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The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Blu-ray Review

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The Birth of  Nation - blu-ray review

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5 stars

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a groundbreaking film that is quickly approaching its 100th anniversary, is still – to this day - a controversial film igniting the fear and loathing that invites the gnashing of teeth and tearing of flesh from some of its viewers.  It is also a stunning tour-de-force historical tale about two families, one of northern upbringing and the other of southern hospitality, and the clash they make inside the trappings of the Civil War.  Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation is not a quiet film.  War is its centerpiece, slavery is its table, and its guests are none other than various members of the KKK.  America, ironically enough, is the meal.

Co-written by Griffith and Frank Woods, The Birth of a Nation is divided into two parts for its narrative structure.  Part One tells the story of the landscape that made up the Pre-Civil War America.  With this opening, we are introduced to the Stoneman family.  They are northerners and abolitionists.  Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish), and two sons.  We are quickly whisked away to the southern side of life with a glimpse inside the Cameron family.  Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) fancies Elsie and the older of the two Stoneman sons falls for Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper).

Yet, all fun and games come to an abrupt halt as the Civil War begins.  The boys join their locational cause and the women support them.  Until the darkest of days brings news that Ben has been wounded at Petersburg and is going to be hung as a traitor.  Elsie, now a northern nurse, treats his wounds and pleads to Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) to spare Ben from his hanging.  The president issues that pardon but, once assassinated, the North punishes the South with – as viewed by Griffith’s south – harsh laws of Reconstruction.

Part Two, which covers the failed reconstruction era and rise of the KKK, is where things get a bit touchy.  Griffith has African-Americans making laws for the white south to live by.  This never happened, yet it does represent the fear that various portions had about giving any former slave power.  He envisions them without manners in capital buildings across the South twisting the power to their cause.  It’s a strange sort of world; one emblematic of what scared Southerners the most after the Civil War.  Ben, the hero in the second half of the film, sees fit to start a sort of white guard against the rise of carpetbaggers, freed slaves, and abolitionists.  Thus, the KKK is born.

A bit of revisionist history ain’t it, folks?  Well, yes and no.  The south, and acclaimed director D.W. Griffith was a southerner through and through, saw it this way.  They were goners; obliterated by the outside forces.  Their northern oppressors had cleared the land of the laws they were comfortable with and, because law and order must prevail, saw fit to allow the Ku Klux Klan to be their guardians.  This is the thesis of the picture and, right or wrong, it sticks to this sentence until the end credits.  It’s a position D. W. Griffith would continue to defend time and time again…especially after riots broke out in the cities that actually screened the film.  It’s also a position that would be somewhat reversed with his next film - the second masterpiece of his career – Intolerance

Now, there’s a reaction for you.  Neighborhoods turned inside out.  People gunned down.  Fear induced in suburban America.  All because of The Birth of a Nation.  Yes, its Part Two that gets the backlash; the hate; the animosity.  Here, you see the cruel beating and whipping of numerous black men.  Here, you see racism embraced by a fearful community.  Here, in this debate over the fate of freed black men and women, you see the actual birth of the America we would, one day, become.  And still, D.W. Griffith makes the KKK out to be law-abiding do-gooders.

Through it all, one can see just how important D.W. Griffith’s film is to our cinematic legacy.  Here, our eyes are greeted with the first artfully composed long shots, the first panoramic use of the camera, epic sequences filmed at night, and superb use of the iris, and the panning technique.  To suggest that Griffith and cameraman G.W. Bitzer had not a clue of what they were doing is a joke.  These are skilled men waxing poetic for the very first time.  Indeed, latge parts of The Birth of a Nation are groundbreaking in their earnest celebration of film as an art form.  Before this film, movies were considered the lower end of the art world.  This changed that perspective for good…and audiences ate it up; it was the first blockbuster.

It’s easy to get bogged down by the uneasy nature and belief system that gave rise to the KKK that Part Two of The Birth of a Nation deals with.  It’s insanely problematic and induces various forms of nausea to those unaccustomed to such things.  It also actually happened here in America; a history lesson for us all, one should think.  That’s the true legacy of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

{2jtab: Film Details}

The Birth of  Nation - blu-ray reviewSpecial Edition / Blu-ray + DVD

MPAA Rating: This title has not been rated by the MPAA.
Director
: D.W. Griffith
Writer
: Thomas F. Dixon Jr.
Cast: Lillian Gish; Mae Marsh; Wallace Reid; Robert Harron
Genre
: Silent | Drama | History
Tagline:
The Fiery Cross of the Ku Klux Klan!
Memorable Movie Quote: "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."
Theatrical Distributor:
Epoch Producing Corporation
Home Video Distributor:
Kino Video
Official Site:
Release Date:
March 3, 1915
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
November 22, 2011

Synopsis: The Civil War divides friends and destroys families, but that's nothing compared to the anarchy in the black-ruled South after the war.

{2jtab: Blu-ray Review}

The Birth of  Nation - blu-ray review

Component Grades
Movie

Blu-ray Disc
5 stars

4 stars



Blu-ray Experience
4.5 stars

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - November 22, 2011
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
Subtitles
: English
Audio:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; Three-disc set (1 BD, 2 DVDs); DVD copy
Playback: Region A

Essentially Kino has repackaged the two-disc version of The Birth of a Nation with an additional disc of material.  They have also given the film a new glossy HD transfer courtesy of the original 35mm archival print.  Lots of frames have an additional depth as well as a color-tinted look about them rescuing the movie from its black-and-white ill-fitting harness.  No, this is a glorious print that kicks into high gear with curious bits of Technicolor and hand-tinted frames.  The film looks better than it ever has with a lot of its dirt and debris and missing moments cleaned up.  The music – supplied by Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra – is presented in a rich DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track.

Supplements:

Commentary:

  • None

Special Features:

Ported over material includes a great featurette that focuses on the controvery surrounding the film upon its initial release and the orchestral score adapted from the original score by Joseph Carl Breil.  There are two worthy introductions to each part of the film by D.W. Griffith and Walter Huston that take the place of supposed interviews.  These are important in establishing the character of Griffith and the fact that, yes, he really did believe the KKK served a purpose.  There is a newly discovered intermission sequence that splits the two halves from each other and seven Civil War shorts directed by Griffith himself.

The three-disc breakdown of supplemental material is as follows:

DISC 1 - Blu-ray

  • Spoken introductions by D.W. Griffith and Walter Huston (including the newly rediscovered intermission sequence)

DISC?2

  • The Birth of a Nation, restored by David Shepard in 1993
  • Orchestral score from the original score by Joseph Carl Breil, in 2.0 Stereo
  • “The Making of The Birth of a Nation” (24 min)

DISC?3

  • Civil War shorts directed by D.W. Griffith: (Music by Jon C. Mirsalis unless indicated)
  • In the Border States (16 min)
  • The House With Closed Shutters (17 min)
  • The Fugitive (17 min)
  • His Trust (14 min)
  • His Trust Fulfilled (11 min)
  • Swords and Hearts (16 min)
  • The Battle (17 min)
  • New York vs. The Birth of a Nation” Archival Censorship Battles
  • Excerpts of souvenir program books

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