Blu-ray guide: National Film Theatre on Blu-ray

Supplemental material is a wide field, whether you call them bonus features, special features or VAM (value added material). Even when material may seem available through online archives, often valuable resources that can aid with understanding a director or actor’s work will be consigned to special features, and they may in the process fall out of print. The BFI’s website and YouTube channel (including their older channel) host some of the more recent BFI Southbank panels, that the BFI and other labels often duplicate for some of their Blu-ray releases. The Guardian‘s archives dating back to 1980 are in theory available as audio files, but only by appointment. Though the BFI’s website is wonderful for free access to archive film, a film database, and Sight & Sound articles, it lacks a section for one of the most historic parts of the Southbank’s history, resurrecting the lives and careers – and often the honesty – of industry professionals.

There’s been many changes over the years, with the BFI Southbank identity supplanting the NFT in 2007. (Perhaps the major difference, to my eyes, is it doesn’t supplement the acclaimed National Theatre.) As Geoffrey Macnab wrote at the time:

 “BFI Southbank sounds like a furniture store with its own cashpoint,” one was heard grumbling.

Featurettes, interviews, documentaries, video essays and short films seem to be the most vulnerable to being hosted online as streams and torrents of illegal rips, especially when they reflect major studio releases, but the amount of material exclusive to disc is far greater. Similarly, material hosted online is always vulnerable to copyright takedowns and the demise of the domains they’re hosted on.

However, some of the material most resistant to piracy can be audio interviews, panels and commentaries. Even by owners of vast collections, these materials can sometimes be overlooked for lacking visual interest, often played against static backgrounds, stills, or a film that may only be of partial relevance. By no means do these elements completely disappear in the decades after a panel is held: rather, transcripts and select quotes turn up reproduced in books and reference guides, and The Guardian website carries an archive of transcripts from 1997-2009. Similarly, a handful of edited transcripts can be accessed through the old BFI Screenonline site. That being said, listening to a director or actor speak about their experiences in their own words can be a quite different experience to seeing them in print, where sections can easily be glanced over.

In this guide, I’ve created an (albeit incomplete) list to NFT panels available on disc, divided by label and form (on-camera or audio only).

Arrow Video/Academy

On-camera:

The Long Good Friday/Mona Lisa Limited Edition

Q+A with Bob Hoskins and John Mackenzie

(also available on Anchor Bay DVD)

The Sorrow and the Pity
Interview with director Marcel Ophuls, filmed in 2004

Audio only:

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

The John Player Lecture: Sam Peckinpah, audio recording of the director’s on-stage appearance at the National Film Theatre

Dekalog

The Guardian Interview: Krzysztof Kieślowski, an onstage conversation with Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre on 2 April 1990 to mark the British premiere of Dekalog

The Hired Hand

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda at the National Film Theatre, an audio recording of the actors’ appearance at the NFT in 1971

Hold Back the Dawn

The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland, A career-spanning onstage audio interview with Olivia de Havilland recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1971

Ramrod

Andre DeToth Interviewed at the National Film Theatre, a career-spanning archival interview from 1994, conducted by writer and broadcaster Kevin Jackson

The Running Man

Lee Remick at the National Film Theatre, an audio-only recording of the actor’s appearance at the NFT in 1970

Eureka Entertainment

On-camera:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

A 1996 career-spanning on-stage interview with Peter Yates hosted by critic Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with Signal One (Eyewitness)

Kes

Extensive 1992 on-stage interview at the NFT with Ken Loach, interviewed by Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with BFI (Three Films by Ken Loach) and Signal One (Hidden Agenda)

Audio only:

The African Queen 

Audio recording of an on-stage NFT discussion about the film with Anjelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen from 2010*

*[recorded at BFI Southbank]

Audio recording of the Guardian interview with John Huston at the National Film Theatre in 1981, discussing his work and career

Forty Guns

Audio interview with Samuel Fuller from 1969 at the National Film Theatre in London

Hard Times

NFT Audio Interview with director Walter Hill

High Noon

A 1969 audio interview with writer Carl Foreman from the National Film Theatre in London

