intertitle seemed to suggest that this was really saying that not all Northerners today are bad.

I liked Elsie’s discovery of Ben’s involvement in the KKK much better in the book. In the book, they’re out somewhere and he says he has a surprise for her and he goes into the wood and emerges in full regalia and she’s upset but promises she won’t tell on him. In this, Lynch and his men kill some KKK members and apparently one of them was carrying a note. “Your lover belongs to this murderous band of outlaws.” Elsie’s father gives her the note and she is quite upset. “Confirmed in her suspicions, in loyalty to her father she breaks off the engagement.” She confronts Ben and they break up. “But you need not fear that I will betray you.” This part confused me. Betray him to whom? Doesn’t her father (who supposedly has the most power in America), as well as his main henchman Lynch, already know?

“Over four hundred thousand Ku Klux costumes made by the women of the South and not one trust betrayed.” That’s a new twist (as was Ben’s “inspiration” for the costumes), emphasizing the importance and loyalty of the Southern women. Then having KKK costumes is outlawed and old man Cameron is arrested. I think he was arrested in the book and there was this whole long thing, but here “faithful souls” (i had to laugh at this big black woman knocking out guys with one punch) help him escape and they take refuge in a wilderness cabin with Union veterans (old enemies joined together to save the Aryan race).

Okay, so the little sister goes off to the spring by herself and is thoroughly obnoxious and then Gus propositions her and apparently she runs away from the house, because her worried brother goes after her and gets to the spring and sees Gus’s discarded jacket but appears not to have heard the screams of his sister as she runs. He chases after them, though. She ends up on a cliff and jumps as Gus won’t leave her alone. She stays alive long enough to talk to her brother after he runs down after her, but her words don’t merit a dialogue card.

In the book, two women (the young Cameron girl and her mother, i think) get attacked in the night by blacks and implicitly raped and jump off the cliff (Lover’s Leap, extra poignant as Ben and Elsie have spent much time there in the book) to preserve their dignity and family honor and such. It is this incident in the book that convinces Elsie that Ben is right.

In the book, Ben gets arrested, and throughout the book there has been mention of how similar he looks to Stoneman’s son (whose romance subplot gets so shafted in the movie, by the way) so they switch places and i think Stoneman’s realization that he has condemned his own son is what ultimately changes his mind. Here, it is Lynch’s attempt at forcing Elsie to marry him (this whole shady Lynch lusting after Elsie is not in the book) that brings both Stoneman and Elsie to their senses.

Many of the KKK have white plungers! on their heads. I get that there wasn’t a fully specific uniform at the beginning, but dude, plungers, look so weird. The movie includes Dixon’s Scottishness with the Klan, blood of the maiden and everything. (My dad mentioned this book.)
Tags: books, movies: watched, smith: course: 18th century novel
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