I am more conflicted about the choice of D.W. Griffith as the best director of the Silent Era than I am about any other choice I am likely make throughout the course of writing this blog.
On the one hand, Griffith directed the most popular film of the Silent Era and introduced story-telling techniques to the movies—such as the close-up, the flashback and cross-cutting between multiple locations and storylines—that are so commonplace now, you almost forget that someone had to invent them.
And he was a master of the action sequence. The Civil War battle scenes in The Birth Of A Nation, for example, are as good as any ever filmed, and there's a sequence in Way Down East—where a man races across a disintegrating ice floe to save a young woman before she plunges over a waterfall—that is amazing.
These scenes were without precedent and audiences were electrified. The Birth Of A Nation was the most popular movie of the Silent Era, grossing more than half-again as much as the second movie on the list.
But on the other hand, you can't talk about D.W. Griffith's legacy without eventually coming to the subject of racism, because while he was the era's greatest innovator and an undisputed master of film technique, he also included in The Birth of A Nation sequences—for example, Ku Klux Klansmen riding to the rescue of white women being raped by actors wearing black-face—that are so grotesque in their depictions of race and distortions of history that you can't believe that you are seeing them.
As the Directors Guild Of America noted in 1999 upon removing Griffith's name from its top film award, his movies "helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes."
And before you complain that I am condemning Griffith with the smug benefit of politically-correct hindsight, the fact is that even judging strictly by the standards that were evolving at the time, The Birth Of A Nation was widely regarded as a virulently racist film. Audiences in some northern cities rioted after seeing it, and President Woodrow Wilson, who at a private screening had said "It was like writing history with lightning," felt compelled to issue a statement disowning its politics.
I mean, really, a three hour paean to the Ku Klux Klan?
Even Griffith seemed to realize what a bad idea that was, following it up the next year with Intolerance, a 197-minute apology that nevertheless saw nothing ironic in the fact that not a single African-American appears in a movie railing against prejudice.
It wasn't the last time that Griffith tried to apologize on film for The Birth Of A Nation, but there was, to my eye at least, something always clueless about the effort, like that of a man who recognizes that he's done something wrong but doesn't quite know what.
In fact, there are even those who suggest that Griffith wasn't apologizing for the racism of The Birth Of A Nation at all but was instead condemning the "intolerance" of those who had dared to attack him. All I can say after watching the movies themselves is, it's possible.
From what I've read about him, Griffith did not consciously set out to serve an evil cause, ala Leni Riefenstahl who cheerfully made documentaries praising Adolf Hitler. He was instead a wholly apolitical man—Griffith "didn't have a coherent political idea in his head," writes Slate's Bryan Curtis—astonishingly unaware of the world outside the immediate bubble he lived in, in his case a Hollywood film set. This makes him, I suspect, a typical, if unadmirable, human being.
As a matter of fact, watching his most famous works before writing this essay suggested to me that Griffith's primary fixation was not on race relations but on the imperiled virginity of innocent young women, no matter whose clutches they fell into—be they freed slaves (The Birth Of A Nation), brutal fathers and kindly Asian shopkeepers (Broken Blossoms), wealthy womanizers (Way Down East) or French aristocrats (Orphans Of The Storm).
Despite the lavish productions and impressive action sequences, the formula wears thin quickly and maybe that's why Griffith's movies fell out of favor with the public long before the advent of sound. Griffith lived until 1948, but he made his last movie in 1931, and he hadn't had a bona fide hit in the ten years before that.
More watchable choices for best director of the Silent Era, safer choices certainly, and very worthy choices—okay, let's just say it: maybe better choices—would include Charles Chaplin (The Kid; The Gold Rush), Buster Keaton (The General; Sherlock, Jr.), F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu), Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), in about that order, I think.
For that matter, maybe the award should go to Edwin S. Porter, who directed The Great Train Robbery in 1903. That was a pretty cutting-edge piece of work, even if it's only eleven minutes long.
I don't know. Who is more worthy of praise, the guy who discovered fire or the guy who warms your house with it?
In any event, there are two things that you can say about D.W. Griffith. He was an innovative pioneer who influenced generations of filmmakers, perhaps more so than any other director of the Silent Era. And there's not a critic or historian alive who doesn't wish he had set the world on its ear with something, anything, else.
But he didn't. And history is what it is.