The Birth of a Nation: Controversial Classic Gets a Definitive New Restoration
- This landmark film continues to generate headlines and fierce debate more than a century after its original release
- Photoplay’s Patrick Stanbury recounts the tale of their stunning new restoration, now released by the BFI in a magnificent 2-Blu-ray package
More than a century after it first hit the headlines, The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still a source of huge controversy, and the reasons for that are plain to see. But it would be unfortunate if the debate around its racist content prevented us from acknowledging the part it played in the development of the American film industry, or, crucially, the rise of cinema as art. It was an advance in so many ways – breadth and scope of the story, creative and expressive use of photography, epic sweep of the staging, dynamic editing, scale of theatrical exhibition. And, of course, a huge success at the box office. It is possible to understand all of this from books, but the only way to fully appreciate what it was that so electrified audiences in 1915 is to actually see the film – and to see it properly presented. Yet since the advent of sound there have been few opportunities to see Birth as its maker originally intended.
- The first time around: Photoplay’s 1993 restoration
- A 21st century makeover: Photoplay’s 2015 restoration
- The Birth of a Nation BFI Blu-ray specifications
- The Birth of a Nation on home video
The first time around: Photoplay’s 1993 restoration
This new edition of The Birth of a Nation was not originally conceived as a new restoration, but rather it was to be an upgraded version of the Thames Silents presentation of the film, first seen on Channel Four in 1993, and which had been commissioned as a companion piece for the series D. W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993), Photoplay’s first major documentary production.
In planning the Thames Silents production, we were determined to honour Griffith’s work in two very important ways: we would use the best materials for the film that could be found, and we would use the original Breil score, that had been such an important part of the film’s success.
For the film, we knew exactly what we needed. In the ’70s, an original 35mm nitrate print of the 1921 reissue, tinted and toned, had surfaced, and 16mm copies of this had been available to collectors. Both Kevin Brownlow and I had bought these, and been stunned by the way the extra clarity, and the tinting, enhanced the film. So for our new version the obvious choice was to use the 35mm original print. This proved more of a challenge than we expected, but eventually film researcher David Thaxton tracked it down for us at the Museum of Modern Art, who agreed to allow us to make a new 35mm negative, in colour to preserve the tints.
The extra quality from the new neg was everything we had hoped for. But it still left us with problems, as there were some key sections either missing (eg the death of the second Cameron son) or damaged (eg some of the scenes with Lydia Brown, or the parade of troops departing for the war). To fill these gaps we copied a duplicate fine grain held by the BFI. This black and white footage, which we tinted to match, was clearly inferior to our colour neg, but that still accounted for more than 95% of the finished film.
Meanwhile, the music had to be prepared. The original score by Joseph Carl Breil had been a landmark in the development of musical accompaniment for American silent film. Thanks to the way Birth had been toured as a roadshow presentation, a high proportion of those who saw the film in its early days would have experienced it with an orchestra, frequently as many as 40 players. And not just in the US. When Birth was seen in London, first at the Scala and later the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Breil score was heard.
To create our version of the score, we commissioned John Lanchbery. The former music director of the Royal Ballet, and a friend of David Gill’s from his own ballet days, Jack (as he was always known) proved an ideal choice, for he was also a lifelong lover of silent film. Studying the original score, he was impressed by the way it wove existing classical works together with Breil’s new writing. In fitting the score to our transfer of the film, Jack retained the majority of Breil’s plan. There were a few sequences where it was felt that choices which had seemed fresh and apt in 1915 might now appear clichéd. An example would be the bombardment of Atlanta, originally accompanied by Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, for which Jack substituted Francesca da Rimini by Tchaikovsky. The whole score was also newly orchestrated by Jack, taking advantage of the larger forces that we had at our disposal for the recording.
A 21st century makeover: Photoplay’s 2015 restoration
When I started work on remastering the film in 2014, we had our colour negative scanned at 2K, along with the BFI sections. It was immediately apparent that, just as the colour neg revealed even more detail in the scan, the sections were all too obviously inadequate. They would have to be replaced.
In late 2014, I spent eight days at the National Audio-Visual Conservation Centre of the Library of Congress, in Culpeper, Virginia, going through their extensive nitrate holdings for Birth. Chief amongst these materials is the original negative. When the film was reissued with sound, it had been retitled, recut, and shortened. To accommodate the faster projection speed required for sound, some sections of the neg were replaced with copies that had been stretch-printed. The original negative (most reels of which survived) reflected all these changes. As if still having that negative after 100 years wasn’t incredible enough, they also had, to my astonishment, much original negative material that had been cut or replaced in making the sound version, together with many out-takes. Alongside these negatives, they also had numerous positive reels, mainly from the late ’20s.
