By Jim Cullen
Today represents a red letter day — and a black mark – for US cultural history. Exactly 98 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles. American cinema has been decisively shaped, and shadowed, by the massive legacy of this film.
D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) was one of the more contradictory artists the United States has produced. Deeply Victorian in his social outlook, he was nevertheless on the leading edge of modernity in his aesthetics. A committed moralist in his cinematic ideology, he was also a shameless huckster in promoting his movies. And a self-avowed pacifist, he produced a piece of work that incited violence and celebrated the most damaging insurrection in American history.
The source material for Birth of a Nation came from two novels, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), both written by Griffith’s Johns Hopkins classmate, Thomas Dixon. Dixon drew on the common-sense version of history he imbibed from his unreconstructed Confederate forebears. According to this master narrative, the Civil War was as a gallant but failed bid for independence, followed by vindictive Yankee occupation and eventual redemption secured with the help of organizations like the Klan.
But Dixon’s fiction, and the subsequent screenplay (by Griffith and Frank E. Woods), was a literal and figurative romance of reconciliation. The movie dramatizes the relationships between two (related) families, the Camerons of South Carolina and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania. The evil patriarch of the latter is Austin Stoneman, a Congressman with a limp very obviously patterned on the real-life Thaddeus Stevens. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stevens comes, Carpetbagger-style, and uses a brutish black minion, Silas Lynch(!), whose horrifying sexual machinations focused, ironically and naturally, on Stoneman’s own daughter are only arrested by at the last minute, thanks to the arrival of the Klan in a dramatic finale that has lost none of its excitement even in an age of computer-generated imagery.
Historians agree that Griffith, a former actor who directed hundreds of short films in the years preceding Birth of a Nation, was not a cinematic pioneer along the lines of Edwin S. Porter, whose 1903 proto-Western The Great Train Robbery virtually invented modern visual grammar. Instead, Griffith’s genius was three-fold. First, he absorbed and codified a series of techniques, among them close-ups, fadeouts, and long shots, into a distinctive visual signature. Second, he boldly made Birth of a Nation on an unprecedented scale in terms of length, the size of the production, and his ambition to re-create past events (“history with lightning,” in the words of another classmate, Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film at the White House). Finally, in the way the movie was financed, released and promoted, Griffith transformed what had been a disreputable working-class medium and staked its power as a source of genuine artistic achievement. Even now, it’s hard not to be awed by the intensity of Griffith’s recreation of Civil War battles or his re-enactments of events like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But Birth of a Nation was a source of instant controversy. Griffith may have thought he was simply projecting common sense, but a broad national audience, some of which had lived through the Civil War, did not necessarily agree. The film’s release also coincided with the beginnings of African American political mobilization. As Melvyn Stokes shows in his elegant 2009 book D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film’s promoters and its critics alike found the controversy surrounding it curiously symbiotic, as moviegoers flocked to see what the fuss was about and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the film’s notoriety to build its membership ranks.
Birth of a Nation never escaped from the original shadows that clouded its reception. Later films like Gone with the Wind (1939), which shared much of its political outlook, nevertheless went to great lengths to sidestep controversy. (The Klan is only alluded to as “a political meeting” rather than depicted the way it was in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel.) Today Birth is largely an academic curio, typically viewed in settings where its racism looms over any aesthetic or other assessment.
In a number of respects, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a repudiation of Griffith. In Birth, Lincoln is a martyr whose gentle approach to his adversaries is tragically severed with his death. But in Lincoln he’s the determined champion of emancipation, willing to prosecute the war fully until freedom is secure. The Stevens character of Lincoln, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is not quite the hero. But his radical abolitionism is at least respected, and the very thing that tarred him in Birth — having a secret black mistress — here becomes a badge of honor. Rarely do the rhythms of history oscillate so sharply. Griffith would no doubt be bemused. But he could take such satisfaction in the way his work has reverberated across time.
For Jim Cullen’s selection of films all history and film buffs should see, watch his video syllabus.
