January 2, 2011

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Revisionist history, for the win!

Okay, that said...what a bizarre movie. First off, it's LONG. Ridiculously long. At 3 hours and 7 minutes, it's the longest movie I have ever watched (I can't count the director's cut of "The Lord of the Rings" because I always fall asleep during it and thus never manage to see the whole thing). Second, it pretty much completely rewrites the Reconstruction period, complete with evil black people, poor oppressed white people, and the dashing and heroic Ku Klux Klan. Yeah...weird.

The first half of the movie isn't bad. In fact, it's kind of charming. The characters are pretty interesting and well acted, especially given the limits of a silent film. One character in particular, the little sister of the Southern family (no name is ever given) was especially endearing. Which is perhaps why what happens to her during the second half of the movie is so disturbing. But more on that in a minute.

The music was odd; only existing classical pieces and familiar American folk tunes were used. This had a strange effect because most of the pieces either conjure up specific thoughts or memories in my mind that don't match the action on screen or simply don't match the action on screen regardless of my personal connection. For example, during some of the battle scenes where you'd expect dark, somber, menacing music you instead get cheerful, happy flute tunes that are better suited to parades. I never quite got the feeling that war was bad from the way this film was made, even though they were clearly trying to send that message.

Anyway, so the first half was nice and normal, and pretty enjoyable. Then came the second half, and suddenly I felt like I was watching a different movie. All of a sudden the characters that had previously seemed so nice and charming became hideously racist, and the title plates that explain the actions did too. The Ku Klux Klan was praised and painted out to be the heroes who were going to save the white South from the evil blacks. The little sister that I had previously liked so much got cornered by a half black man who wanted to marry her, and she absolutely freaked out. She ran away through the woods flailing her arms and screaming bloody murder, and he chased after her until they reached a really high cliff. There she told him not to come any closer or she'd jump. Um, overreact much?? Well, he came closer (dumbass) and she jumped. All I can say is "Wow."

What I want to know is, if the KKK is/was so convinced of their moral superiority and the correctness of their actions, then why do they have to hide under sheets? And as there was a huge uproar about the movie when it was released, which forced the director to release apology films in the future, why did he make this one in the first place?

I actually feel a bit conflicted about this movie overall. The racist message is despicable and I in no way condone it, but at the same time I didn't completely hate the movie. The filming was good, with interesting camera effects and angles, and the acting was pretty good too. The music was enjoyable due to its familiarity, even though its placement was often weird (particularly the end choice of "Ride of the Valkyries"). It's historically significant and I can respect that. It's not a movie I'll likely ever watch again, but I don't feel like I wasted my time watching it either.

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, even though 3 hours is too long, the movie holds your attention through the whole time period.