Faced with this cornucopia of riches, my ambitions grew. Rather than just upgrading the black and white sections, I decided to improve as many as possible of the damaged sections we had previously let by. Finding these was no easy task; much of the material, particularly the neg trims, was in random order, and most of the time I was just looking at it over a lightbox. In the course of examination it became abundantly clear that just because a print is nitrate and struck from the original neg, that is no guarantee of quality. Early prints – like the one from which our colour neg had been made – were step-printed, one frame at a time, giving a very sharp and steady image. The later ones were made on continuous printers and were soft and lacking in detail by comparison. Fortunately, I was able to find most of the footage I wanted, and most of it either original neg or good quality pos. In two or three instances, as I would later realise, I had selected negative that was of a different take, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have original neg quality so retained them.
The staff at the LoC could not have been more helpful in making it possible for me to have scans of my selections, which in this case were done in 4K. Once I had them, they had to be edited together with the existing footage. In many cases the original neg was missing the beginnings and ends of shots, where frames had been lost due to re-editing over the years, so where possible these frames were replaced from our colour neg and the original neg stretched or squeezed to compensate for different degrees of shrinkage. Once that was done, the new footage was graded to match the tinting of the original. Then, all that remained was to fit the new picture master back to the 1993 score recording (the original stereo now converted to 5.1), ensuring that each of the approximate 1600 cuts was in the right place, and that key synch points within shots were hit.
No account of this project would be complete without a huge thank you to my friend and colleague Rob Byrne, from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, who spent more than six months on the vital, and seemingly interminable, task of digital restoration, cleaning up the image. The restoration was first presented, unfortunately unheralded as such, at the National Film Theatre in June 2015. Since then it has been seen in Barcelona and at the Mar de Plata International Film Festival in Argentina. It will also be shown by the Cinematheque in Luxembourg in March 2016.
To augment the feature itself, for the Blu-ray release we have assembled an extensive list of archival materials as ‘extras’:
As well as the prologue and intermission talking sequences from the sound reissue of 1930, we have a two-reel assembly of out-takes and tests, all mastered in HD from original materials held at the Library of Congress.
A unique item is never-before-seen footage of John Lanchbery conducting the recording of the score for the last 20 minutes or so of the film.
The Rose of Kentucky, a Biograph one-reeler from 1911 which is Griffith’s only other film to feature the Klan (here cast as the villains). This features a new score by Stephen Horne.
To mark the centenary of the formation of the Triangle Film Corporation, which was formed in the wake of Birth’s success to distribute the work of Griffith, Thomas H Ince and Mack Sennett, we have films from Sennett and Ince with civil war themes. From Sennett, there is Stolen Glory, a Keystone short from 1912, built around a Los Angeles parade of Union veterans (sourced in 2K from original 35mm material in the BFI National Archive) and The Drummer of the 8th, a poignant 2-reel Ince civil war drama, also from 1912, and mastered in HD from an original fine grain and presented in two cuts. Both these films have new scores by Stephen Horne. Finally, also from Ince, is The Coward (1915), a civil war 6-reel feature starring Frank Keenan and Charles Ray and directed by Reginald Barker. This is newly restored in 2K from a 35mm print, and features a new score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Rounding out the list of archival material is Griffith’s appearance, with Cecil B DeMille, on Lux Radio Theatre from 1936, and the 1932 short The Rebel Yell (from the BFI National Archive), in which veteran Confederate officers recreate the yell they used to chill the heart of their enemy.
There is also a gallery of original posters, lobby cards, programmes and printed material, most of which comes courtesy of the extraordinary John T. Hillman and Marcelo Coronado Collection and SilentCinema.com. This includes a group of lobby cards from the sound reissue which have been incorrectly credited, on the Blu-ray itself, to my own collection. Not true! They came from John and Marcelo.
I first saw Birth at the National Film Theatre, almost 50 years ago. I was taken by my father, at my request, as a special reward for dusting his books during my summer holiday (I wonder how many 13-year-olds have even heard of the film today, let alone implored a parent to help them see it!). It was a full house, and we were absolutely gripped throughout its three hours (shown without an intermission, alas). Even then, as a youngster, I was struck by the way this film, early though it was (it was made as many years previously, as the memory of that screening is to me now as I write), seemed fresh and new. Despite its age, and allowances for the occasional melodramatics, I did not feel I was watching a museum piece. That sense has stayed with me ever since, as has the desire to share my enthusiasm for this great piece of film-making. For, putting all the controversial aspects to one side, The Birth of a Nation is still one of the greatest of silent films. In devoting more than a year of my life to the production of this new edition, my aim has been to sweep away the cobwebs of history, and reveal to modern viewers the film as its first audiences both saw and heard it, a century ago. Many defects inevitably remain, but I hope that this will now be seen as the version to have, the one that most vividly demonstrates the extent and power of Griffith’s vision. If I have succeeded, then that will be reward enough.