Yanks

Archival interview with director John Schlesinger

Indicator

On-camera:

Vampires and Ghosts of Mars

The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter – Part One, 1962-1983 (1994, 38 mins): the director discusses his career with Nigel Floyd at the National Film Theatre, London

The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter – Part Two, 1984-1994 (1994, 41 mins): the director discusses his career with Nigel Floyd at the National Film Theatre, London

Audio only:

Age of Consent

The Beauty of the Image: The John Player Lecture with Michael Powell (1971, 85 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Kevin Gough-Yates at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1985, 105 mins): archival audio recording of the Archers in conversation with Ian Christie at London’s National Film Theatre

Berserk

The BFI interview with Joan Crawford (1956)

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader BFI Masterclass (1982, 106 mins): the filmmaker presents a fascinating summary of the many issues and ideas he explores in his screenwriting class, recorded at the National Film Theatre, London*

*shared material with BFI (The Comfort of Strangers)

The Border

The Guardian/NFT Tribute to Tony Richardson (1992, 58 mins): archival audio recording of an event chaired by Sight & Sound editor Philip Dodd, featuring Lindsay Anderson, Kevin Brownlow, Jocelyn Herbert, Vanessa Redgrave, Karel Reisz and Natasha Richardson, each sharing their memories of Tony Richardson

Castle Keep

The John Player Lecture with Burt Lancaster (1972, 100 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at the National Film Theatre, London

Charley Varrick

The John Player Lecture with Don Siegel (1973, 75 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Lecture with Walter Matthau (1988, 89 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Sloman at London’s National Film Theatre

The China Syndrome

The John Player Lecture with Jack Lemmon (1973, 80 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Philip Oakes at London’s National Film Theatre

The Collector

The Guardian Interview with William Wyler (1981, 83 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Adrian Turner at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Terence Stamp (1989, 92 mins): archival audio recording of the award-winning actor in conversation with Tony Sloman at the National Film Theatre

The Deadly Affair

The National Film Theatre Lecture with James Mason (1967, 48 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Leslie Hardcastle 

The Guardian Lecture with Sidney Lumet (1983, 89 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London

Dragonwyck

The John Player Lecture with Vincent Price (1969, 76 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated actor in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

The John Player Lecture with Paul Newman (1972): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Joan Bakewell at London’s National Film Theatre 

The Guardian Interview with Joanne Woodward (1984, 65 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Tony Bilbow at the National Film Theatre

Fat City

The John Player Lecture with John Huston (1972, 88 mins): audio recording of an interview conducted by Brian Baxter at the National Film Theatre, London

Five Tall Tales

The John Player Lecture with Budd Boetticher (1969): archival audio interview conducted by Horizons West author Jim Kitses at the National Film Theatre, London 

The Guardian Interview with Budd Boetticher (1994): an extensive filmed interview conducted by film historian David Meeker at the National Film Theatre, London 

The Guardian Interview with Elmore Leonard (1997): the celebrated author, and writer of the short story upon which The Tall T is based, in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

Gardens of Stone

The Guardian Interview with Anjelica Huston (2006, 65 mins), archival audio recording of the celebrated actor in conversation with critic and producer Adrian Wootton at London’s National Film Theatre

Georgy Girl

The Guardian Interview with Charlotte Rampling (2001, 59 mins): an archival audio recording of a career-spanning interview conducted by Christopher Cook at London’s National Film Theatre

Hammer vol. 3

The Guardian Interview with Val Guest (2005): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Jonathan Rigby at London’s National Film Theatre

Hardcore

The Guardian Interview with Paul Schrader (1993, 85 mins): audio recording of an on-stage interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London*

*shared material with BFI (The Comfort of Strangers)

Housekeeping

BFI Interview with Bill Forsyth (1994, 36 mins): archival audio recording of an on-stage interview conducted by Nick James at the National Film Theatre, London

The Last Movie

The Guardian Interview with Dennis Hopper (1990, 91 mins): archival audio recording of the filmmaker and actor in conversation with critic Derek Malcolm at London’s National Film Theatre

