View single post by Kernow-Ox
 Posted: Fri Apr 11th, 2008 11:36 pm
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Joined: Tue Feb 26th, 2008
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
Posts: 142

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I've finally watched 'The Birth of a Nation'. I am restricting my comments and initial impressions to the first part of the film. What follows is a semi-coherent immediate reaction. There might be the odd spoiler, so if you don't wish to know which side won the Civil War you should look away now. No apologies for either the length of the post or its rambling nature.

Most importantly, I should have taken Booklover's advice and ensured the version of 'The Birth of a Nation' I obtained was tinted. Certain scenes would probably been even more memorable tinted than in black and white. It's worth checking this beforehand, as now I have to track down a different version to see what I've missed out on.

The review I linked to above was not misleading: the battle sequence is worth the entrance fee alone. It's not just that it is monochrome and thus creates the idea of Matthew Brady's work coming to life. Nor is it the mere fact of the silence of the piece, excluding the orchestral core, that makes it memorable. The battle by the river in Keaton's 'The General' is also silent, but is memorable more for both the steam train and for being the only film I've watched to get sight gags out of sniper fire. What works is the sense of scale.

In the re-enactment of Pickett's Charge in 'Gettysburg', filmed in colour, with both sound and booming soundtrack, our attention is drawn to individuals or particular events in each shot. For much of the battle in 'BOAN', however, the soliders are little more than dots that stop moving. There is so much to take in, it's really hard to concentrate on just one part. Yet to maintain interest, we do get close-ups of individuals, of corpses, and of the worried Cameron family back home. Moreover, unlike 'Gettysburg', the soldiers look like they've been on starvation rations for months. Their desperation whilst in the trenches is visible and, more importantly, believable (I will defer to others as to the quality or cut of their uniforms).

The only bit that doesn't work for me, other than a gormless but surprisingly invulnerable bugler, is where the 'Little Colonel' gives a dying Unionman a drink from his canteen just prior to leading a charge. I can forgive the dramatic and sentimental necessity of having the Northern son die next to the Southern son, but that is behind a copse rather than just outside one's trench prior to an attack.

There is a dreamlike, if surprsingly honest (those mangled corpses we see briefly in cuts serve their grim purpose) quality to its portrayal of war, but the true cinematic highlight is the burning of Atlanta. Yes, it's clearly a cardboard cut out. But superimposing ghostly shadows of troops on the march over it makes it one of the most haunting scenes I've seen. I know need to see the tinted version, as I can picture vibrant red and oranges rather than murky grey.

For me, the most touching elements in the film concern the relationship of the daughters to their brothers. We see the usual excited recruit happily embracing his proud younger sister, but just as he leaves the frame she turns round to their mother in tears. I really can imagine such a scene occurring, and not just in 1861. Similarly, the extended take in which the younger southern sister tries to beautify her war-torn plain dresses with raw cotton prior to the homecoming of her surviving brother was also very moving, especially when compared to his rags and war-weary look.

On a lighter note, they appear to have dug up Lincoln's corpse to play the President, and Ringo Starr makes a suitably leary sentinel at the hospital. The waxwork of Robert E Lee is far upstaged by the more plausible Grant. Oh, and despite the accurate 'facsimile' of Ford's Theatre, we're still left in the dark as to whether 'Our American Cousin' is actually worth watching. The first part of 'The Birth of a Nation', however, most certainly is.

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