Patrick Stanbury © 2016
All images, except for screenshots and where noted, are courtesy of The John T. Hillman and Marcelo Coronado Collection and SilentCinema.com.
The Birth of a Nation BFI Blu-ray specifications
Disc 1 (region B)
- The film (191:07) with LPCM 2.0 stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Extras, all in HD with LPCM 2.0 mono and stereo audio:
- 1930 sound reissue prologue (1930, 5:56)
- 1930 sound reissue intermission and introduction to Act 2 (1930, 1:53) – D. W. Griffith in conversation with Walter Huston
- Outtakes and original camera tests (38:44)
- Melvyn Stokes on The Clansman, D. W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation (2015, 20:06) – newly filmed interview with the film scholar and Birth of a Nation authority
- The Greatest Mother of Them All: Kate Bruce (1920, 1:06) – short newsreel on the Griffith actress
Disc 2 (region B)
- The Coward (Reginald Barker, Thomas H. Ince, 1915, 68:39) – a faint-hearted soldier in the American Civil War regains his courage
- The Rose of Kentucky (D W Griffith, 1911, 16:35) – rural romance set in Griffith’s home state
- Stolen Glory (Mack Sennett, 1912, 13:26) – comedy set during a parade of Union Civil War veterans
- The Drummer of the 8th: original edit and 2015 re-edit (Thomas H. Ince, 1913, both 28:24) – poignant Civil War drama presented in two different cuts
- The Rebel Yell (1932, 8:07) – archival film in which reunited Confederate veterans recite the famous battle cry of the South
- Stills and collections gallery (2015, 13:50)
- The Birth of a Nation at 100 (2015, 32:28) – roundtable discussion filmed at the BFI Southbank
- The Birth of a Nation score recording sessions (21:20) – in LPCM 2.0 stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
- D. W. Griffith on Lux Radio Theatre with Cecil B DeMille (1936, 4:02) – the two legends reminisce
- 36-page illustrated booklet with essays by Ashley Clark, Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury and full credits
The Birth of a Nation on home video
There is no extant original release version of The Birth of a Nation and, in the conventional sense, there never really was one. Griffith himself re-edited and reworked the film constantly in the months following its première screening, and he and others continued to do so each of the numerous times it was reissued over the ensuing decades. Therefore, perhaps more so than any other, it suffers from the same fate as many public domain silent films: there are a multitude of poor quality DVDs with different edits, scores, running speeds and usually in definitely unoriginal black and white. Forget all of them; there are only a handful of other home video editions even vaguely worthy of consideration.
In 1992 David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates transferred to SD NTSC video a 16mm colour neg made from the tinted nitrate print Patrick mentions above. Accompanied by Robert Israel’s arrangement of the Breil score for quartet and a making-of featurette (24:57), also by Shepard, it was released on VHS, laserdisc and finally, DVD:
- US: Image (1998)
- US: Kino 2-DVD set (2002) – also in the Griffith Masterworks box set
- UK: Eureka (2000) – also in the D.W. Griffith: Monumental Epics box set
- Germany: absolut MEDIEN (2008)
- France: mk2 3-DVD set (2006, reissued 2008) – also includes Intolerance (1916)
- Spain: Divisa (1999)
- Australia: Force Video (2000)
Shepard’s version has also been (mis)appropriated by shady US label Catcom Home Video and numerous times in France and Italy by serial thieves Aventi, Bach and Ermitage.
There is one other HD version aside from the BFI’s: in 2011 a 35mm neg from the Paul Killiam Collection, supplemented with footage from the Library of Congress, was given both a new scan and a compilation score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. So far it has seen three Blu-ray releases, all of which feature the same decent selection of extras in SD, ported over from the 2002 Kino DVD set:
- US: Kino Blu-ray/2-DVD set (2011) – dual format; includes their 2002 double DVD
- UK: Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (2013) – also 2-DVD set
- Spain: Divisa Blu-ray (2012) – also 2-DVD set
If this was the only HD version available it would be deemed satisfactory. However, the BFI 2-Blu-ray set is far superior in every respect and makes it look woeful in comparison. There are huge differences visually in that the Kino/Eureka/Divisa version is from later, worn elements and has undergone little restoration. It’s full of speckles and scratches, is often zoomed-in and has continual movement in the frame – whereas the BFI is clean, full framed and rock steady. Further, it’s contrasty, with frequently blown out highlights and has specious tinting, as opposed to the BFI’s vividly detailed image and 100% authentic tinting scheme.
The Birth of a Nation will never be a film that everyone wants to watch, but for those who do, the best way is without question via the 2015 Photoplay restoration. The BFI have given it what is easily the finest silent film Blu-ray I’ve ever seen. In an ideal world all silents would be available in a package like this.
See DVDCompare for more in-depth details of any of the discs mentioned.