Lilith

The Guardian Interview with Warren Beatty (1990, 87 mins): archival audio recording of a career-spanning interview with the celebrated actor and director, hosted by Christopher Cook and conducted at London’s National Film Theatre

Mickey One

The Guardian Lecture with Arthur Penn (1981, 59 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Richard Combs at the National Film Theatre, London

Ministry of Fear

The BFI Interview with Fritz Lang (1962, 80 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with Stanley Reed at London’s National Film Theatre

Missing

The Guardian Interview with Jack Lemmon and Jonathan Miller (1986): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at London’s National Film Theatre

The Odessa File

BFI Interview with director Ronald Neame 

BFI Interview with cinematographer Oswald Morris

Otley

The Guardian Lecture with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (2008): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Dick Fiddy at London’s National Film Theatre

The Sinbad Trilogy

BFI interview with Ray Harryhausen (1981, 85 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Philip Strick at the National Film Theatre, London

The John Player Lecture with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H Schneer (1970, 90 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted at the National Film Theatre, London

The Stone Killer

The John Player Lecture with Michael Winner (1970, 64 mins): audio recording of an interview with the director conducted by Margaret Hinxman at the National Film Theatre, London

They Made Me a Fugitive

The John Player Lecture with Alberto Cavalcanti (1970, 62 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated director at London’s National Film Theatre, including an audience Q&A with fellow filmmakers Michael Balcon, Paul Rotha and Basil Wright

Time Without Pity

The John Player Lecture with Joseph Losey (1973, 80 mins): the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with film critic Dilys Powell at London’s National Film Theatre*

*shared material with StudioCanal (The Go Between)

Torture Garden

The Guardian Interview with Freddie Francis (1995, 77 mins): the great cinematographer and director in conversation with journalist Alan Jones recorded at the National Film Theatre, London

Town on Trial

The John Player Lecture with John Mills (1972, 96 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Margaret Hinxman at London’s National Film Theatre

Track 29

The NFT Interview with Nicolas Roeg (1994, 68 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated filmmaker in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre

Young Winston

The John Player Lecture with Richard Attenborough (1971, 78 mins): the celebrated filmmaker in conversation with film critic Dilys Powell at London’s National Film Theatre

BFI

On-camera

Akenfield

Akenfield Cast and Crew Interview at the National Film Theatre (2004, 27 mins): on-stage interview, presented with original mute 16mm location footage

Carmen Jones

The Guardian Interview: Harry Belafonte at the National Film Theatre

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

Guardian Interview: Catherine Deneuve (2005)

Night and the City

The Guardian Lecture: 1981 interview with Jules Dassin by film critic Alexander Walker.

Actor Richard Widmark interviewed at the National Film Theatre in 2002 by Adrian Wootton.

Odds Against Tomorrow

The Guardian Interview: Robert Wise at the National Film Theatre (1995, 74 mins): a career-spanning onstage interview

The John Player Lecture: Robert Ryan at the National Film Theatre (1969, 63 mins): the actor talks at length about his craft

Audio only

Bergman: A Year in the Life

Ingmar Bergman Guardian Interview (1982, 62 mins, audio only): Bergman pays tribute to theatre and film director Alf Sjöberg, discussing his influence and impact on his own career. Recorded at the NFT in 1982

Betrayed

Guardian Interview with Costa-Gavras (1984, 71 mins, audio only): the Oscar winning director discusses his career in this interview recorded four years before the release of Betrayed

Comes a Horseman

The Guardian Interview: Alan J Pakula (1986, 95 mins, audio): the director in conversation with Quentin Falk, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1986

The Comfort of Strangers

Prospectus for a Course Not Given: The Paul Schrader Film Masterclass (1982, 100 mins, audio only): Paul Schrader provides an illuminating precis of the film course   he had recently presented in America*

Paul Schrader Guardian Interview (1993, 85 mins, audio only): the director discusses films and filmmaking with critic Derek Malcolm*

*shared material with Indicator (Blue Collar, Hardcore)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort 

Guardian Interview: Jacques Demy (1982, audio only) (75:50)

