The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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Released 14-Sep-2000

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Featurette-The Making Of The Birth Of A Nation
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1915
Running Time 187:06 (Case: 190)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (101:47) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By D.W. Griffith
Studio
Distributor
Griffith Feat Films
Beyond Home Entertainment
Starring Lillian Gish
Henry B Walthall
Mae Marsh
Violet Wilkey
Miriam Cooper
Ralph Lewis
Case Brackley-Trans-No Lip
RPI $32.95 Music None Given


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Sometimes there are not the words to describe a film that passes your way for review, and this is one of those occasions. Whilst it may not be much to look at, this is an utterly amazing film that really has not suffered well at the hands of time. The Birth Of A Nation has been around a lot longer than any other film to yet make it onto a Region 4 DVD, at least as far as I recall. Yes, the stated year of release is indeed correct, as The Birth Of A Nation had its premiere in Los Angeles on 8th February 1915, having been filmed during the latter part of 1914. For those of you who are mathematically-challenged, that is over eighty-five years ago. She may not be the prettiest girl at the ball but believe me she scrubs up pretty well for an octogenarian!

    David Wark Griffith was the man behind this epic masterpiece, and in this instance the description is entirely apt. He started out with aspirations in the field of literature, but soon was seduced by the dark side - films! Originally an actor of no great distinction, he gravitated to the other side of the camera and became a legend. At a time when films were generally of quite short length, often just a couple of reels, he conceived this huge tapestry that really tested the endurance of the audience. Running to almost 190 minutes in length as we see it, The Birth Of A Nation was arguably the first real epic, in scope and in budget. If you believe the cover blurb, this extremely controversial film was made for $100,000, a huge sum in those days, and grossed over $10 million upon first release. The more modest US domestic figures quoted by the Internet Movie Database are $110,000 and $3 million respectively. Either way, this was an extremely successful film from a gross point of view - James Cameron's over-bloated piece of rubbish would have needed to recover over $2 billion domestically just to do one third as well in comparison! However, the film is perhaps more known for the controversy that it created than anything else.

    Over the years, the film has been almost vilified for its historical inaccuracy, its outright racism and its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. Having now seen the film, I can assuredly state that the film is guilty as charged. David Griffith could argue to the cows come home as far as I am concerned: this is nothing more than an outright racist film that is the closest thing I have ever seen to a Ku Klux Klan indoctrination film. Indeed, so much of a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan was the film that its original title was The Clansman. To some extent the obvious bias is understandable, as David Griffith's father had been an officer in the Confederate army (understand that in 1915 they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War). The historical inaccuracies I can live with, as whatever the reason for any film, its ultimate purpose is to entertain and make a dollar, so why condemn David Griffith for historical inaccuracy when he was just the progenitor of almost the entire ethos of the Hollywood film industry. This film was in many ways the birth of the feature film blockbuster - and we can all name plenty of those that have no qualms about ignoring truth or accuracy for the sake of entertainment. However, the extent to which the racism comes to the fore here is quite staggering - even to the extent that I would swear that quite a few of the Negroes in the film are actually whites with a hearty covering of black shoe polish. When you see the storyboards using words such as mulatto and the way that the now-old stereotypes of Negroes are thrown in at every opportunity almost lead me to wonder why the film has not been banned by the MPAA on the grounds that it incites racial intolerance even 85 years down the track!

