By Subir Ghosh
The first blockbuster in film history was argubaly the fallout of Hollywood’s first major ego clash. David Wark Griffith, better known as as a shorter DW Griffith, who had failed to make it big in theatre and had subsequently written scnarios and acted in films of Edison Studios, produced and directed the Biograph film Judith of Bethulia in 1914. This was one of the earliest feature films to be produced in the United States. But Biograph thought that longer films were not viable. They believed that a movie that long (61 minutes) would hurt the audience’s eyes.
Griffith walked out of Biograph with a retinue of actors, and joined hands with Mutual Film Corporation to establish a studio, Reliance-Majestic Studios. The first production of this set-up was called The Clansman (1915), which would later be known as The Birth of a Nation.
It was in July 1914 that Griffith began shooting the twelve-reel film that would have assured him a place in film history had he never made any subsequent film in his career. The Birth of a Nation, the longest feature film thus far (190 minutes at 16 frames/ second) hastened the American film industry’s transition to the feature film. The film was such a smash hit that Griffith spent the rest of his life trying to surpass, defend, or atone for this film.
Till this point, the longest of the feature films would not exceed an hour – Griffith’s cinematic risk changed the industry’s standard in a way still influential today. The film was originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission. It broke all box office records but also stirred up controversies in the same breath. Its depiction of slavery / race relations in the Civil War and the Reconstruction era came in for flak from many.
The film was based on Thomas Dixon Jr’s 1905 novel The Clansman, which depicted Southern pre-Civil War slavery as benign, the enfranchisement of freedman as a corrupt Republican plot, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a band of heroes restoring the rightful order. There were protests over the portrayal of African American men (played by white actors in black paint on faces) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, besides the representation of the KKK as a heroic force. The film was banned in many cities, but still became a blockbuster. It was also the first motion picture to be shown at the White House.
In film history, however, The Birth of a Nation is remembered as groundbreaking for its innovative application of the medium of film. The film earned $10 million in the first year, and over the next 35 years went on to gross $50 million. The social impact nevertheless stayed on – even in the 1970s, the KKK was said to be using this film a recruitment tool.
Critic Roger Ebert has argued about the film: “The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”
Griffith went on the defensive. He added some titles on a part of the film during its second run:
A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE: We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
He soon began working on his next Intolerance (1916), as a response to the criticism of his conroversial blockbuster. This relatively unsuccessful film dealt with the effects of intolerance in four different historical periods: the Fall of Babylon; the Crucifixion of Jesus; the events surrounding the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre; and a modern story.
Intolerance, though as expensive as the earlier film, could not match up to the success of The Birth. Griffith was forced to look for other avenues. He joined forces with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to establish United Artists in February 1919. The foursome were corced to take this step by Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening control over actor salaries and creative decisions, a process that gradually evolved into the rigid studio system. Hence, the name. The initial plan was to produce five films in a year. But with in the aftermath of the First World War, films were becoming more expensive. To make five quality productions to hit the theatres became a tall order. Griffith quit in 1924.
He made many films in the later years, but major box office success avoided him. He even made two talkies with the advent os sound, and ended his filmmaking career in 1931.
Griffith is not known to have invented new techniques in film grammar, but he was the first to understand how these techniques could be used to create an expressive language. Chaplin called Griffith “The teacher of us all”. The stigma of The Birth of a Nation never really could be washed away with Intolerance. This made Orson Welles remark in chagrin, “I have never really hated Hollywood except for its treatment of DW Griffith. No town, no industry, no profession, no art form owes so much to a single man.”
Debates over Griffith still rage on.