Silent Movie Bookshelf: The Films of D.W. Griffith

This book really should have been titled The Feature Films of D.W. Griffith since all of his shorter work is covered in a single chapter. No matter. Written by Edward Wagenknecht and Anthony Slide, it covers all of Griffith’s movies, from Judith of Bethulia to The Struggle.

D.W. Griffith remains a polarizing figure in the world of film. Considered the leader of the American film industry at the height of his popularity, his reputation started to crumble in the 1920’s (after a string of bombs and some very questionable artistic and business decisions) and probably reached its low point in 1999 when the Director’s Guild of America removed his name from their lifetime achievement award. The Los Angeles Times has an intelligent and impassioned defense of this decision, one which I agree with wholeheartedly.

Because The Birth of a Nation is such a controversial film, it is easy to watch it (along with Intolerance and perhaps Way Down East and Broken Blossoms) and consider the Griffith file closed. But what other films did he make? This book is excellent if you want to expand your knowledge of his work.

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Home Media Availability: Published in 1975, this book is now out of print. You can get a used copy easily enough.

What is it?: A critical examination of every one of Griffith’s feature films. Each movie has its own chapter with a detailed synopsis, listing of cast and crew, length, premier date, numerous stills and a lengthy critical section that details the making of the film as well as its reception upon release.

Pictures: This oversized book is filled to the bursting with vintage ads, on-set stills, frame enlargements and other wonders. All pictures are black and white. This is a stunningly beautiful book, worth it for the pictures alone.

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Writing style: I was a little worried about this one. I am not an Anthony Slide fan by any means, he is just a little too… cruel. There’s no other word for it. His Silent Players drips with so much venom that I feel like I need to add a hazardous material sticker to the dust jacket. However, this book is actually pretty evenhanded. It acknowledges Griffith’s strengths while not covering over his weaknesses as an artist. He is given praise where praise is due and criticized where it is warranted. In general, this book is a great bit of film writing.

Except…

This is the big, big, big disclaimer. You see, silent movie fans are used to hearing the tired bromides in defense of Birth of a Nation. “But the big bad guys were white!” “It was Griffith’s upbringing!” “It was truth as he saw it!”

Applesauce!

Unfortunately, this book takes that old, tired road of defending Griffith’s ode to the KKK. Every single smug, dusty excuse is employed. In response, I wish to quote from that wonderful L.A. Times article by Ted Elliott:

The opposing arguments point out that “The Birth of a Nation” was in keeping with the prevalent views of the society in which he lived. They say the movie must be viewed in the context of its times in order to appreciate its significant contribution–specifically, Griffith’s technical and storytelling artistry.

All of this is absolutely true.

But this is also absolutely true:

Out of all the stories he could have chosen to tell, out of all the views he could have chosen to express, out of all the statements Griffith could have chosen to make . . . he chose to make one that is inarguably wrong. It was wrong before he made “The Birth of a Nation,” it was wrong when he made “The Birth of a Nation,” it is still wrong. That it was prevalent in his–or any–society does not make it any less wrong. And it is not treating people with respect to point out that it is wrong. It is treating people with respect to excuse it because somewhere, sometime, someone believed it was right.

Amen!

I’m sorry to turn this into a rant but the section of Birth of a Nation got me a little worked up. Readers of this blog know the film is a sore subject for me.

So, do I recommend this book? Yes, with the reservations put forth above. The pictures are lovely and most of the scholarship is excellent. It is fantastic for viewers who wish to expand their knowledge of Giffith beyond the handful of super famous titles he directed. It’s just a shame that the writers felt the need to go pedal to the metal in defending what is truly indefensible.