David W. Griffith

Broken Blossoms (1919)

Lilian Gish, Griffith's constant star, in Broken Blossoms (1919)

  • Born: 1875
  • Died: 1948
  • Rank: 92
  • Score: 489.90
  • Feature-Length Films: 26
  • Best: The Birth of a Nation
  • Worst: The Idol Dancer

Top 5 Films:

  1. The Birth of a Nation – 1915
  2. Intolerance – 1916
  3. Broken Blossoms – 1919
  4. The Avenging Conscience – 1914
  5. Orphans of the Storm – 1921

Top 10 Director finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • pre-1927 – 4th – The Birth of a Nation
  • pre-1927 – 8th – Intolerance
  • pre-1927 – 10th – Broken Blossoms
  • 1929-30 – 6th – Abraham Lincoln

It’s possible that the only director harder to write about is Leni Reifenstahl. This is not because of Griffith’s talent. Most serious film buffs would grant that Griffith was a great director. But his best film, The Birth of a Nation, is filled with such a disgusting sense of racism that it is difficult to talk about what a brilliant film it is without dealing with those problems.

Griffith was the first great director. The IMdB credits him with 535 directorial efforts (some uncredited) but almost 500 of those were short films made before 1914. While Griffith made a few longer films in 1914, he pretty much invented the current feature-length idea of a film with Birth of a Nation. He followed that up the next year with Intolerance, another masterpiece, made in reaction to the reviews of Birth. He helped to found Hollywood as the center of American film in 1910 and in 1920 joined with Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks to form United Artists

Griffith continued to direct films through the end of the silent era, making a star of his main actress, Lilian Gish. But after sound came in, Griffith faded out, making only two sound features: Abraham Lincoln, a fairly good film, and The Struggle, one of his weakest films.

The Birth of a Nation – #4 film of pre-1927

Until 1925, Birth was the single greatest film made in America (surpassed that year by Greed). Today it is a lightning rod for talking about the history of film, both because of its undeniable place in film history and its blatant racism. In his first Great Movies book, Roger Ebert simply skipped it and chose Broken Blossoms, waiting until his second book to go back and talk about it. Birth is excorciated for its depiction of blacks as a lower class of human, for being dirty and vile and corrupt, for wanting to attack white women and undermine white society, yet for some reason Gone with the Wind gets a free pass on its racist attitudes for being a measure of the time when it was made.

I’ll set my record straight. I think Birth is a better film than Gone and I have issues with the attitudes towards race and the Civil War in both films, but those are not the reasons I judge the films on an artistic level. I think the treatment of race and history in Birth are one of the reasons it should still be studied; they offer an interesting study of a culture at a certain point in history. The amazing thing is that Griffith actually toned down some of the aspects of the novel The Klansman, upon which it is based.

But the main reason Birth should be studied because it is an important film. Until Citizen Kane, there was no movie that made so many breakthroughs. It puts together new uses of editing and cinematography and manages to tell a coherent long story without losing focus.