Click here to view the embedded video.
Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions (December 2012), The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network. Read his previous OUPblog posts.
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Image credit: Birth of a Nation film poster, 1915, public domain in Wikimedia Commons.
The post The strange career of Birth of a Nation appeared first on OUPblog.
The question is not whether Red Dawn
is a good movie. It is a bad movie. As the crazed ghost of Louis Althusser
might say, it has always already been a bad movie. The question is: What kind of bad movie is it?
(Aside: The question I have received most frequently when I've told people I went to see Red Dawn
was actually: "Does Chris Hemsworth take off his shirt?" The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no. All of the characters remain pretty scrupulously clothed through the film. The movie's rated PG-13, a designation significant
to its predecessor, so all it can do is show a lot of carnage, not carnality. May I suggest Google Images
My companion and I found Red Dawn
to be an entertaining bad movie. I feel no shame in admitting that the film entertained me; I'm against, in principal, the concept of "guilty pleasures" and am not much interested in shaming anybody for what are superficial, even autonomic, joys. (That doesn't mean we can't examine our joys and pleasures.) No generally-well-intentioned, "diversity"-loving, pinko commie bourgeois armchair lefty like me can go into a movie like Red Dawn
and expect to see a nuanced study of geopolitics. I knew what I was in for. I got what I expected: a right-wing action-adventure movie based on a yellow peril
premise. Red Dawn
is an unironic remake of a 1984 movie
predicated on paranoid right-wing fantasies; it's not aspiring to even the most basic Starship Troopers
-levels of intertextuality and metacommentary. There's none of the winking at the audiences that fills so many other 1980s remakes and homages (e.g. Expendables 2
, which relies on the audience's knowledge of its stars' greatest hits — the only convincing performance in the movie is that of Jean-Claude van Damme, who, apparently overjoyed to be released from the purgatory of straight-to-DVD movies, plays it all for real, and becomes the only element of any interest in the whole thing). The closest Red Dawn
comes to acknowledging its position in the cinemasphere happens when it turns the first film's very serious male-bonding moment of drinking deer blood into a practical joke, giving the characters a few rare laughs.
What are we supposed to feel good about in this movie? The 1984 Red Dawn
was not even remotely a feel-good movie, but it gave us a space in which to feel proud of an idea of America that could survive even the most devastating attack by the Soviet Union (and its Latin American minions). It made a point of showing concrete objective correlatives for the abstract idea that is "American freedom" — the one that was most impressed on me by my father when we first watched Red Dawn
together was the scene where Soviet soldiers talk about going to a gun shop to collect the federal Form 4473s
, and using them to track down gun owners. This, to my father and many other people, demonstrated exactly why even the most minimal type of registration of guns is not merely annoying, but a threat to freedom. I vividly remember my father
saying, "If the Russians come, we burn those damn forms." Red Dawn
was not merely an action movie; it was a documentary.
But Red Dawn
was a movie made during a time when the U.S. was not officially at war. It appeared in U.S. theatres less than a year after the invasion of Grenada
, and just at the time when the actions that would eventually become the Iran-Contra Scandal
were making their way into the public consciousness. The hawks of the Reagan administration needed the public to be both patriotic and fearful of the Red Menace, because otherwise it was difficult to justify the massive transfer of wealth into the Pentagon. Red Dawn
did that better than any other movie of the time. (For much more on this background, see the article by J. Hoberman in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Film Comment
Now, though? The new Red Dawn
comes as the Iraq war is winding down and the war in Afghanistan (our longest
) may be nearing some sort of end. (And then, of course, there's Libya
.) But these have been wars where we have been invaders fighting insurgents. They have been long, unfocused wars with no clear victory conditions. They began with some popularity and unanimity of public opinion, but the longer they went on, and the more that people learned about them, the less popular they became. They continued because the U.S. military is, while a huge part of the national budget, not a particularly concrete and visible part of everyday life and concern for many Americans. Without the threat of a draft, and with the rise of long-distance and drone strikes, most Americans can ignore the immediate reality of American wars, the hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on every side.
