Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - America

Sunday, November 9, 2008

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - America

America was one of D.W. Griffith's most massive undertakings, on par with The Birth of a Nation almost a decade earlier. Like that film, America - with its grand, all-encompassing title - is an attempt to view a grand historical event (in this case the American Revolution) through individual and family melodrama. Griffith shows a continued talent for staging battle scenes, and the cinematography in America is excellent, whether dotting distant landscapes with puffs of cannon smoke, staging massacres amidst sun-dappled trees, or zipping along country roads alongside Paul Revere in blue-tinted tracking shots. Yet somehow America didn't quite work with 1924 audiences; it was a flop for Griffith and (ironically) meant the end of his own independence. (You can read a good summary of America's history at Greenbriar Picture Shows, along with a more favorable perspective on the film.) Individual moments are strong, there was obviously a good deal of care put into the production, and yet somehow America seems to be striving after past glories and its debt to Griffith's earlier masterpiece hamstrings it in fundamental ways.


Unlike Orphans of the Storm, Griffith's previous attempt to recapture his former epic glory, America does not feel too scattershot. It is pretty tightly focused on the travails of the Montagues, a Loyalist family whose son joins the Rebels; Nathan (Neil Hamilton), a Bostonian patriot who loves the Montague daughter Nancy (Caroline Dempster); and Capt. Walter Butler (Lionel Barrymore), a dastardly British officer who teams up with Indians to slaughter Americans for his own personal benefit. If anything, America isn't distracted enough by the events of the Revolution. This isn't so much true in the first half, which dutifully places us at Lexington & Concord, Bunker Hill, and Paul Revere's midnight ride, but eventually we get the sense that Griffith is merely recreating Birth of a Nation in an 18th century milieu. It's an uncomfortable fit.

Indeed, America's greatest flaw is that it completely reconceives the American Revolution to fit Griffith's increasingly tiresome narrative constraints. Having nominally grown out of his bigotry and flowery sense of propriety with smaller-scale dramas like Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, Griffith suddenly recasts the Revolution as the Civil War avant la lettre, with dusky Indians replacing blackfaced Negroes as the outsider villains of choice. Yes, it's true that the British formed alliances with Indians. But it was hardly the centerpiece of the war, as Griffith makes it out to be. Furthermore, in order to bizarrely let the British government off the hook, he makes Butler a dishonest renegade, out for personal benefit rather than service to King and Country.

Again, as in Birth, Griffith lets the titles do the philosophical heavy-lifting, if you can call it that. Right away we're told that the Revolution was "civil war between two groups of Englishmen," the future United States would have been happy with a cozy arrangement resembling the Commonwealth status of Canada and Australia, Washington had notable British ancestors, and "America is the son of England, not its bastard." Finally, at film's end as we watch Washington sworn in as the first president, a title proudly proclaims, "Friends of old - again friends, to help solidify the power of the English-speaking peoples in the work of the world."

The Birth of a Nation is undoubtedly racist, sugarcoating history to sanctimoniously unite North and South by excluding the black race. But at least its obsessions fit those of its subject - obviously African-Americans were at the center of the Civil War. In America, Griffith has to basically import the outside enemy - inflating the role evil, morally decadent (huh?) Indians played in the conflict - and his reduction of the Revolution to a family squabble between best buddies siphons much of the drama from an idealistic venture. It betrays an unfortunate smallness in Griffith's vision, a crippling inability to escape the Victorian sanctimony of his childhood schoolbooks.

This points to a larger discrepancy between Griffith's vision and his times, a tragic one for the director. America displays a fluid grasp of the tricks Griffith had developed nine years previously, but it does not expand on these. Around the world, the language of cinema was changing and growing: German expressionists and Soviet montagists and the French avant-garde were radically redefining the terms of film art. That Griffith was rooted in the past is not of itself shameful. After all, artists should be true to their personal visions; likewise, Birth of a Nation is not somehow a lesser film because it doesn't utilize tools developed after its making. But that film sparkles with a freshness, an obvious excitement in its director's sense of discovery, which suffuses the framing, the editing, the staging of sequences. That excitement is missing in America.

Though more focused than Orphans of the Storm, America still lacks a certain clarity that Birth and even the over-the-top, distracted Intolerance featured. Griffith's style of cinematography, withdrawing into a wider mise en scene (see the orgy scene above), trading in medium shots for bustling frames that would do a painter proud, is actually quite intriguing. The story at its center could work theoretically, although the romance is not entirely convincing. (Caroline Dempster has been criticized, and while she initially brings a refreshing spunkiness to the part - something we haven't seen in Griffith for a while - in the long haul, she lacks Lillian Gish's ability to hold the viewer's attention.) Even the bizarre focus on the British-Indian alliance could work if Griffith didn't try to absolve the British of any wrongdoing, or position the film as a definitive Revolution film. Somehow, these parts, however strong individually, do not cohere. I hope I've given the film a fair shake, but on first viewing America feels more like an attempt to recapture past glories than a fresh masterpiece.

Previous: Orphans of the Storm
Next: Sally of the Sawdust

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

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