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Birth of a Medium: Dickens, Griffith, and the Advent of Sentimental Cinema


The impact of Charles Dickens’s storytelling upon the style of montage deployed in D. W. Griffith’s films has generated a striking amount of critical attention. Not enough has been said, however, about how these advances in film form triggered a retreat in historical content. Exploring the melodramatic similarities between Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, as well as the state of cinema in the years leading up to Griffith’s unsettling masterpiece, this essay suggests that the American director’s appropriation of Dickensian form necessitated a sentimental, backward-looking engagement with history.