Guardian Interview: Michel Legrand (1991, audio only) (71:23)*

Guardian Lecture: Gene Kelly (1980, audio only) (76:00)

*shared material with Criterion (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)

Eye of the Needle

Donald Sutherland Guardian Interview (1987, 73 mins, audio only)

Hair

Nicholas Ray in Conversation (1969, audio, 56 mins): the legendary filmmaker interviewed in London

Heat and Dust

The Guardian Interview: Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1992, 100 mins, audio only): John Pym moderates a panel discussion at the NFT

How I Won the War

Richard Lester in Conversation with Steven Soderbergh (1995, audio only): the director discusses his career in an interview recorded at the NFT

Judgement at Nuremberg

The Guardian Interview: Maximillian Schell (1971, 86 mins, audio only): the actor in conversation with film critic Deac Rossell

Life is Sweet

The Guardian Lecture: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Derek Malcolm (62 mins, audio only)

Maurice

Screening E M Forster (2019, 8 mins, audio only): audio extracts of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in a panel discussion recorded at the BFI’s National Film Theatre in 1992

Mr. Topaze

Peter Sellers at the NFT (1960, 97 mins, audio only): the actor addresses an enthusiastic throng of fans

Red, White and Zero

Lindsay Anderson Introduction/Stills Gallery (1968, 5 mins) an audio recording of Anderson addressing the NFT in 1968, played over stills

Rossellini/Bergman Collection

Ingrid Bergman at the National Film Theatre (Chris Mohr, 1981, 37 mins): archival Guardian interview

Stranger in the House

James Mason in Conversation (1981, 86 mins, audio only): the actor discusses his career in an interview at the National Film Theatre, London

El Sur

Victor Erice interviewed by Geoff Andrew (2003, 83 mins, audio only)

They Came to a City

Michael Balcon NFT Lecture (audio only, 59 mins): recorded in 1969, the producer discusses the different stages of his career

Three Films by Ken Loach

Ken Loach: The Guardian Lecture at the National Film Theatre with Derek Malcolm (1992, 74 mins)*

*shared material with Eureka (Kes) and Signal One (Hidden Agenda)

Valentino

The Guardian Lecture: Ken Russell in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1988, 90 mins, audio with stills)

Vivre sa vie

Leslie Hardcastle Introduces Vivre sa vie at the National Film Theatre (1968, 3 mins, audio only)

The Wages of Fear

The Guardian Lecture: Yves Montand in conversation with Don Allen (98 mins, audio only): recorded in 1989, the star discusses his distinguished career

Women in Love

The Guardian Lecture: Glenda Jackson interviewed at the National Film Theatre (1982, 90 mins, audio only)

StudioCanal

On-camera:

INLAND EMPIRE

Guardian Interview with David Lynch at The National Film Theatre” featurette

A Kind of Loving

NFT interview with John Schlesinger from 1988

Audio only:

The Go Between (digibook)

Audio Recording of Joseph Losey being interviewed by film critic Dilys Powell in 1973.*

*shared material with Indicator (Time Without Pity)

Signal One

On-camera:

Compulsion

The Guardian Interview with Richard Fleischer (1994): Fleischer returns to the NFT for this filmed interview

Eyewitness

Peter Yates in conversation with Quentin Falk (1996): filmed discussion at the National Film Theatre

Hidden Agenda

The Guardian Interview with Ken Loach (1992): archival interview filmed at the NFT*

*shared material with Eureka (Kes) and BFI (Three Films by Ken Loach)

Kiss of Death

Interview with Richard Widmark (2002): the celebrated actor in conversation at the National Film Theatre

Audio only:

Compulsion

The Guardian Interview with Richard Fleischer (1981, audio only): the award-winning director discusses his career after a screening of Compulsion

Doc

The Guardian Interview with Faye Dunaway (1980, 72 mins, audio only): the star of Doc discusses her career with critic Alexander Walker

Eyewitness

Peter Yates in conversation with Derek Malcolm (1982, audio only): archival interview with the director*

*shared material with Eureka (The Friends of Eddie Coyle)

Gas-s-s-s

The Guardian Interview with director Roger Corman (1970): archival interview conducted the day after work was completed on Gas-s-s-s

