Yes, folks, it's both as "good" AND as "bad" as legend has made it out to be. Clocking in at just a shade above three hours, The Birth of a Nation is the gnarled, tobacco-chewing grandpappy of all epic feature films, and it maintains one's interest throughout, though not always for the best of reasons. Had Griffith decided to cease production when the Civil War sequence was completed, he would already have compiled more than enough excitement, drama, and tragedy to satiate most audiences of the day. As Margaret Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind, however, Griffith forged ahead into the Reconstruction era and tripped over his own feet, with his controversial portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan forever tarnishing the legacy of his greatest film (and, without question, doing additional mischief by encouraging the real-life Klan revival of the 1920s). Here's the big question for a modern viewer: is all that wince-inducing racism enough of a reason to swear off watching this movie? If you care about the history of the cinema, the answer should be a resounding "No."
Though it stars a "cast of thousands" -- or, more accurately, "hundreds" cleverly manipulated by Griffith into looking like lots more -- Birth basically centers on the activities and interactions of two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, before, during, and after the Civil War. Working with a fairly limited budget -- at least compared to the coffers he drained to produce Intolerance -- and an equivalent paucity of sets, Griffith manages to give the movie a truly epic sweep, though sometimes he has to stretch reality a bit (case in point: the Camerons' genteel Southern mansion, complete with cotton fields, appears to be situated on the main street of a small town). A short but informative documentary that accompanies the DVD release explains how Griffith was able to "fake" a Civil War battle, the burning of Atlanta, Sherman's march, the assassination of Lincoln, and other noteworthy moments with a primitive but ingenious use of special effects, including drenching the screen in red to simulate fire. The carefully reconstructed Ford's Theater set, which was actually an open-air stage, is a particular marvel. The film also benefits from excellent acting performances by such luminaries as Lilian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Henry Walthall (Ben Cameron, aka "The Little Colonel"), and George Siegmann (Silas Lynch, the mulatto villain who tyrannizes the Camerons' "fallen" town of Piedmont at the behest of the ambitious Radical Congressman Stoneman). Histrionics there are aplenty, but even the actors in minor roles (including Joseph Henabery as a somewhat cadaverous, but nonetheless compassionate, Lincoln) hold up their ends nicely. Unless you get completely bent out of shape by the sight of actors in blackface and dislike the pro-Southern tilt -- e.g., "The Little Colonel" is nearly killed while heroically investing the Union fieldworks, leading even his enemies to applaud his bravery -- the first part of Birth can be enjoyed by viewers of all persuasions and can almost be taken as a dress rehearsal for the first part of Gone With the Wind.
After Birth was attacked by the NAACP and other groups for its crude and unsympathetic portrayal of blacks, Griffith insisted that he had meant no offense. It's strange, then, that he opens Part Two of the film with several lengthy quotes from then-President Woodrow Wilson on what "really" happened during Reconstruction. It's almost as if he's appealing to a higher authority without really wanting to admit why. At the end of the movie, we even get an Intolerance-style montage of Jesus Christ displacing the "god of war" and preaching a message of goodwill and unity. In between, though, we get the infamous scene of the black-dominated South Carolina legislature (complete with guys gnawing chicken and putting unshod feet up on the desk), one of the Cameron girls committing suicide rather than submit to a "renegade" black soldier, Silas Lynch (who looks and acts a little like a malevolent Ralph Kramden with a bad tan) slobbering all over Elsie Stoneman while trying to convince her to become "Queen" of his coming "Black Empire," and, of course, the final charge of the Klan into Piedmont which saves the day, routs the "darkies," and restores something approximating the "Old Order." I know that the Klan rally is famed as one of the great scenes in film history, but there's a certain element of "camp" surrounding it today, never mind the historical fact that the Klan typically operated only at night (the better to terrorize you with, my dear). The scene in the besieged cabin, where Northern and Southern ex-foes unite in "Aryan" solidarity (so saith the title card) to fight off the marauding black soldiers, is considerably more harrowing and, unfortunately, a lot more accurate in terms of reflecting the celerity with which the North dropped integration as an issue and the era of "Jim Crow" began a decade or two after the war's end.
The DVD release that Nicky and I viewed appeared to have been done on the cheap, more's the pity. The musical soundtrack during the movie itself -- precise vintage and origin unknown -- played the same themes over and over again, in the manner of a Hanna-Barbera or early Disney TV animated series. Not content to numb our senses with repetition, the track frequently drowned out the narrator's voice during the accompanying documentary. The picture itself was restored quite nicely. There do appear to be other DVD releases with shorter running times out there, so, if you decide to give Birth a look, be sure it's the three-hour print that you're getting.