Griffith. Five years ago I would not have Griffith in the top 50 directors of all-time. Another example of why this is an always-evolving list that I hope to pause and update every 4-5 years. As I’ve written before, I believe The Birth of a Nation’s disgustingly racist content unfairly drops its reputation as a work of art. Also, I believe my Intolerance viewing in 2015 was one of those jaw on-the-floor-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw-cinema viewing moments. It’s very hard to compare Griffith to his contemporaries since he really didn’t have any. I’m obviously happy with his spot on this list because of the size of the two masterpieces and the obvious stylistic accomplishments from this early master.
Best film: Intolerance. Intolerance is superior to Taxi Driver, Potemkin and Pulp Fiction- so yeah- this is not about Griffith just being a pioneer. The size, narrative supremacy and sheer cinematic magnificence of this masterpiece will blow you away. Intolerance came out in 1916, one year after The Birth of a Nation. It’s rated #104 all-time on TSPDT (The Birth of a Nation is #287) and prior to 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen it in at least 10 years- which was a huge mistake. Intolerance is a capital “M” masterpiece. David Kehr of the Chicago reader says “Made in 1916 and still ahead of the times, D.W. Griffith’s magnificent epic intercuts four stories set in four different periods—an experiment with cinematic time and space that even the avant-garde has only recently begun to absorb. Griffith conceived the film as four rivers that “seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity.” One of the great breakthroughs—the Ulysses of the cinema—and a powerful, moving experience in its own right.” Like he says the film interweaves 4 separate stories from 4 separate time periods that all revolve around “intolerance” (intermingled with some great form of Lillian Gish as a sort of mother earth/father time type of character rocking a cradle in space (or heaven maybe) back and forth). It’s incredibly dense as Griffith quickly introduces many time periods, characters, and relationships. Your head really starts to spin the first 40 minutes- I can only imagine audiences in 1916- it’s no wonder this was a box office disaster. It’s not an easily accessible film. One of the first things that impresses you is just the sheer size of this epic. It has a massive cast of extras, complex and big set designs, there is even a gorgeous, what looks like crane shot of the Babylon section of the film shown in part here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cM5hVs2UB4s . Of course the parallel editing and the narrative structure are pure genius. I mean the narrative structure itself with the 4 stories and how they are cut is a form of parallel editing. I’d love to see a Bordwell treatment of it in its ABACADBA structure and rhythms. There are even great tension building scenes of parallel editing within the stories that are being parallel edited together. Brilliant stuff and it really picks up during the climax. If this sounds familiar, it should. Clearly The Godfather II is structured similarly- as is The Hours, Dunkirk, The Fountain, Cloud Atlas. The flaws (and there are some) seem really nitpicky. Griffith doesn’t quit give the 4 stories equal treatment and the Catholics/protestants and the story of Christ are built more weakly than the modern story and the Babylonian one. Also, it can be a little heavy-handed (which is partly of the times and partly Griffith being melodramatic) and I could do without him using the word (or variance of) “intolerant” so many damn times in the dialogue titles. But again, this doesn’t come close to ruining this masterwork.So, not that surprising, the TSPDT consensus was mostly right on Intolerance and I was wrong. It is not simply a more politically correct work—but clearly a superior work of art in comparison with The Birth of a Nation. I had it in my mind the appallingly racist content of Biirth was the reason. I was incorrect. If anything that’s closer to being correct about Broken Blossoms (1919)- which is the story of a white woman and a Chinese man falling in love and is more of Griffith’s apology for Birth.
total archiveable films: 6
top 100 films: 1
top 500 films: 2 (Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation)
top 100 films of the decade: 5 (Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm)
most overrated: Broken Blossoms. This, not Intolerance, his is “apology” for The Birth of a Nation and it’s a touching romantic film but pales in comparison artistically to Birth and Intolerance. TSPDT has it as #262- and it’s not in my top 500.
most underrated: The Birth of a Nation is #287 on TSPDT. I’ve written about this multiple times about why it’s now underrated. Again, let me be clear, the content of the film is racist and ugly. It’s undeniable and hard to watch. However, if you do watch and only pay attention to the artistic merits, the film from a visual and cinematic style standpoint is extremely worthy of praise. Also, I’m evaluating it on its own artistic merit—not, just praising it for being “first” and the pioneer-ness of it. There’s no way there are 286 better films.
gem I want to spotlight: Way Down East. A justifiably very famous climax scene. Gish is great in this film as well.
stylistic innovations/traits: Griffith is seemingly instinctually cinematic. He, of course, is one of the great innovators of the art form and his traits go from intercutting, crosscutting, parallel action, the close-up, rhythmic editing, changing camera angles, etc. His crane shot in Intolerance influenced everything from Gone With the Wind to Titanic. He wasn’t simply first (in fact in most of these stylistic and technical achievements at least some person had done it before)—he was the first to do it brilliantly. He also knew how to capture cinema’s set piece size (Intolerance has some dazzling set pieces) and epic scope (that matched the dense narrative storytelling). He also had this quote, which Hitchcock and others would adopt and use in some way. Griffith said, “Actors should never be important. Only directors should have power and place.” Haha.
- The Birth of a National
- Broken Blossoms
- Way Down East
- Orphans of the Storm
- Sally of the Sawdust
By year and grades
|1915- The Birth of a Nation||MP|
|1919- Broken Blossoms||HR/MS|
|1920- Way Down East||HR|
|1921- Orphans of the Storm|
|1925- Sally of the Sawdust||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives