FOCUS Film History and Film as History

Any volume of 'key texts' stands accused of presenting a canon -to put it crudely, a list of recommended texts given precedence over others. Any putative canon compiler is confronted with the tricky problem of deciding where and when the canon starts. The authors of this volume - after considering the Lumière Brothers as well as Méliès and the British pioneers - decided to begin with D. W. Griffith.

Film as an entertainment medium was 20 years old by the time of Griffith's Intolerance. It was with this film that D. W. Griffith made the leap into film as an art form that was both artistically and politically important and influential.

D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) has been described as 'the father of film'. His claim to parentage is based upon not technological but narrative breakthroughs made long before Intolerance. In 1907 he moved from stage production to the movies. After a spell with the Edison Company he moved to Biograph. There, via hundreds of 'two-reeler' shorts, Griffith worked out the grammar and syntax of what would become internationally recognised and consumed mainstream cinema: establishing shots, dextrous use of close-ups to show character traits and engage the spectator, complex camera movement and the rules of cross-cutting. In effect he not only contributed to moving cinema away from the purely scientific (Lumière) and purely sensational (Méliès), but also developed the moving picture away from theatre into a new art form whose features depended on spatial and temporal mobility itself.

Griffith has a very strong claim to be the father of American film - that is, an institutionalised outlook predicated on the selling of 'the movies' as an engaging entertainment medium. His films were both engaging and well promoted. He had begun with short films based on popular melodrama, from which he had developed a strong grasp of what constituted engaging material for the audience. When his aspirations led to longer more complex narratives, Griffith held to his belief in strong character-led narrative.

Via Judith of Bethulia (1914), The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance, Griffith also lays claim to be the progenitor of Hollywood spectacle. In retrospect it seems odd that Biograph was nervous about the financial implications of making bigger and more spectacular films. After the four-reel Judith of Bethulia, it let Griffith go to Mutual. Griffith gathered his extraordinarily talented team of technicians and actors around him and, forming his own production company (Triangle - with Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince), took cinema to new heights of ambition.

It is entirely in keeping with the ambition of Griffith and his company that their first film was the longest and greatest (in terms of temporal, spatial and moral ambition) in the history of film to that point. The Birth of a Nation was also a film that courted controversy. It is unquestionably a masterpiece of film-making. However, it is also a film that overtly sanctions the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. The film was made at a time when America was experiencing an upsurge in Klan activity. Griffith's epic of American history began the continuing debate about artistic licence, which, as with Battleship Potemkin (see chapter 3) or Olympia (see chapter 7), is at its most intense and interesting when a liberal critic comes up against great film-making in dubious causes.

Griffith appears to have been genuinely - if naively - surprised by the reaction to The Birth of a Nation. Unsympathetic condemnation of his masterpiece led Griffith to create Intolerance. Griffith's scriptwriter Tod Browning went on to a directorial career that relied on the investigation of outsiders and the responses of mainstream society with films such as Dracula (USA, 1931) and the controversial Freaks (USA, 1932).

Intolerance is an epic dealing with the issue of intolerance and its effects in four historical eras. In ancient Babylon religious rivalry leads to the downfall of the city. In Jerusalem the Pharisees condemn Jesus Christ to death. In sixteenth-century Paris the Huguenots are slaughtered in the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. In the contemporary USA deprivation leads to crime; social reformers, who believe they know best, destroy the lives of innocent young women through unfeeling reaction.

The two masterstrokes that Griffith brought to bear on these historical issue were:

• focusing on individual stories - for example, of the Huguenot lovers or the modern young woman and her 'beloved' against the historical background (thus engaging the viewer emotionally);

• intertwining the stories to create ideological connections but also to enrich the narrative structure.

What remains today is an impression of the sheer confidence of the team who created this movie. Griffith's company thought little about the vast amounts of attention (and money) spent on the sets. Technicians were brought from Italy, until then the home of the cinema epic, to 'create' Babylon. The Taviani Brothers' Good Morning Babylon (Italy / France, 1987) tells this story from the Italians' point of view. Bitzer and Brown were encouraged to take the camera (literally) to new heights and to hang the expense.

Contemporary criticism of this epic did not centre on its cost and boundless self-confidence but rather on the oversimplified morality of the piece and its overtly anti-war stance. The film was released as the controversy over America's entry into the First World War raged. Today we may be less in sympathy with Intolerance because of its very strengths. It is a very didactic and heavy-handed allegory. Critics, including David Thomson in The Biographical Dictionary of Film (1995), have pointed to the porten-tousness of Griffith's epics. After the financial disaster of this epic Griffith scaled down his vision and made rather more human-scale and engaging works - e.g. Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way down East (1920).

The Griffith legacy - and indeed that of Intolerance itself - on the American industry and beyond is incalculable. Chaplin was inspired to go beyond his studio-bound formula comedies and joined Griffith in forming United Artists. In Soviet Russia Eisenstein viewed Griffith's epics and was inspired to abandon theatre and head for the cinema as a more emotionally and intellectually influential medium. A generation later Welles was inspired by Griffith's example to exhibit ostentatious virtuosity and demand that his crew push the possibilities of form in Citizen Kane.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Can you watch a film as 'art' divorced from its ideology?

• How could Griffith have made The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance?

• Is Intolerance of more than historical interest?

• After watching The Birth of a Nation, consider what we have gained and what we have lost in the last 80 years of narrative cinema. What have we lost since films began to 'talk'? What have we lost since silent film? Think about: mise en scène, editing and narrative structure.

• Does Griffith overstretch himself? Is film really the right medium for the epic?

Further Viewing

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, USA, 1915) The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1925) October (Eisenstein, Soviet Union, 1928) The Great Dictator (Chaplin, USA, 1938)

Gone with the Wind (Fleming, USA, 1939)

Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, UK, 1975)

One from the Heart (Coppola, USA, 1981)

Good Morning Babylon (Taviani Brothers, Italy/USA, 1987)

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