D. W. Griffith (1874–1948) came to the end of his professional road in 1931. It is now time both to bury and praise him.
He remained an enigma to the end. His final feature, The Struggle (1931), was a passionate plea against alcohol made by a committed, unredeemable, and self-destructive drunk, and if Abraham Lincoln (1930) was intended as some sort of apologia for The Birth of a Nation (1915), the director seems to have missed the point of the outrage he inspired. Although the latter film deified fellow Kentuckian Abe Lincoln and showed tolerance toward that butcher of Confederates, Ulysses S. Grant, Griffith barely acknowledged the existence of Blacks, much less their centrality to the Civil War.
Both of these last films appear to us as old-fashioned. There is an awkwardness about them, and not just due to Griffith’s struggles with unfamiliar and primitive sound equipment. (This is not helped by the fact that Abraham Lincoln came to be restored after some of the original soundtrack was irretrievably lost.) Much of Lincoln looks like vintage Griffith: its historical tableaux; its recreation of such highlights from The Birth of a Nation as the departure of the Confederate soldiers and Lincoln’s assassination; Henry B. Walthall doing a cameo reprise of his “Little Colonel.” The simple fact is that much of Griffith’s best, from the Biographs on, looks “old-fashioned” to modern audiences. One must see these films in the context of their times. A wise man (Captain Nemo) said, “Masters have no age.”Actually, there is almost a bit of prescient auteurism in a scene in which Lincoln (Walter Huston) pardons a cowardly young soldier who deserted in the heat of battle. Twenty years later, Walter Huston’s son John directed a Griffith-esque adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, starring Audie Murphy as a similar young man. Both Griffith and Walter Huston had just recently died, but if they were able to see movies wherever they wound up, one might imagine a telling wink passing between them.
On the plus side, there are some fine battle scenes in Abraham Lincoln. The post–Bull Run montage and the “Battle Cry of Freedom” sequence are rousing, and they suggest Griffith’s command of the new medium. Huston, consistently one of the best actors in early American talkies, is fully up to the iconographic task at hand. We have become cynical about politics and politicians. However, when the film was made, audiences were closer to the Civil War than to our current age, and the Lincoln Memorial had just been recently erected. There was a level of feeling about Lincoln and his saving the union—even among defenders of slavery like Griffith—that in our blue state/red state befuddlement we can’t grasp.
There’s that word again: “feeling.” When I first introduced Griffith into our series with a selection of his Biograph films, I quoted Henri Matisse: ”My purpose is to render my emotion. I think only of rendering my emotion.” In suggesting a kinship between Griffith and Matisse, I pointed out that “Griffith’s great genius was an intuitive understanding of the inherent power of the movies to render emotion, to evoke feeling.” So we have come full circle. Griffith, whatever his innovations and faults, made us care about Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, and, shockingly, for a foolish moment, about the KKK. He certainly had his highs and lows. The country boy who returned from the Big City in triumph—and returned again in tragedy—now lies in a rural Kentucky churchyard, far from the madding crowd. One can imagine Gish’s “True Heart Susie” stopping by to put flowers on Griffith’s grave. (Gish had, in fact, helped to arrange the funeral.) Like Tomas Hardy, whose novels anticipated many of Griffith’s films, he left an indelible mark on his chosen medium.