The Birth of a Nation: Controversial Classic Gets a Definitive New Restoration


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  • 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
The Birth of a Nation (1915) US 1921 reissue lobby card

The Birth of a Nation (1915) US 1921 reissue lobby card

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.


Contents


Miriam Cooper in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Miriam Cooper in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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.

D. W. Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D. W. Griffith, director of The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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 Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, scanned from the original negative

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, scanned from the original negative

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.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, cannons

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, the Union Army marching through Georgia

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot of the Union Army marching through Georgia

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.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, battlefield

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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.

Elmer Clifton (L), Miriam Cooper and Henry B. Walthall in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Elmer Clifton (L), Miriam Cooper and Henry B. Walthall in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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 Birth of a Nation (1915) UK programme, courtesy of Patrick Stanbury

The Birth of a Nation (1915) UK programme, courtesy of Patrick Stanbury

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.

Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot, kissing hand

Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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.

Spottiswoode Aitken (L), Miriam Cooper, Josephine Crowell, unknown soldier and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Spottiswoode Aitken (L), Miriam Cooper, Josephine Crowell, unknown soldier and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, scanned from the original negative

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.

Mildred Harris in The Drummer of the 8th (1913), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Mildred Harris in The Drummer of the 8th (1913), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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.

Margaret Gibson and Charles Ray in The Coward (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Margaret Gibson and Charles Ray in The Coward (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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.

The Coward (1915) US poster

The Coward (1915) US poster

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.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot, Ford's Theatre, with the audience cheering Abraham Lincoln just prior to his assassination

The Birth of a Nation (1915) BFI Blu-ray screenshot of Ford’s Theatre, with the audience cheering Abraham Lincoln just prior to his assassination; scanned from the original negative

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

Stolen Glory (1912) BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Stolen Glory (1912) BFI Blu-ray screenshot

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
Henry B. Walthall and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Henry B. Walthall and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot


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:

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:

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.

– Brent Reid

Betty Marsh, real-life niece of Mae Marsh, in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

Betty Marsh, real-life niece of Mae Marsh, in The Birth of a Nation (1915), BFI Blu-ray screenshot

See DVDCompare for more in-depth details of any of the discs mentioned.

Profile photo of Patrick Stanbury

About Patrick Stanbury

Patrick Stanbury joined Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill to form Photoplay Productions in 1990. His previous career had been in finance and business. Initially associate producer, since 1997 he has been Photoplay’s producer. Documentaries he has produced include Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000) and Cecil B DeMille: American Epic (2004) – for which he persuaded Elmer Bernstein to write the score. His feature restorations have included The Iron Mask (1929), The Godless Girl (1929), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). He has also presented screenings of their scored features in venues around the world. These have included major performances of the restored Napoléon (1927). He has begun producing versions of Photoplay’s catalogue for release on Blu-ray and DCP. Titles completed so far include The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), both released by the BFI.

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12 Comments on "The Birth of a Nation: Controversial Classic Gets a Definitive New Restoration"

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Jason Holt
Member

Thanks for posting this. I already have the Kino Blu-ray version of BOAN, but after reading this article, the upgrade appears to be justified. I felt like there was little choice- the BFI Blu-ray should arrive any day now!

Brent Reid

Glad you liked it Jason; I’m sure you’ll be pleased you bought the BFI BD! :o)

Reg Hartt
Guest
In 1980 I brought motion picture sound pioneer Bernard B. Brown to Toronto as part of my ongoing film programs. Mr. Brown, at 16, had played first violin in the orchestra which accompanied THE BIRTH OF A NATION for its premiere run at Clune’s Auditorium in Hollywood. My feeling was and is that properly scored the film would have as much power to move an audience as it had when first seen contrary to what many film historians and writers now state. Mr. Brown had gone on to direct the sound recording on THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). He served as… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
I realized I was going to come off looking like an idiot. I certainly could not walk out. Then I reflected that, as the projection booth had monitor speakers, I could turn off the sound in the auditorium, run parts of the film in silence and synch up the score that way. It was a huge risk. There was, however, no other option. For three hours I sweat blood. When THE BIRTH finished the audience was on its feet stomping and cheering madly just as audiences had done in 1915. The director of the TFS Silent Series charged into the… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
My BFI Blu-ray arrived last week. What a thrill! The interpretation of the Briel’s original score by Jack Lanchberry is exciting, fresh, imaginative and vigorous. It still misses the mark for me because I never got the feeling I was watching a movie which is a problem I have with far too many silent film scores (including the Thames Silent Series). They feel more like Sunday morning in church than Saturday night at the movies (the exception being the orchestral score on the Blu-ray/dvd of Paramount’s WINGS which does absolutely everything right). I look at the viewer as a 13… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
The special issue of FILM CULTURE No. 36 written by Seymour Stein and devoted to THE BIRTH OF A NATION for the film’s 50th anniversary shows just what a huge amount of information the people speaking from the BFI stage (in the extras’ roundtable discussion) chose to ignore. Griffith has been robbed of his rightful place in cinema history. That is a crime of huge proportions. Margaret Mitchell, of GONE WITH THE WIND, called THE BIRTH, “The only honest American film about the Civil War and the Aftermath of Reconstruction.” She is right. The speakers on that stage are deeply… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
THE BIRTH OF A NATION shows us that moment in time from the point of view of a member of the White American South. It is more than just a movie. It is literature and great literature at that. There is mention of a missing sequence showing the Blacks being shipped back to Liberia. That was Lincoln’s solution, not Griffith’s. While Stern writes of the castration scene Griffith scholar William M. Drew feels it never existed. Now there would have been a man to have talk about Griffith and THE BIRTH. I can fault Griffith for ending his film on… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is THE BIG BANG of the movies. Before it there was nothing. After it comes everything. The production quality of the BFI Blu-ray does the film justice. The bonus reel of alternate takes is exemplary. I’ll give the last word to Stanley Kubrick. He was the man and more man than anyone on that BFI stage: “Good evening. I’m sorry not to be able to be with you tonight to receive this great honor of the D.W. Griffith Award, but I’m in London making Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and, just… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
Kubrick continued: “And I believe Steven summed it up about as profoundly as you can. He thought the most difficult and challenging thing about directing a film was getting out of the car. I’m sure you all know the feeling. But at the same time, anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling. I think there’s an intriguing… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
Kubrick: “He became an international celebrity and his patronage included many of the world’s leading artists and statesmen of the time. But Griffith was always ready to take tremendous risks in his films and in his business affairs. He was always ready to fly too high. And in the end, the wings of fortune proved for him, like those of Icarus, to be made of nothing more substantial than wax and feathers, and like Icarus, when he flew too close to the sun, they melted. And the man whose fame exceeded the most illustrious filmmakers of today spent the last… Read more »
Reg Hartt
Guest
Kubrick: “I’ve compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth, but at the same time I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘Don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as, ‘Forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.’ One thing, however, is certain. D.W. Griffith left us with an inspiring and intriguing legacy, and the award in his name is one of the greatest honors a film director can receive, something for which I humbly thank all of… Read more »
Philip Gray
Guest
Nothing so gradiose as the other comments, when i purchased the Colorized Version, of Birth of a Nation-that is what i hoped i was getting, a digitally restored and fully computerized technicolor version of The Griffith Classic. Such a version far easier for us today to watch and study, pick out small details and in general appreciate the range and scope of the cinematography. Instead I got the 1915 kinemacolor done with tined lens; not happy……………………………………………… I sometimes think in 1915 when the theater audiencences which often paid 5$ to see Birth of a Nation ( I paid 4$ to… Read more »
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