    The story itself is quite simple: the Stonemans are a family from Washington of some repute. Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is a statesman of some standing whose family includes beautiful Elsie (Lillian Gish), and her brothers Tod (Robert Harron) and Phil (Elmer Clifton). Tod has a friend who resides in Piedmont, South Carolina whom he decides to visit. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) is an affable host, as well he should be since Tod's hormones are raging over Ben's sister Margaret (Miriam Cooper). Ben then comes into possession of a photograph of Elsie and instantly loses his heart, and so we have two families bound by the mutual attraction of their respective young. This becomes a bit of a problem when the American Civil War breaks out and the Stonemans enlist in the Union army and the Cameron boys enlist in the Confederacy army. So the intertwining story begins, as the war finds the Stonemans and Camerons on the same battlefield and as a rather predictable story permits, the younger Cameron is killed by the younger Stoneman prior to the younger Stoneman finding a bullet in his back. The elder Stoneman is pitted against the elder Cameron, and after a heroic charge by the Confederates, the elder Cameron is injured but is saved by the elder Stoneman. Carted off to a hospital in Washington, who else would be one of Ben Cameron's nurses but his true love Elsie? Naturally he puts the big play on her but things are a little dampened when it is announced that he is to be hung as a traitor. Elsie then uses her influence through Austin to seek audience with President Abraham Lincoln, and obtain a personal pardon for Ben Cameron, who then returns to Piedmont to start rebuilding his small part of the South. The rest of the film is then centred around the emergence of the free Negroes in the South and the consequent rise of the Ku Klux Klan in response thereto, principally after the assassination of President Lincoln.

    The film actually presents one heck of a spectacle and the battle scenes are quite amazing for their time. However, for the few minutes of wonderful spectacle you do have to endure some rather woeful acting, very much in common with other films of the era. I did however find the performance of Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron to be especially grating: the film would certainly have benefited from her being restricted to something less than eighty or ninety cups of caffeine enriched coffee before commencing shooting! She spends most of the film jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof, which does become very tiresome, very quickly. Nonetheless this is an eminently watchable film that even today barely drags through its three hour plus length. There is no doubt that David Griffith was a master story teller who perhaps was somewhat constrained by the limitations of film making of the day. Despite those constraints he did manage to utilize some most interesting techniques to enhance the scope of the film. Despite the meagre forces used in the "huge" battle scene, the effective use of smoke amongst other things greatly fleshes out the scenes and makes the whole spectacle even more grand. However, take pity on the fight sequences in the bar where the actors got a tad carried away and started moving the "walls" of the building! It has to be said that some of the effects are very corny by modern standards, though.

    Whilst I seriously doubt that this is a film that would be returned to on a frequent basis for entertainment, The Birth Of A Nation is certainly a film that commands at least one viewing. However, to do so you do have to endure the effects of the ravages of time!

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Well, this is 85 years old so we really could not expect too much from the transfer surely? After all, I seriously doubt that anyone had the foresight all those years ago to place a pristine print into a suitably controlled environment to protect the print as much as possible, which is of course a great pity as I really would have loved to have seen this in something approaching a pristine quality print. Overall, I suppose that this is no worse than I was expecting for a transfer of this age, but it really is a flawed transfer that some will have a lot of problems with.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33.1 and it is of course not 16x9 enhanced.

    The most memorable aspect of this transfer is the rather inconsistent presentation. Whilst it by no means approaches stunning sharpness and definition, there are the odd occasions when the transfer does demonstrate some quite decent sharpness and better than average definition. However, at the other end of the spectrum, it does descend into a very poor, murky transfer at times that is barely demonstrating any sort of definition. The transfer runs the whole gamut of quality between these two extremes. As a result, it is generally to be accepted that this is at best an adequate transfer, reflecting the age of the transfer predominantly, but certainly no worse than I was expecting. It is anything but a clear transfer and at times is a very dirty looking effort indeed, but once again probably no worse than is reasonable for an unrestored film of this vintage. The odd sequence does demonstrate amazingly good clarity, definition and sharpness. Shadow detail is actually pretty good in general, except for the few odd instances where the murkiness takes over and there is a complete loss of any definition to the picture. There is a reasonably consistent problem with low level noise in the transfer, but in view of the other problems with the transfer it is not an especially noticeable one.

    It is my understanding that the film was made with tinting, with specific colours highlighting specific places and times. If this is correct, then we have not been blessed with them in this release, as this is very much straight black and white. Despite this mild disappointment if it is true, the transfer actually displays the good and bad about black and white transfers. At times this is an extraordinarily bright and vivid looking transfer, with a very nice depth to the blacks and whites - no quite absolutely black and white but as close as we could probably expect in an 85 year old print. At other times, however, this is a transfer plagued with an endless parade of dull greys merging into dull greys that whilst not quite unwatchable is certainly entirely expected in an 85 year old print. Still, the overall impression is quite decent.

