Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Movie Review: Birth of a Nation

Period: Approximately 1860-1871- American Civil War and Reconstruction

Synopsis: An epic-sized silent movie made in 1915 that chronicles two families before, during and after the Civil War. The two families are the Stonemans of PA, and the Camerons of SC. The movie makes heavy use of symbology and historical myth to weave a story that people in the current day would find a bit on the shocking side.

Overall opinion: I have to admit that I went into this movie having done a small amount of research. Most of what I heard before then wasn't great, but that was tempered by the "you haven't seen all the great Civil War movies, unless you see Birth of a Nation" challenge. I decided to take the challenge, but I also took with me the thought that the movie is a product of its time, and should be judged with that in mind. So I did some research and made up my mind to give BoaN a serious screening.

Judge it as a product its time? I have to say that's a feat easier said than done.

In reality, this is two movies in one. The first movie chronicles the life of two families before and during the Civil War. This theme has seen the light of day a few times afterwards, most notably and recently with the North and South/Heaven and Hell miniseries. In itself it's a enjoyable, if a deeply historically flawed, story.

The second half is the part with the controversey, which deals with a very Southern view of reconstruction and the Klu Klux Klan. This is where the movie drifts sails into historical fantasy, and takes the modern day viewer on a surreal ride through the years after the Civil War. This where I keep on reminding myself that the movie was made in 1915, and the KKK didn't quite have the stigma that it has today. I have to admit this part of the movie made me squirm. Quite a bit.

The thing that interested me the most was the symbology - or at least what I read as symbology. I took the families as representing the people (as a whole) of their respective regions. The patriarchs represent the governments, and even the races represent an ideal - the movie was taken from a book with a white supremacist theme, "The Clansman".

The movie was an eye-opener for me, and it really defines what myths and misconceptions of the Civil War were borne from the early 20th century. It still surprises me that some of these misconceptions still are kicking around today.

Good reenactor film?: "Birth of a Nation" should be required watching for any reenactor who seriously wants to look at the darker side of Civil War myth. You won't find too much accurate in the battle scenes or the uniforms and equipage (the yanks wear the M1884 field blouse), but it's what the movie is saying that you should really look at. You'll be encountering some of those myths during the course of your reenacting experience, especially if you do living history displays.

Probably the most reenactor-interesting part of the movie isn't the movie -- it's the special feature after the movie, which covers the making of "Birth of Nation" and other productions of the period. Apparently BoaN wasn't the only Civil War movie around, and some of the clips are down right intriguing. One 1913 movie seemed to peg the uniforms down very close, almost to the point where I think they're the real McCoys. It's well worth a careful look.

How does it stack up?: I can't say that BoaN was utterly entertaining, it's a silent picture that runs a long time - about three hours. The Klan glorification made me squirm a bit. BUT it was interesting from a historical standpoint, being that the film is over ninety years old, and it was covering a subject well within memory of many at that time. To compare it to other, more current films is really impossible. But as a history buff, it's a movie that is worth a viewing to get a feel of the attitudes prevalent at the time.

If you want to see about more movies, check out my old blog, "War Moovies".


David Corbett said...

Dear Elephant , This film was made only fifty years after Appomattox . D. W. Griffiths father was a Confederate veteran . Don't you think this film was very real to them considering the bitterness in Kentucky during Reconstruction ?
all for the old flag,
David Corbett

mntineer said...

Don't you think this film was very real to them considering the bitterness in Kentucky during Reconstruction ?

I think the sentiment was very real, but sentiment doesn't necessarily make an accurate or even truthful depiction of events. "Birth of a Nation" can arguably be called an apologists' view of the Confederacy. Being that Griffths was a son of a Conferate Colonel strengthens that view for me. I think many wives and sons did not want the Confederacy construed as something evil, and I think that feeling gave life to many of the misconceptions you see in BoaN.

Also bear in mind, Kentucky was a neutral state in the time of the Civil War, provided manpower to the Union army, and most of the soldier-eligible men sat out the conflict. I don't think KY was a hotbed of reconstruction bitterness -- but the Kentucky men who fought with the Confederacy were vehement about the cause. That's why I think Griffths was probably driven more by his father's viewpoint more than his own experience.

mntineer said...

David Corbett said...

BTW -- glad to hear from you again David! Don't be such a stranger. Also, did you do Reenactorfest again this year?