It's in what the new Red Dawn
makes us attach our feelings of pride, joy, and power to that it really differs from its predecessor, because the idea of America that it presents is neither particularly clear nor the product of much conviction. There are flags and some general genuflecting in the direction of "freedom", but the original Red Dawn
offered a vision of how its idea of "freedom" actually works in the world, and what threatens it. There was an attempt at creating a certain amount of plausibility and verisimilitude — one of the advisors to the original film was Alexander Haig
, Reagan's former Secretary of State, who worked with writer/director John Milius
to craft what seemed to them a relatively realistic invasion scenario, the weapons and vehicles were as realistic as could be accomplished without being able to buy actually Soviet weaponry (the CIA inquired about the tanks after seeing them being moved to the set; later, the Pentagon used images of them to train the guidance systems in spy planes), and the tone is dark, with war presented as hell for both sides. Milius made numerous references to his masculine hero Theodore Roosevelt, and the vision he presented was stark, painful, and apocalyptic, more Hobbesian
. It was Panic in Year Zero!
by way of The Battle of Algiers.
Ours is the Age of the Tea Party, not the Age of Reagan, and so the new Red Dawn
is closer to the ideological vision of The Patriot
than that of its original source. The Patriot
is the story of a man in Colonial America who doesn't see much point in fighting against the British until his own family is affected, at which time he becomes a psychopathic vengeance machine, and then at the end returns home to a small community not to help build up a new government or create the idea of a common United States, but to become the leader of a little utopian plantation. (He had already been leader of a utopian plantation before the war, because the black people doing work on his property were not actually slaves, but free employees. Really. As William Ross St. George, Jr. wrote in his review (PDF)
of the film for the Journal of American History,
this must have been "the only such labor arrangement in colonial South Carolina".) What matters in The Patriot
is not country or government — all government is portrayed with contempt in the film — but rather self-reliance and, especially, family. Despite the movie's title, it's not about being a patriot, but about being a loyal, strong, independent, and avenging father.
The new Red Dawn
, much more than the original, is also a movie about families and fathers. Jed, played originally by Patrick Swayze and in the new film by Thor, is now an Iraq vet who struggled to be a good son to his father and, especially, a good brother to Matt (originally Charlie Sheen, now Josh Peck). Lots of family melodrama is alluded to. The boys don't visit their father in a re-education camp; instead, the Evil Korean Guy (whose name I thought was Captain Joe, but IMDB tells me it's Captain Cho. I prefer my version), who for some unfathomable reason recognizes from the very first moment that Teenagers Are The Enemy (he was probably a high school teacher back home), rounds up their fathers, brings them to the Evil Dead Cabin where the kids had been hiding out, and makes the fathers plead with the kids to come in. Of course, the weak and collaborating mayor pleads with them to give themselves up, but the strong and noble father of Jedmatt (in a much blander performance than the clearly unhinged and perhaps psychopathic man portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton in the original) instead tells them to fight to the death, causing Captain Joe to channel his inner Nguyen Ngoc Loan
and shoot him in the head. Oh dad, poor dad. Jed and Matt then go on to learn how to be good brothers to each other, just in time for— Well, you don't want to know the ending, do you? (For a moment, I thought it would turn out to be a movie climaxing with brotherly kisses and fellatio, but, alas, it did not. Well, not exactly. Although the more I think about it...)
We have to talk about the ending, though, because we have to talk about who lives and who dies. The original Red Dawn
was not Rambo
— while it certainly stirred up feelings of patriotism against the Soviet enemy, and admiration for the U.S. military, its tone isn't all that far away from The Day After
. The end is a downer, but it's not nihilistic. We zoom in on a memorial plaque, its words read to us on the soundtrack: "In the early days of World War III, guerrillas, mostly children, placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone and gave up their lives, 'so that this nation shall not perish from the earth.'" The memorial asserts that these lives were lost for a great cause, and by quoting the Gettysburg Address, it connects their sacrifice to that of soldiers who fought to preserve not just some idea of Americanism, but the union itself.
