Plot: Phil Stoneman has been friends with Ben Cameron since childhood, both men part of aristocratic, affluent families. The two come from familial backgrounds in law firms and political offices, which have allowed them to experience a life much richer than most could dream of. The roots between the families run deep, but are threatened when a civil war breaks out and the families land on opposite sides of the conflict. The bonds are tested as the families cross paths on the battlefield, with stakes that couldn’t be much higher. This is no surprise, as the civil war would turn even brother against brother, but families of means such as these aren’t used to having their friendships tested, let alone with their lives on the line. What will becomes of the two families as the war rages on and once the conflict has wound down, how will life continue on once the friends have been forced to turn against each other?
Entertainment Value: A true landmark of cinema and one of the most influential movies ever made, The Birth of a Nation has been plagued by controversies since it was first released. Although D.W. Griffith expressed surprise at the film being racist, it is hard to argue otherwise, given the narrative and some jaw dropping set pieces that unfold in this one. Perhaps he thought his earlier work would absolve him from claims of racism, but that wasn’t the case, though his reaction to the accusations led to Intolerance, another important piece of cinema. A lot of critics seem to wish The Birth of a Nation would be buried rather than be seen, but I think most adults can appreciate the technical advances and creative achievements involved, without taking the film’s racist slants to heart. As has been said often about this and similar movies, history shouldn’t be hidden and this is a crucial cinematic effort, one that broke ground on numerous fronts and still stands as a towering achievement. A lot of what would become the blueprint for traditional cinema finds its roots in The Birth of a Nation.
A silent film that runs about three hours in duration, this movie is an epic to say the least and features some remarkable set pieces. The battle scenes might seem antiquated, but they were an almost impossible feat at the time, a massive leap forward in special effects and film production techniques. These scenes show a sense of realism that stands out even now, over a hundred years after The Birth of a Nation was released and that is an incredible claim. The sheer scope of the overall movie is impressive, with so many extras, high production design values, and attention to detail, as well as some gifted performers in lead roles. Lillian Gish, Miriam Cooper, and Mae Marsh are all present, though Gish is the standout in the lot. The pace is by no means brisk, but little time feels wasted and after a rousing first part, the film veers into a much darker second part that houses much of the content that attracted the scorn and claims of racism. In the end, it is inarguable that The Birth of a Nation is a cornerstone of cinematic history and while it has a wealth of offensive content, it is possible to appreciate the technical merits and not endorse the racist elements involved. So for movie buffs and those interested in film’s history, this one is a must see release.
The Disc: Twilight Time presents The Birth of a Nation in a restored treatment that looks fantastic, much better than you’d expect from a movie well over a hundred years old. I mean, it is a miracle the movie still exists at all, let alone in such a well detailed, clean looking presentation. You can see some signs of age at times, but overall this is a super clean and impressive effort, especially in that it looks so clean, but retains a natural film like texture. In terms of extras, this two disc limited edition is stacked and starts off with the reissue prologue and intermission, then moves to a second disc that houses the bulk of the supplements. A handful of restored shorts from D.W. Griffith have been included, as well as footage of the score being conducted, a look at how the movie was adapted from The Clansman book, an audio interview with Griffith, several text essays, and a selection of still photos and promotional materials. Perhaps the most interesting extra is over half an hour of outtakes and original camera tests, which are certain to delight film history buffs.