It almost goes without saying that great artists are controversial. In fact, there's almost a direct correlation, even a cause and effect element. And the greatest, most controversial artists seem to be those on the technological and ideological cutting edge of their art. One hundred years ago, a new artform was in its infancy. Edison and the Lumiere Brothers had barely demonstrated the technology much less delineated it's artistic potential or boundaries. In 1900, it wasn't even entertainment yet, more a mechanical or perhaps scientific curiosity. Porter was still three years from making "The Great Train Robbery." Cinematography was a crude and unknown artform analogous to cave painting in the history of art. In the next ten or fifteen years, there was progress. Film making became entertainment. The Nickelodeon was born. The industry moved to Southern California where interior shots could be filmed outdoors using their proverbial 300 days of sunlight per year. And an adventurous young artist in every sense of the word was learning his craft. His name was David Wark Griffith.
Griffith was born in 1875 in Crestwood, Kentucky just ten years after the end of the Civil War. He grew up during the latter years of Reconstruction listening to his father's colorful and no doubt highly embellished first-person accounts of wartime heroism and the justifiable outrage over one of the darkest political eras in our nation's history. He took these stories with him, believing every word of them, when, in 1908, he left for Southern California (Hollywood didn't even exist at the time) to become a movie actor. His acting career was short and uneventful. He took to moonlighting as a director at Biograph Studios; and during the next seven years churned out over 450 "shorts." In the process, he mastered the art of film making such as it was known at the time. But he saw his 20-minute "one reelers" as a terrific waste of a great storytelling medium. Film making had progressed from cave painting to comic books and in Griffith's eyes, it wasn't all that great a leap. He longed to do more with the medium.
Not surprisingly, he drew upon his childhood lore, his own and borrowed money, and near total creative independence to recount the Civil War and the Southern culture at the time AS HE KNEW IT. Nothing even remotely comparable had ever done before. "Birth of a Nation's" four hours of running time tested the patience and bladders of even the most devoted history buffs. There were over 11,000 scenes, 25,000 players, $750,000 involved. Griffith's film innovations such as disolves, masking, close-ups, flashbacks, his battlefield action footage, and dramatic editing were unprecedented at the time and breathtaking in their visual impact. The cadre of assistant directors he trained would go on to make Hollywood history themselves.
But "Birth of a Nation" was deeply flawed, reflecting the deep racial prejudices Griffith had known growing up and seemingly never questioned, at least until AFTER the film was released when, inspite of its daring cinematic breakthroughs, it unleashed, or at least unveiled, a deep racial schism in American society. Based on the abhorrently racial "The Clansman," "Birth of a Nation" was as much fantasy as it was propaganda--history as seen and believed in the South at a time when such regional boundaries were evaporating.
Biographers would have us believe Griffith's next work, in 1916, "Intolerance" was an attempt to atone for the racial stereotypes and prejudices he'd ignorantly projected in "Birth of a Nation." That's questionable. In any case, its effect in mitigating the damage done by "Birth of a Nation" was minimal. In both films, Griffith had gone too far. He'd followed up a bigoted blockbuster by creating the first "art" film intermingling four separate morality tales into a complex filmography that audiences at the time were not prepared to decipher. Though critically acclaimed, it was a boxoffice disaster. Griffith went on to make several outstanding, seriously moralistic films of a more intimate nature up through the advent of "talkies" but by that time, his style, his vision, his nineteenth century point of view, were all decidedly old-fashioned. The industry he helped to create had quickly passed him up and cast him aside. He died in 1948, in virtual exile, a talented genius who never quite recovered from his greatest triumph and the hateful seeds of his own destruction which it spread.