The remake turns patriotic tragedy into personal tragedy — Jed is killed just at the moment when he has reconciled with his brother. Toni (Adrianne Palicki
in the remake, Jennifer Grey
in the original) and Matt both survive in this version, along with many of the other Wolverines. Well, the white Wolverines.
The new Red Dawn
isn't just a yellow peril movie, it's a vision of white supremacy. Only one nonwhite Wolverine has much of an identity (Daryl, played by Connor Cruise
), and the others die pretty quickly. Finally, Daryl is, without his knowledge, injected with some sort of tracking device that can't be removed from his body, so he's given some supplies and left to wander away, probably to be killed by the North Koreans. Almost all of the white Wolverines survive, presumably with a new understanding of the miraculous powers of their skin color.
Remember what happened to (white) Daryl in 1984? His sleazy father (the mayor) forced him to swallow a tracking device. He knew it was in him. After barely surviving the assault that followed, the Wolverines take him to the top of a freezing mesa with a captured Russian soldier and get ready to execute him. Jed and Matt fight about it, with Matt saying it will make them worse than the Russians. Jed kills the Soviet soldier, but doesn't seem to be able to kill Daryl. Robert, whose experiences have fully brutalized him, shoots Daryl. It's a wrenching, disturbing scene. Again and again, the original Red Dawn
says: War is a horrific, destructive experience for everyone involved, and it reduces us to our most animalistic natures — naming the guerrillas Wolverines
was not merely the naming of a mascot or a rallying cry, it was a statement of what they had become.
The new Red Dawn
doesn't hurt. It's superficially entertaining in a way that the original is not. Sure, it's shocking that Jed dies, but the way that scene is set up and edited highlights the shock, not the pain. In the original Red Dawn
, Jed and Matt know they're heading out on a suicide mission. Jed survives a little while longer only because the Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal
) feels some respect or sympathy for him and is tired of the whole war. Jed1984 kills the Super Nasty Russian Bad Guy, just as Jed2012 kills Capt. Joe (with his father's gun, because they just happen to be in Dad's Police Station!), but the original film then takes the brothers to a frozen park, where, mortally wounded, they sit together on a bench and drift off to eternity.
The new Red Dawn
instead puts its concluding weight on the idea that you probably shouldn't trust the black guy, even if he's friendly and well-intentioned. He's probably got a tracking device in his blood. Even though he doesn't want to be, he's a traitor. Best to leave him in the wilderness. This in a movie that begins with a montage showing us that President Obama and his minions are ineffective at defending us from the North Koreans (and their secret Russian puppetmasters).
The original Red Dawn
had an unabashed political purpose — it warned us not to let our guard down, it encouraged us to support massive increases in defense spending, it encouraged us to stockpile guns and canned goods. It especially wanted us to call our congresspeople and tell them to support funding for the Contras and similar anti-communist forces. The September 1984 issue of Soldier of Fortune
magazine includes an article about Red Dawn
's production, particularly its weaponry, that begins: "Military strategists have often discussed the repercussions of a communist takeover of Central America. One worst-case scenario has the Soviet Union training Cubans and Nicaraguans in the offensive use of advanced weapons such as the MiG 25 and T-72 tank." The article ends:
Red Dawn seriously attempts realism. Milius spent $17 million trying to give the American public a taste of what Soviet weaponry, tactics and occupation practices are all about.
Liberal critics will howl about Reagan's deleterious effect on the creative arts and scream that Red Dawn is unabashed saber-rattling propaganda. It sounds like our kind of movie.
Red Dawn opens across the country on 17 August.
