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The most influential film


slaytonf
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The airing of Birth of a Nation brings to mind the comment inevitably made about it that it was integral in the revival of the Klan, with all of the attendant implications for African Americans and segregation. That is, the assertion is made. It's never clearly demonstrated, however, how the movie did it. I'm all for tarring that film with the responsibility, but I wonder how much you can rightly ascribe to it. It seems a lot for a film to accomplish. Unless, of course there are underlying currents in society ready to be catalyzed by it. Perhaps you can look at it in terms of the ingredients for a fire. You can have fuel and oxygen, but without heat, or an incendiary film, you won't have a fire. I can't think of another film that has been credited with so much power. The only comparable instance that comes to my mind of art having such a revolutionary effect is Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (in addition to its scientific content, I count it as a work of art), which caused the environmental movement to explode into the mainstream. I suppose it comes back to that eternal ponderable about whether art influences society or reflects it.

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Well, The Birth of a Nation arrived in 1914, and the second **** was founded a year later. During the movie's premiere in Atlanta, the immediate predecessor to the second ****, a local Atlanta group that had adopted its uniforms, paraded in front of the theater. And given the way that the film glorified the Klan, it's hard to imagine a better publicity campaign for the newly emerging organization, a campaign that began anew with every subsequent screening of the movie.

 

In addition, the movie was shown in the White House before President Wilson, who reportedly gave it high praise before issuing a less noticed statement that he'd made no such comment. The express purpose of the book's author was to "revolutionize northern sentiment" in favor of the Klan.

 

Put all that together, and it's hard not to see the direct and immense connection between the movie and the Klan revival. Of course there were underlying social factors, such as immigration and urbanization, but those factors came into play more in the 1920's, when the Klan revival had spread into the North.

 

Now if you want a weak tea runnerup for "most influential" movie, I'd give it to The Hustler and The Color of Money, which 25 years apart produced an instant boom in the pool business. Every last person in that business will back up that statement, and they only wish that Paul Newman had decided to make a second sequel before he died. Big splash in small puddle, I know, but for direct and immediate influence, only The Birth of A Nation matches them.

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Interesting list by Ebert, but after BOAN, none of those other 14 films had much influence on anything beyond *OTHER FILMS.* To go beyond that limited sort of influence, and in addition to the two I mentioned below, he might have mentioned films like The Wild One and other movies with a similar influence outside the film industry itself.

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I don't think slayton's question was oftered up by him to be about the influence certain films would have upon the styles of later directors of films here Ham, and which from what I gathered after hitting your link it seemed Roger Ebert's article was about. Instead, I think Slayton's thread was supposed to be about the influence a certain film would have upon the mindset of the general public.

 

And so with this in mind, I would suggest the possibility that John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" might've helped spur the massive western movement of Easterners to "The Promised Land" of California just before and after the Second World War.

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I would suggest the possibility that John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" might've helped spur the massive western movement of Easterners to "The Promised Land" of California just before and after the Second World War.

 

Hmmm, I can see the appeal of California, but not the appeal of how the Joad family tried to get there. I don't quite see the joys of getting your head cracked open while picking fruit for 5 cents a bushel.

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I think your suggestion of "The Wild One" a very good example here, Andy.

 

That film would for years seem to cement in the minds of the general public that most motorcyclists were somehow "outside the norm and prone to be rebellious", and until the Honda Motorcycle Corp would begin to change that misperception by use of their "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" advertisements in the early '60s.

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My thought was not so much the particular story of the Joads' plight, Andy, but that the idea that "Californee is the place to be" was the main idea of it, and as a certain other family's story would be told later on in a certain 1960's sitcom.

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It does raise an interesting observation. CAN one movie have that much influence on society in general? I know certain films can influence individuals, like how many of my old friends aspired to become, and actually HAVE become "bikers" after seeing those late '60's American International biker flicks. And some films can start social trends among some; Look how many country bars opened up after the popularity of URBAN COWBOY. Christ, I've met guys who never travelled farther south than Toledo Ohio who started sporting cowboy hats and talking like Willie Nelson every Saturday night. And how many dancing schools popped up after DIRTY DANCING?