The Guardian Interview with director Roger Corman (1991): the legendary director returns to the NFT to discuss his career

The Honey Pot

The Guardian Interview with Rex Harrison (1971, audio only): the celebrated actor discusses his career

The Guardian Interview with Joseph Mankiewicz (1982 audio only): archival interview held at the NFT

Criterion Collection

Autumn Sonata

A 1981 conversation between actor Ingrid Bergman and critic John Russell Taylor at the National Film Theatre in London

David Lean Directs Noël Coward

Audio recording of a 1969 conversation between actor Richard Attenborough and Coward at London’s National Film Theatre

Dekalog

Archival interview with director Krzysztof Kieślowski, a 1990 audio recording from the National Film Theatre in London

Forty Guns

Audio interview with Samuel Fuller at London’s National Film Theatre from 1969

Life is Sweet

Audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theatre in London

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Audio recordings of interviews with actor Catherine Deneuve (1983) and Legrand (1991)* at the National Film Theatre in London

*shared material with BFI (Les Demoiselles des Rochefort)

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

birthofanation

The Birth of a Nation is the worst film ever made.

Maybe this is controversial. The cover to the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, mimicking original promotional materials, brazenly declares the “8th wonder of the world”, alongside the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. In a contemporary review in Variety, Mark Vance described “a great epoch in picture making”. D.W. Griffith held enormous power in early cinema, producing 1-2 films per week, accumulating 400 one-reelers for Biograph. Before the studio system, cinema was driven by independents. In the footsteps of Edison and Porter, Griffith’s name is inescapable, his light bulb logo appearing on every intertitle. Adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansmen (1905), a version had been in development in Kinemacolour, but Griffith’s film represented a paradigm shift, helping to establish the United States as a major production centre, developed under the Aitkens on a $40,000 budget and 6 weeks of rehearsal. The Birth of a Nation distinguished itself from nickelodeons as a 12-reel film screened in theatres and opera houses, its screening in Los Angeles’ Clune’s Auditorium on February 8th held under heavy police guard. The film became a perennial success: in his essay Do Movies Have Rights?, published in Thomas Dixon Jr. and the Birth of Modern America, Louis Menand notes the film reached an audience of 100 million people between 1915 and 1926 (2006:200).

But The Birth of a Nation’s release was tumultuous, just as The Clansmen’s play sparked riots in Atlanta and was banned in Philadelphia and Boston. As Dorian Lynskey documents, censors acknowledged the film’s racist content, situated in a debate alongside the “moral panic over the depiction of crime and vice” in cinema. As Brian Willan notes in his essay ‘Cinematographic Calamity’ or ‘Soul-Stirring Appeal to Every Briton’: Birth of a Nation in England and South Africa, 1915–1931 in Journal of Southern African Studies 39(3), Birth was released across Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, but suppressed in France and South Africa (2013:624). As Menand writes, censorship was at the behest of authorities, banned in Minneapolis, Ohio, Newark, St. Paul, Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis but largely “overturned in court” (2006:184).

Although multiple individuals opposed, opposition was hardly unified; Griffith’s response to a critical editorial in the New York Globe emphasised the intelligence of “theater-goers” over the “organized attacks of letter writers, publicity seekers, and fanatics”. The NAACP, founded in 1909, had a membership of 5000 and a white-dominated leadership; but, as Stephen Weinberger writes in his essay The Birth of a Nation and the Making of the NAACP in Journal of American Studies 45(1), the film “helped transform the association in ways no one could have imagined”, shifting to national issues as the film “moved from major population centers to smaller ones” (2011:92). As Weinberger highlights, opposition continued into the Civil Rights Movement, disrupting 50th anniversary screenings (2011:77).