So yes, Red Dawn
was propaganda in 1984. But it was not merely
propaganda; there is cleverness and even humanity to it. It's an action/survival movie, so character development isn't a particular goal, but where it spends it moments of character development are telling. Instead of just building of family melodrama, the original Red Dawn
gave humanity to some of the antagonists (particularly Colonel Bella). While the Soviet commanders are cartoons, the Russian soldiers are clearly just as trapped in the horrific logic of war as the Wolverines.
The new Red Dawn
also wants to be propaganda, as the opening montage shows us. But there are more subtle connections to not just right-wing militarism, but extremist nuttiness. The key is three letters: EMP.
How do the bad guys invade North America? They wipe out the American defense infrastructure, and apparently the entire American military, by setting off at least one electromagnetic pulse
(EMP). Now, EMPs are real. Boeing is even developing
an EMP missile. But who gets really excited at the idea of an EMP knocking out electronic infrastructures? The apocalypse addicts at WorldNet Daily
. Famed doomsayer Newt Gingrich brought it up
during the Republican primary. Right-wingers get positively giddy at the idea. Why?
Because it justifies
lots of spending on missile defense. But according
to the right wingers, President Obama is not spending nearly enough money to defend us from missiles. We could be wiped out at any moment by an EMP. But the weak, appeasing black guy in the White House is, whether he knows it or not, a traitor.
The politics of the new Red Dawn
are about as coherent as those at a Tea Party rally, where really the only unifying theme is hatred of anything that can be called "government" (and doesn't contribute to the life and happiness of the complainer), hatred of the Socialist Kenyan Muslim Manchurian President Nazi Obama, and love of weaponry.
Whatever can be said about John Milius, at least he was committed enough to his concept to have thought it through. The new Red Dawn
seemingly unintentionally opens itself to all sorts of odd moments, such as when Jed says, "When I was overseas [in Iraq], we were the good guys, we enforced order. Well, now we're the bad guys. We create chaos." In 1984, when the Wolverines went into the desert on horses, they evoked images of the Mujahideen
in Afghanistan. (The cover of that September 1984 issue of shows a guerrilla and the headline "Exclusive: Afghan Raiders on Russia's Border".) In 2012, when a character talks about the order enforced in Iraq, it's hard not to think about all the insurgents created by the chaos of the American invasion. When the Wolverines are called "terrorists" by their enemies, who doesn't think of the War on Terror? No wonder the U.S military has been disappeared by the new Red Dawn
(instead of being assisted by active duty soldiers, the Wolverines are assisted by retired
Marines). Nobody can forget that the U.S. military of the 21st century is an invading force. In 1984, the U.S. wanted to arm and train the "freedom fighters" of the world. In 2012, insurgents and terrorists "hate our freedoms".
In the nearly thirty years between the two films, gender roles seem to have become more confining. There weren't many women in the original Red Dawn
, but Toni and Erica (Lea Thompson
) in the original were interesting, active characters. They were stereotypically, tragically traumatized by something that happened with the Russians (likely, rape), so much so that their grandfather hides them in the cellar, but though they remain traumatized and quiet, they also assert themselves against the assumptions of the men, and (like the women in Battle of Algiers
) prove to be excellent, committed guerrillas, and more resilient than many of the men. When she dies, Toni makes sure she takes at least one Russian with her. The women of the original Red Dawn
do not end up as objects of our pity or our lust, but rather of our respect.
Toni and Erica both survive in the new Red Dawn
, but that's about all they have going for them. Erica is a sharp-cheeked blonde (Isabel Lucas
) whose entire job in the movie is to be gawked at and pined for — Matt is so in love with her that he repeatedly risks the safety of the Wolverines to save her. (Girls are dangerous! They make boys stupid!) Once her role as the Imperiled Love Interest is over, she mostly disappears from the movie. Toni exists primarily to help Jed get in touch with his emotions. Her costumes tend to highlight her figure (the opposite of the costumes in the original film), and though she gets to shoot stuff and blow things up like everybody else, there's little sense of her as an integral member of the unit.