 

But that's not as serious as maybe inciting a whole country to violent racism after a viewing. I don't know for sure if BOAN made white people take the "black menace" more seriously or not, but having the Klan ride in and "save the day" couldn't have boded well. And spelling it with a "C" doesn't let DW off the hook. Forwarding the notion that DW made the film, as RO hinted afterwards, to display "man's inhumanity to his fellow man" is too little too late, and I don't believe a word of it.

 

Sepiatone

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> slayton wrote:

> Unless, of course there are underlying currents in society ready to be catalyzed by it.

 

I have studied much of American history of late and I see in it that it was time for those attitudes to become more overt actions. I believe that the movie may have been the catalyst but that many other things might have served also. It is as when there is an excess of dead underbrush and severely dry weather then it may be an untended campfire or a tossed cigarette or lightning or spontaneous combustion will cause a forest fire.

 

I believe that to attribute the results to the movie may be technically correct but it is naive to believe that those things would not have happened if it were not for the movie.

 

It was a white man not wishing to drive around a group of black men which led to the Hamburg Massacre. Four black men were executed and it was a pivotal issue which propelled Democrat Ben Tillman to become governor and then senator. "The leading white men of Edgefield? had decided ?to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson? by ?having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable."

 

I believe that such a man being in the US Senate when *Birth of a Nation* was released demonstrates that all of the necessary ingredients for racist violence was at hand and that any spark would have set it off.

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> AndyM108 wrote:

> Interesting list by Ebert, but after BOAN, none of those other 14 films had much influence on anything beyond *OTHER FILMS*

 

I believe that is a correct assessment of the intent of the list.

 

I believe also that influences may be a long trail. Science fiction movies were widely cited as leading to children becoming interested in science to the extent that some have pointed to: *Forbidden Planet* as making the moon landings possible.

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It's been interesting to read all the comments. It's caused me come up with a couple of thoughts as a result. About Birth of a Nation reviving the Klan, are there instances of agents of the Klan using it as a recruiting tool? either showing it or referring to it? Are there letters where the writers say watching the movie convinced them to join? This is what I would look for in deciding how much influence the movie had. The correlation between the two is attractive, but that does not make a case for cause. Again, I am not defending the movie, it's an incendiary exercise in the worst kind of racism, and puts forward a distorted view of a time and people--a view that D. W. Griffith held. It is an unfair misrepresentation in two respects in that it exaggerates the negative aspects of blacks, and minimizes the negative of whites. With regard to the famous scene of the black legislators, put up side to side with a contemporaneous white legislature, I am sure, there would be a close resemblance.

 

Looking around the world, the most powerful filmmaking next to Birth of a Nation (if it really can be attributed with that much power), that occurs to me are works of Leni Riefenstahl, the best known of which is Triumph of the Will. Now, her films did not bring about the abomination of Naziism, but they have always been recognized as effective in heightening the psychotic self-hypnotism in Germany.

 

It's sad to note that these films seen as most influential are ones appealing to the basest and most destructive aspects of the human race. It's easy to incite to riot, but I hope it's also possible to inspire to create, or in some way improve the human condition, along the lines of how President Kennedy's first inaugural speech motivated young people of that generation.

 

Perhaps it's necessary to look for less explosive influences. Star Wars comes to mind. Aside from the revolution in filmmaking it brought about, I think it is responsible, at least initially, in bringing the role playing game into the mainstream. First as a game with dice and other physical props (Dungeons and Dragons, for example), leading up to the present with video games, and online games. It coincided with the growing popularity of fantasy books (The Dragonriders of Pern, for example). This is not trivial. It's a world wide phenomenon, with billions, if not trillions of dollars involved, and uncounted hours of participation. There is even a parallel economy developing, with the purchase and sale of characters and attributes with dollars, or on line cash.

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an important film, although it's a staged documentary, is German director Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934). it was an important part of the flood of Nazi propaganda that overwhelmed Germany and precipatated WWII. the comments about enough fuel needed to ignite the fire are an apt analogy for Triumph, which fueled Nazi superiority dreams and invincible attitudes and policies. if this movie is partially responsible for the Second World War, then its influence is profound.

