- Two Classic War Films of the Silent Era: Birth of a Nation & Shoulder Arms
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 3, September 1974
- pp. 36-40
- View Citation
- Additional Information
TWO CLASSIC WAR FILMS OF THE SILENT ERA Birth of a Nation & Shoulder Arms By Norman Kagan Norman Kagan is a candidatefor the Ph.D. in Film at Columbia University. His books include The Cinema ofStanley Kubrick (1972) and The War Film, forthcoming from Pyramid. The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Shoulder Arms (1918) are the Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn of American war movies. In them are contained the archetypal themes, plot ideas, story incidents, characters and cultural assumptions, which by evolving or remaining fixed, define the next half century of U.S. combat stories shown on the screen. Like almost all war films, The Birth of a Nation professed antiwar sentiments. An early title reads: "If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war, to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, the effort will not have been in vain". This idea is also in the conclusion, when we see the image of the God of War dissolving into the Prince of Peace. An early scene with the title "Hostilities" showing a scrapping cat and dog also implies war is a mindless, accidental business men should outgrow. Likewise, the hopeless lust of a Congressional leader, symbolized by his clubfoot, together with the ambition and vengefulness ofhis mad mulatto mistress, are shown the first causes of the conflict. By contrast, Lincoln, after ordering the first call of 75,000, weeps and prays for spiritual guidance from a Higher Being. A scene ofbacklit dead soldiers sprawled on a battlefield is titled: "War's peace". As often shown later, the preliminaries and garnishments of war are made exciting and inspiring. The Southern Cameron boys strut and preen in their new caped uniforms, the Bull Run battle flag is paraded at a ball while outside crowds celebrate with bonfires, the armies march out proudly. Yet as the war goes on, Piedmont, C.S.A. becomes shabby, the homes stripped by shortages. When an irregular force of Union guerrillas sweeps in, the angle in a harsh dawn, we see a straggling line of refugees strung out across a bleak valley. These compositions have been used again and again, most famously in Gone With the Wind. Another Stoneman's death in retreat is shown tormenting his little sister, the first ofmany children traumatized by or otherwise dramatically dragged into the war. The next long war sequence poetically starts: "The last great days of the Confederacy. On the battle lines before Petersberg, parched corn their only ration." In the sandbagged trenches, the shabby Southern troops pick at their meal of seeds. So when a convoy of food is trapped, Lee himself, on a forested promontory like a great stag, orders a breakthrough. As often, the reasons for this movie battle are clear and non-ideological. Griffith begins with a pre-dawn extreme long high-angle view ofthe torn up battleground, framed to right and left by trenches and clumps oftrees. An artillery duel is visible in cannon puffs, flashes ofdischarges, torrents and clouds of glowing smoke, the soldiers fighting and flags bobbing in a thick swarm that shifts right 36 and left, half-seen except when flares burst—an amazing action panorama ofconflict' Here is war as a mighty spectacle for the first time ofmany. The plucky "Little Colonel", Ben Cameron, bright-eyed above his little mustache, in long coat, boots, hat, always swinging his sword, gets his orders in a crowded trench, his men crouching and firing loyallyjust behind. This shot is the beginning ofthe American emphasis not on soldiers but on super-soldiers; brilliant officers and battlewise sergeants, the special nature and burden ofcommand rather than the business ofkilling. Griffith's exposition continues with a diagonal ofthe Union lines, better organized and equipped, the cool aloofofficers standing apart from their men, a little like Nazis our enemy as cold, regimented, merciless. We see the masked batteries discharging smoke as they fire; a failed U.S. counter-attack; the artillery complete with concealing trees and horses hitched for a getaway; the mortar pits - our fascination in the gadgetry of combat that continues through Dr. Strangelove. Now "The Little Colonel" leads the final, desperate assault against the...