Released upon the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War, The Birth of a Nation followed a wave of one-reelers that, as David Shepard comments in The Making of the Birth of a Nation (1993), focused upon the suffering of war. As America’s most recent national war, the Civil War was a part of national mythmaking. The son of a confederate officer, Griffith touched upon his own history. Before the historical epics and blockbusters of later decades, The Birth of a Nation embraces extravagance, telling a long and complex period of history over several years. Although focusing upon the lives of the Camerons and Stonemans, excursions are long: purple-tinted sequences follow Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers; as officials leave, he places his hands on his head, and prays, moving forward to his assassination at Ford’s Theatre during a production of Our American Cousin. Griffith positions the assassination through Elsie and Phil Stoneman, watching towards the stage through binoculars; Booth appears with his gun with the stillness of a photograph, as though a portrait from the time.

Griffith offers dedication to detail, drawing upon lithographs and photographs. Griffith aggressively references intertitles with footnotes, detailing key dates. Griffith acknowledges each set as “historical facsimile”, drawing the Wilmer McLean home from Campaigning with Grant (1897) and the executive office and theatre from Lincoln, a History (1890). Griffith excerpts from President Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People (1902), a college companion of Dixon’s often cited as declaring the film as “writing history with lightning”, though Lynskey highlights Wilson denying approving an “unfortunate production”. Joseph Carl Breil’s score utilises music familiar to the Civil War. As Gordon Thomas writes, Griffith wanted historical films to “operate as agents of enlightenment or of cultivation”, whilst remaining entertainment.

In his exploration of the Piedmont-based Camerons, Griffith appeals to nostalgia for a life that, per the intertitles, “runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more”, elder sister Margaret “trained in the manners of the old school”, creating a green tinted image of Victorian extravagance in home and costume. As Thomas writes, Griffith taps into the Southern myth of the Lost Cause, imagining a “pastoral paradise eradicated by the war”. A kindly master pets numerous cats and dogs; Griffith tries to endear with suitors and romance, creating scale in his interfamily romance. Looking at Elsie’s life in Washington, Griffith moves inside the House of Representatives, creating political intrigue prefiguring decades of political thrillers as Austin Stoneman pushes abolition. Griffith injects comedy: Austin is constantly in need of adjusting his wig.

The Birth of a Nation might be best known for its representation of the KKK, but its racist images penetrate more deeply. Griffith traces slavery’s history: in the opening, we observe a young boy surrounded by leering traders, Griffith’s intertitle stating the “bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.” We move into the courthouse of abolitionists; the slave peers out, desperate, helpless. On the cotton fields, we focus upon white men as Ben admires an image of Elsie, black men back of the frame, barely seen, never acknowledging the human trauma, suffering and dehumanisation explored in films like 12 Years a Slave (2013). The products of their labour become Southern ermine, worn without acknowledging their source. In their 2-hour interval for dinner, slaves are celebrating, dancing and clapping in unending joy.

Griffith’s Reconstruction is rooted in deep racism: offered enfranchisement, a freedman votes twice, peering to the audience as white officials are oblivious, when voter ID laws continue to disenfranchise black voters; intertitles state “the ignorant” are misusing the “charity of a generous North”. In the South Carolina legislature, Griffith pushes the ludicrous: black officials rest their feet without shoes, swig from the bottle, eat fried chicken; the speaker rules all members must wear shoes, an image Kevin Brownlow notes in his essay We Can Never Censor the Past is drawn from a political cartoon; motions suggest intermarriage and white salutes. As Thomas notes, Birth follows the ideology of “the Dunning school”, following the concept of “negro incapacity” of blacks as “childlike beings”. In one of the most ubiquitous images, Flora Cameron is pursued by the animalism of Gus, played in blackface, jumping to her death from a cliff at threat of marriage. Gus becomes another black victim lynched by the KKK, rallying a mob. In The Clansmen, Dixon Jr. is more explicit, depicting a mother and daughter who commit suicide after being raped by a gang of blacks. In drunken fervour, Silas Lynch speaks of revolution, building a Black Empire on the streets, coercing Elsie into marriage. Black characters become caricatures, “black trash” in accented intertitles. Griffith defended his representation of “faithful Negroes who stayed with their former masters and were ready to give up their lives to protect their white friends”, alluding to characters like blackface servant Mammy.

