D.W. Griffith Presents "The Birth of a Nation" Page: 10 of 20
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heart-quickening glory of speed down road and lane and through flying waters. Now
came the thrill of a charge, or of a plunging steed caught back on its haunches in a sudden
arrest. Now followed the terror of a bestial mob, the hurrah of a rescue, streets
filled with panic and with carnival. Life is motion and here was the beautiful moving
monument of motion.
"What could the stage give to rival all this?" I thought. "What could the novel
give? or the epic poem?" The stage can publish the voice and the actual flesh; yet from
the film these faces were eloquent enough without speech. And after all when we see
people we are merely receiving in our eyes the light that beats back from their surfaces;
we are seeing merely photographs and moving pictures.
I had witnessed numberless photoplays unrolled, pictures of every sort and condition
of interest and value. I had seen elaborate "feature-films" occupying much time
and covering many scenes. But none of them approached the unbroken fascination of
"The Birth of a Nation."
The realism of this work is amazing; merely sit at a window -and actually rolls by.
The grandeur of mass and the minuteness of detail are unequalled in my experience.
And so the first impression of my first view of this was that it was something new and
wonderful in dramatic composition and in artistic achievement.
In his novel "The Clansman," the Rev. Thomas Dixon had made a fervid defence
of his people from the harsh judgments and condemnations of unsympathetic historians.
With this book as a foundation, David W. Griffith built up a structure of national scope
and of heroic proportions.
Of course, size has little to do with art. A perfect statuette like one of the exquisite
figurines of Tanagra is as great in a sense as the cathedral of Rheims. A flawless sonnet
of Milton's need not yield place to his "Paradise Lost." A short story of Poe's has
nothing to fear from a cycle of Dumas novels, nor has "The Suwanee River" anything
to fear from the Wagnerian tetralogy.
And yet we cannot but feel that a higher power has created the larger work, since
the larger work includes the problems of the smaller; and countless others. The larger
work compels and tests the tremendous gifts of organization, co-ordination, selection,
One comes from this film saying: "I have done the South a cruel injustice, they
are all dead, these cruelly tried people, but I feel now that I know them as they were;
not as they ought to have been or might have been, but as they were; as I should probably
have been in their place. I have seen them in their homes, in their pride and their
glory and I have seen what they went back to. I understand them better."
And after all what more vital mission has narrative and dramatic art than to make
us understand one another better?
Hardly anybody can be found today who is not glad that Slavery was wrenched
out of our national life, but it is not well to forget how and why it was defended, and by
whom; what it cost to tear it loose, or what suffering and bewilderment were left with
the bleeding wounds. The North was not altogether blameless for the existence of
slavery, nor was the South altogether blameworthy for it or for its aftermath. "The
Birth of a Nation" is a peculiarly human presentation of a vast racial tragedy.
There has been some hostility to the picture on account of an alleged injustice to
the negroes. I have not felt it; and I am one who cherishes a great affection and a profound
admiration for the negro. He is enveloped in one of the most cruel and insoluble
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Griffith, D.W. D.W. Griffith Presents "The Birth of a Nation", book, April 1, 1924; New York. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth21924/m1/10/: accessed July 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Boyce Ditto Public Library.