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Home Entertainment : Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ Re-Emerges on Laser

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Garbage in, garbage out. Even laser technology can’t overcome bad source material. If the original materials are poor, all the modern technology in the world can’t make it that much better.

That’s the inescapable conclusion after watching two different laser-disc sets of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 groundbreaking film, “The Birth of a Nation.” One presents the innovative director’s astounding cinematic achievement in amazingly clear, crisp images. The other, mastered from a dismal copy, offers a shadow of the real thing, a blurred collection of sometimes indistinguishable, muddied pictures. The first does full justice to Griffith’s three-hour-plus epic. The second leaves the impression that Griffith shot some of the film with mud on the lens.

Whether you detest Griffith’s film as a racist piece of propaganda or laud it as a landmark in the history of filmmaking isn’t the issue here. It is difficult to separate the innovative director’s astounding cinematic achievement from the racist attitudes that undergird it if you can’t at the very least see Griffith’s vision as he intended it to be.

It’s a pity that the latest attempt to offer a comprehensive look at Griffith’s monumental work has been undercut by the source material. Image Entertainment has produced a handsome, special-edition boxed set ($80) with a reproduction of the original souvenir program and a documentary featuring rare outtakes from the film.

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But the two-disc set was mastered from an original tinted print from the Blackhawk Films collection that looks as if it had been stored underwater all these years. Because it is a silent film made 80 years ago, many viewers will think it is remarkable that the film was saved at all in any condition. But when compared to a special laser edition produced by Lumivision a few years ago, it becomes apparent that the problem is in the source print, not the original film.

The Lumivision release, still available at $50, was struck from a 35-millimeter black-and-white safety print manufactured in the 1950s from a 1927 dupe nitrate negative stored at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. It is as different from the Blackhawk Films’ print as a clear day from a smoggy one, capturing Griffith’s cinematic vision in sharp, clear tones.

The Lumivision print shows details in scenes hopelessly murky in the Image transfer made from the Blackhawk version. Tints, digitally reproduced by Lumivision, add emotional coloring to the scene without losing the scene itself. Image’s tints blanket scenes like heavy washes.

This is a shame, because the Image soundtrack of the original Joseph Carl Breil score features a full orchestra, while Lumivision’s soundtrack is a tinny reproduction using computer-generated digital sounds that seem artificial and gimmicky. The atmospheric score strings together folk songs, battle songs and hymns with great hunks of familiar classical music, including Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” ushering in the film’s heroes, and society’s racist villains, the Ku Klux Klan. The Image orchestral score in digital stereo sound does it full justice.

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Both editions, however, offer separate bonus material that helps put this highly charged, controversial, distorted view of the South during and after the Civil War in slightly better perspective.

Image’s fascinating 24-minute documentary on the production of the film offers a rare look at Griffith outtakes and provides a unique opportunity to see the cinematic innovator at work. Among the most illuminating moments are battle scenes shot in the San Fernando Valley (which will never see such open spaces again) and rehearsal shots of the lovely young Lillian Gish. Scenes of the riots and Ku Klux Klan revival that this film sparked during its roadshow engagements in the 1920s demonstrate vividly that it always provoked protest and cries for censorship.

Lumivision includes a 10-minute version of “The Birth of a Race,” a 1918 African American attempt to defuse Griffith’s inflammatory racism. (The film was based on Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman,” and originally released under that title.) Unfortunately, the film went through several backers and hands during its production and never lived up to its intent. It clearly shows, however, that black filmmakers never accepted Griffith’s skewed version of history and from the beginning saw that they had to fight film with film.

Image’s 22-page reproduction of the original souvenir program from the film’s world premiere reveals that it always read like an apologia, a cry for freedom of expression anticipating the cries for censorship that were to come.

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Looking through the literature, eight decades later, it’s daunting to realize that, when the film was made, the Civil War had ended only 50 years earlier, and that many who had lived through it were still alive. Griffith used eyewitnesses and historical prints and photographs to give his film a verisimilitude that makes the racist propaganda that unfortunately underlines its message so much more effective and unforgivable.


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