One of the problems for the new film is that it doesn't really know what to do with its characters. The mayor is set up to be just as sleazy and appeasing as the original, but nothing much is made of his story. He's just another weak, naive black guy. But that's what happens when you allow black people into government, as we should have learned from Birth of a Nation
. While the original Red Dawn
ended by invoking Abraham Lincoln, the new Red Dawn
conjures the glory days of the John Birch Society.
But I'll end where I began: It is entertaining while it lasts. There's lots of action, lots of explosions. Some of the action is badly filmed — a car chase in the beginning is particularly incoherent, much to its detriment, because though part of the point of this action is to get us excited for our protagonists in peril, it also has some information to convey, and it can't do it because it's so badly shot and edited. There is moment-to-moment excitement. But though I went into the film determined to give it the benefit of the doubt, soon the entertainment was at least partially because of the film's idiocies. It's breathtakingly racist, but I also found it difficult to be disturbed by its racism, because it was so obviously stupid that it was comic, and my companion and I kept nudging each about the blatant, self-parodying silliness.
However, as Twitter showed
, plenty of people found the movie inspiring, convincing, and powerful. Its political message got through. Its racism buttressed the inherent racism of many people who went to see it during its opening week. Its ideology did some work in the world.
Thinking about that fact is very far from entertaining.
By Ervin Staub
In difficult times people need a vision of a better future to give them hope. The U.S. is experiencing difficult times. The majority of people are poorer and many are out of work, the political system is frozen and corrupted by lobbyists and institutions that have gone awry, and there are constant changes in the world that create uncertainty. We are also at war, and face the danger of attack. While pluralism – the openness and public space to express varied ideas, and for all groups in society to have access to the public domain – is important for a free society, the cacophony of shrill voices creates confusion and makes it difficult for constructive visions and policies to emerge.
In times like these, subgroups of a society – racial, ethnic, religious or political – often turn against other groups. Members of one group, often the largest or dominant group, blame others for the difficulties of life. Often, their ideology is destructive. Instead of addressing the source of societal problems, such visions frequently focus on enhanced national power, racial superiority, or a utopian degree of social equality in the society or in the world. They identify enemies that supposedly stand in the way of the fulfillment of the vision. The group turns against and engages in increasingly harmful, and eventually violent, actions against this enemy.
In response to intensely difficult conditions, destructive ideologies and movements have shaped life in many nations. In Germany the ideology stressed racial superiority, expansion, and submission to a leader. Jews and gypsies were regarded as racially inferior, Slavs both inferior and in the way of expansion. In Cambodia the vision was of total social equality, with everyone judged incapable of contributing to or living in such a society, whether the former elite, educated people or minorities as enemies. In the former Yugoslavia, for the Serbs, it was renewed nationalism, with other groups, especially Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo as enemies. In Argentina, people stood against communism and in defense of faith and order. Everyone considered left-leaning – even people working to improve the lives of poor people – became enemies. In Rwanda “Hutu power” over the Tutsi minority, became the guiding ideology. While significant societal change is usually shaped by a number of influences, such ideologies had important roles in creating hostility and violence, ending in mass killing or genocide.
In the U.S. so far, in spite of our increasingly dysfunctional political life and shrill political rhetoric, there is no comparable destructive ideology. While we have many divisions, and ignore the harm to civilians outside the country in the wars we fight, the rights of different groups inside the country have increasingly come to be respected, especially in the last half century. However, many have turned against the current administration, and to some extent, against government in general. They affirm core American values of freedom and individuality, but in the service of tearing down, without a vision of what to create. This is one half of an ideology, the against part, without a clear aim, a for part.
Such rebellion seems to be supported, and perhaps instigated, by people in the background who finance it, and by politicized media. It thrives on people’s genuine and understandable distress, the result of the frustration of material needs, but even more, the frustration of a variety of psychological needs, uncertainty, and fear. Joining ideological groups and movements helps fulfill needs for security, community, and a feeling of effectiveness at a time when people feel powerless.
We need a constructive vision, words joined