In the intertitles to the 1921 reissue, Griffith rebuffs calls for censorship, arguing for the “liberty” granted to “the Bible and the works of Shakespeare”. Intolerance (1916) is but an affirmation: as William M. Drew writes in the Masters of Cinema booklet, Griffith was dramatizing “consequences of attempts by powerful forces to control human thought and behavior”, emphasising his right to hold his beliefs. In The Birth of a Nation, the KKK is normalised, traced prior to their dissolution as a terrorist organisation in 1871 and their actions during the Civil Rights Movement and today. The confederate flag persists in the banal, used to wipe a woman’s face. White women become complicit in their persistence, stitching together KKK costumes. Griffith sets their arrival to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (1870): purple-tinted silhouettes march across the hills; on horseback, we feel their speed as they carry the cross, intercut against Lynch’s intimations of intermarriage. The Birth of the Nation isn’t state-produced in the same way as Triumph of the Will (1936) or October (1928), but it is propaganda, understanding the power of images in crafting political narrative. Just as the aesthetics of propaganda have become lauded for contributions to cinematic language, so too have those innovated by Griffith.

White supremacy cannot be divorced from The Birth of a Nation. In an intertitle, the KKK describe themselves as an “unconquered race” of “old Scotland’s hills”; another intertitle states their “Aryan birthright”; a flag declares how the confederacy is just, for “VICTORY OR DEATH”. Vance’s review seems to make Griffith’s intended audience clear, appraising how his “picture would please all white classes.” The Birth of a Nation only strengthens a toxic ideology, even within miscegenation laws that refused to allow white women to play against black actors on film or on stage, anti-immigration rhetoric and a climate supporting eugenics as a viable solution within philosophical and scientific though.

With The Clansmen and his Reconstruction Trilogy (1902-07), Dixon Jr. intended to “teach the north” about “the awful suffering of the white man”, anointed by “Almighty God” to reign “supreme”. Lynskey highlights a quote included in an NAACP pamphlet where Dixon Jr. describes his intention to “create a feeling of abhorrence in white people” and “prevent the mixing of white and Negro blood”, seeking “all Negroes removed from the United States.” In scenes present in the premiere under the title The Clansmen, excised from the finished cut, Menand describes scenes of “white women being abducted by black rapists”, a declaration that Lincoln “did not believe in racial equality” and a closing scene described as “Lincoln’s solution”, depicting the deportation of blacks to Africa (2006:185).

Although Brownlow notes “dispute about whether the film led to the revival of the Ku Klu[x] Klan or whether that was a result of the Great War”, Lynskey comments that the resurrected Klan based its logo “on a still from the movie”, describing its first public appearance at the Atlanta premiere, publicists using KKK emblazoned hats and aprons to promote the film; the KKK utilised the film for recruitment. Though the Klan initially had a few thousand members, the organisation grew to 100,000 by 1921 and 2-5 million by 1925, though dropping off by the end of the decade. As Joshua Rothman describes, the Klan became “superficially innocuous” with a sense of “patriotic respectability” and fraternity, appealing to middle classes with “festivities, pageants, and social gatherings”, alongside “baseball teams and beautiful-baby contests”, “charity drives”, “Christmas parties for orphans” and “wedding ceremonies, christenings and funerals”.

America was founded on manifest destiny. Though the passage of time from The Birth of a Nation might call for a sense of historical detachment, white supremacy remains potent, with the white supremacy rally at Charlottesville occurring without police intervention, creating a gathering place for neo-Nazis and the KKK. As Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies (2017), online culture of sites like 4Chan encourage a transgressive, nihilistic culture embedded within the alt-right and anti-Semitism. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in his article The First White President, Trump is a white supremacist with no “black facsimile”, supporting a “white coalition” beyond the white working class, as the country refuses to accept its “bloody heirloom” of racism that remains “at the heart of this country’s political life.”