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If you look at the chapter on "The Klan Revival 1915-1921" in Wyn Craig Wade's The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (Simon and Schuster, 1987), you'll see that the founder of the "second" Klan, William J. Simmons, was inspired by the movie to revive the Klan. As I mentioned earlier, Klan members would often gather in their robes outside screenings of The Birth of a Nation, parading and passing out literature. The fact that the era was ripe for exploitation by racists doesn't mean that the movie didn't give an enormous boost to the Klan's recruiting efforts. Hell, the effect of that movie was so powerful that it led to the endorsement of the Klan by the pastor of the Harvard Street *Unitarian* Church - - - *in Boston!* You can read countless other examples of the film's influence on the Klan in this book and many others. There was a lot more than a mere "correlation" going on.

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It really doesn't take much to spur obsessive racists into "action". The catalyst needn't have the least bit of reason or intelligence behind it. All the ingredient needed is a convaluted support of their beliefs. A black man could rob a liquor store, and it's seen as "proof" that the black man is basically criminally driven, despite a possible fact that in the previous week, a white man might have robbed the same liquor store. So, if a "rich, powerful white man" like DW Griffith sees the Klan as a "saving grace" to the white race, it MUST be SO! Never mind the fallacy that black legislators would litter the legislative chambers with chicken bones and empty liquor bottles while resting their feet upon their desks. Never mind that there was NEVER any proof that black union soldier's were ever a threat to the safety and virtue to Southern white women.

 

It was in the MOVIE, so it MUST be true!

 

Sepiatone

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Kane, Potemkin, and Birth of a Nation seem to be the "Holy Trinity" in terms of influence just on filmmaking form. You could list all kinds of things that helped to shape genres, like Psycho or Forbidden Planet. Cultural influence is harder to quantify, and most of us have only truly experienced a small portion of the world's culture, so it's hard to really say.

 

As for the BOAN side discussion, I've heard that it being responsible for the Klan reforming is an urban legend and it's sort of a baseless claim to just say that it "helped recruiting" and then act like that justifies the bigger claims made about the film's impact.

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>an important film, although it's a staged documentary, is German director Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934).

 

It was only partly staged and re-staged by the director. If I had the time, as a retired documentary cameraman I could show you the parts that were staged and re-staged by the director, but I don't have the time. However, I'll mention one part: Where the men at the big Nuremberg rally are shouting out the parts of Germany, the districts, where they came from, their close-ups were re-staged. Note that we can not see the mass rally in the background, and the camera is on a close-up of these men before they began to speak. This reenactment was carefully re-staged by the director.

 

The start of this clip is a re-staged part, for the close-ups. Notice how Leni cuts in scenes of the real rally while using sound from this re-staging. That makes the staging look like it took place at the real rally:

 

 

 

On the other hand, nearly all of Louisiana Story (1948), by Robert J. Flaherty was staged AND paid for by a major oil company. This was a propaganda film designed to convince Gulf Coast fisherman they should not fight against oil rigs going up in the Gulf of Mexico. This film was actually NOT a documentary, it was mostly a carefully scripted drama, although many historical reports claim it was one of America's best documentaries.

 

Louisiana Story:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xO9P9xXDcpc

 

As far as Triumph of the Will being staged, some of it was (such as the airplane ride at the very beginning), but most of it was not staged by the director. For example, the Nazis did stage their own parades, and the director photographed those parades, but the director did not stage those parades.

 

Anyway, this is interesting technical behind-the-scenes film information. And it is too bad that so many important documentary films were also propaganda films. But, that's sort of the nature of a documentary film, to make the audience feel one way or another about some subject.

 

For example, THE RIVER (1938), is a great documentary film AND a propaganda film, made by a US Government agency, designed to promote government sponsorship of work projects to try to stop Mississippi River flooding, using US taxpayer dollars for the work.

 

 

 

Edited by: FredCDobbs on Sep 4, 2013 4:06 PM

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