    Thankfully, MPEG artefacts are not much of an issue here, although there was one section around the 105:50 mark that demonstrated a distinct blockiness in the background. There did not seem to be much of a problem with film-to-video artefacts in the transfer, although there was just the odd hint here and there of a bit of shimmer that would hardly be classified as noticeable or disruptive in this transfer. However, if you love film artefacts, you are going to love this transfer. The entire film is plagued by all sorts of film artefacts, but most especially an almost constant snowstorm of dirt marks. You also get the obligatory scratch marks, mildew marks, blotches, nicks, cuts and heaven knows what else. Suffice to say this is a very dirty, damaged print, and that is before even considering the usual jumps, wobble, lousy editing and the like that are also part of the "enjoyment" of early black and white films.

    This is an RSDL formatted disc with the layer change coming at 101:47. Whilst it would seem to be well-placed as it comes during a shot of a storyboard, it in actual fact extremely noticeable as the music briefly stops at the change before starting again after the change! It is not really disruptive though as it is well placed - just rather poorly conceived.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one audio track on the DVD, being the orchestral accompaniment in Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.

    The music predominantly comprises excerpts from some well-known, and some not quite so well-known, classical music, some of which is not entirely appropriate! I do find it a little incongruous to be watching a scene of some import in American history and having it accompanied by God Save The Queen! Still, the effectiveness of the musical accompaniment cannot be doubted since the three hour length of the film did not seem to drag too much.

    The soundtrack is obviously lacking any sort of surround or bass channel use. What it does provide is a very frontal sound that carries the music well enough. It is generally free from any distortion or other problems, although there is a rather noticeable crackle at about 103:57. Other than that, there is not much to worry about here - a typical soundtrack to accompany a silent film.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Somewhat unusually for a Eureka Video release (through Force Video), there is actually a bona fide extra on this DVD!

Menu

    Like most of the efforts from Eureka Video, this has some nice audio and animation enhancement to it. Also as quite usual, the menu selection highlight is very difficult to see.

Featurette - The Making Of The Birth Of A Nation (23:59)

    Although not so much a making of The Birth Of A Nation as a look at other silent films of the American Civil War, this is actually a very fascinating look at film-making of the era. Made in 1993, this is presented full frame, obviously not 16x9 enhanced and with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. It takes the form of narration over excerpts from other civil war films from David Griffith and others. It also includes some outtakes from The Birth Of A Nation which are very interesting indeed. However, from a technical point of view, this is not really great. It suffers badly from inherent film artefacts in the source material, but also suffers quite noticeably from pixelization. Still fascinating stuff though.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This appears to be identical to the Region 1 DVD, apart from that release featuring a film from a tinted source print. Having read the review from The Big Picture, I cannot help but get the impression that the Region 1 DVD is of slightly better quality - and the presence of the tinting, if original, is another slight nod in favour of Region 1.

Summary

    The Birth Of A Nation is not a film that you would watch every day for entertainment, but it is a powerful film and a wonderful look at one of the very first feature length films to be ever made. The flaws in the source material are to be expected and anyone approaching this 85 year old gem would no doubt be not disappointed by the quality that we do have on offer. If you can look past the blatant racism and the blatant propaganda in favour of the Ku Klux Klan, it is a spectacle to enjoy. Lovers of old films and film historians will no doubt rejoice at this being released locally. One problem I do have that is annoying me more and more on these silent films from Eureka Video (through Force Video) - the thunderous audio level accompanying the Eureka Video logo is completely out of character. Is it asking too much for this to be toned down to the same volume level as the main programme?

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Tuesday, October 10, 2000
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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Comments (Add)
Song was not intended to be "God Save The Queen!" -
Well spotted, Alexa. - Bran (my bio, or something very like it)