Although Dixon Jr.’s writing contained intimations of racial war, The Birth of a Nation is profoundly anti-war. Though early scenes show the happiness of marching off to war, with the pageantry of cheers and drums (later contrasted by the KKK’s same march upon horseback), Griffith is depicting a march towards death. We follow Ben into the battlefields, receiving a letter from his big sister two and a half years after he departed. Through the perspective of a family, Griffith allows us to view the war’s effects over time. We follow the Cameron brothers, Wade and Duke, and Tod Stoneman, joining the regiment, entering battles like the Battle of Bull Run. Griffith depicts the sense of sheer panic at the arrival of guerrilla raids and black regiments, white residents running inside for shelter. G.W. “Billy” Bitzer pans the film’s solitary camera across the battlefield, surveying destruction and smoke, witnessing its scale from overhead. Griffith holds the camera upon bodies of dead soldiers, refusing to look away; as Thomas parallels, reminiscent of Matthew Brady’s photographs of the battle of Petersburg. As Brownlow notes, production began a month before the outbreak of World War I, on 4th July 1914, with Griffith believing its “pacifist message […] might even stop the war”, the intertitle preceding the 1921 release announcing its intent to convey the “ravages” and “abhorrence” of war. Willan notes opposition from British censors to some sequences of war.

Moving into a hospital, Griffith allows us to witness war’s effects. As Richard Brody writes, Griffith offers “humanly profound moments” in “universal circumstances”, praising his “breathtaking shot” of a “huddling mother and children” and the “harrowing and exalted grandeur” of a “classical moment of tragedy.” The conclusion, much like Intolerance’s ending upon a spiritual plane, follows romance towards a double honeymoon, taking a train carriage to sunset by the beach; couples dream of a “golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more.” As characters merge, a Messianic image of Jesus appears avowing peace, a scene Vance speculates will “in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah.”

The Birth of a Nation has persisted in part for its legacy upon the cinematic medium. But silent cinema has a vast canon of innovators beyond Griffith, acting equally and far more deeply into radicalism, each effort growing what cinema can do. The Birth of a Nation uses an impressive array of effects, reconfiguring the temporality of editing by intercutting between scenes. Griffith’s use of the circular frame allows for a kinetic cinema, displaying different or multiple parts of the frame to be revealed at a certain time, focusing in upon the romantic meeting by the pond in “Love Valley”, parts of the battlefield or moving out from the gallery during Lincoln’s assassination. In certain scenes, the colour tinting pierces the eye alongside Griffith’s use of silhouettes, depicting the power of bonfire celebrations. Through textual documents, Griffith relays narrative through letters and newspaper headlines, immersing the viewer within a multifaceted world. Griffith’s commitment to staging is shown through gesture and small movements; dancing is given a sense of motion, moving in the dancehall with the array of people.

But we should reckon with The Birth of a Nation’s legacy. The Birth of a Nation persisted with Dixon Jr.’s lost The Fall of a Nation (1916) released the following year; by 1930, it had been issued in sound, a prologue featuring Griffith and Lincoln. Menand points to the Aitkens’ efforts to produce a remake, trying to lure a “broken and broke” Griffith and Dixon in the 1930s and another in 1954, unable to secure financing (2006:200). Brody speculates why there was “no movie documentary in which former slaves bore witness to their experience” a la Shoah (1985), or “a full and classic drama about the agonies of slaves in the prewar South, and the full measure of horrific exactions by the Klan and the decades of Jim Crow.” But Hollywood’s at counter responses largely floundered, with Lynskey highlighting a screenplay that never materialised as a finished film between the NAACP and Universal, Lincoln’s Dream; The Birth of a Race (1918), set back by white financiers, devolved from a 3 hour epic response to a film about World War I, with only directors like Oscar Michaeux filling the void. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016) sought to reclaim the title for African-American empowerment and struggle, only to be set back by emerging testimony of sexual assault.

Before watching The Birth of a Nation, my least favourite film had been Catwoman (2004), itself about an empowered black female. Of course, Catwoman has an impact upon our own world, representative of the heroes we celebrate and allow budgets for. But Catwoman’s innumerable flaws of plot, character and style have no immediate bearing compared to the persistence of ideologies of white supremacy and the subhumanization of racial minorities. Aesthetic form cannot be detached from content; the two together form a message. The Birth of a Nation is irredeemable, unable to be celebrated. The Birth of a Nation doesn’t deserve exhilaration: it deserves great sadness.

Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.