The three D.W Griffith Short masterpieces that you can watch RIGHT NOW
It is rare in any art form to be able to trace the roots of contemporary style to the doings of a single man. Cinema has no single “big bang”, there was never one moment where technology reached a point that films are like as we know them today. Its an ever developing system of developments that all contribute to being able to tell a story in this medium. Films of any age or any era are forced to be products of their time, whether by the standards of technology or by the political and social system going on at that time. For most film goes, a film from pre 1920 will feel incredibly dated to the point of being almost “unwatchable”, in the sense that its impossible to truly appreciate the developments so far removed from them in our current time.
We live in an interesting era, however, having access to tens of thousands of films from pre-1940s has given the ability to really study the developments of cinema in a way never before seen outside of films schools. You can literally watch ALMOST every surviving known film by George Melies, The Lumier Brothers, Alice Guy, D.W Griffith, and most other true pioneers during the first decade of cinema history. In one sitting you can watch 250 shorts by Melies and for the first time in history watch the development of cinema right before your eyes allowing to literally see the birth of a language.Out of all these Maverick, pioneer filmmakers, one man truly stands alone in both how much he did for the medium and how good his films still are.
Out of all these Maverick, pioneer filmmakers, one man truly stands alone in both how much he did for the medium and how good his films still are. No other of these seminal series of films feel as contemporary as those from David Wark Griffith, who was truly a master of both cinematic language and the language of human emotion and endeavor. Labeled as a racist by ignorant cinema fans and first year film students, the discussion of Griffith in most classrooms, aside from being incredibly short is diminished to a discussion only about the birth of a nation, and that conversation is diminished even further but limiting the discussion to only the controversies surrounding this film. There is a no question that Birth Of A Nation is landmark achievement of cinema both in terms of story telling and proving the sheer epic scope and longevity of the feature film. To not discuss the controversies would really not paint the full picture as to why the film became such a cultural phenomenon, but if you want to limit the discussion to the actual, literal developments made by Griffith, the best place to really observe these development are in his shorts.
This list are the 3 films by D.W Griffith I believe are masterpieces of developmental cinema.
The Massacre (1912)
Shot in Pacoima California at the Griffith Ranch, this epic, violent, haunting western was one of the best films of D.W Griffiths entire career, truly a seminal film, and a precursor to the epic scope of the some of the battle scenes of Birth of a Nation. D.W Griffith was truly a master behind the camera with an almost genius like ability to use hundreds extras to paint a realities of the harsh western world. Griffith had also a very intact and keen ability to capture the small tiny moments in between the set pieces, like all the beautiful, tender family moments of the young solider and his bride playing with their new baby, enjoying the peaceful moment, that they know too well is short lived. A kind of optimism for the next generation that wont have to endure the long hardship of the journey west and instead will grow up in this new frontier. The film features a family heading west, taking the difficult treck through the plains and the Rockies to reached the prized west coast. We see the husband and his military regiment ambushing a helpless and seeminly peaceful tribe of native Americans before returning to his wife and new son. The film culminates in a revenge attack on the wagon train for the earlier attack on the village and a violent, perfectly directed/edited battle scene that is some of the most intense work of that decade. The film also is interesting for its portray of the native american, depicting the tribe as a group of warriors who were done wrong seeking revenge for the slaughter of their people, a very noble depiction considering the mass cultural depiction of native Americans as savages had sadly become the norm in the united states.
The House of Darkness (1913)
This short shows the master level brilliance of griffith when it comes to crafting non epic, non-action, human stories, told about real human issues. This film is a beautiful depiction of the mental health system in the first decades of the century, you can see in its arcane potray the little understanding we had of the true nature of the mentally ill. Griffith was able to instill moments of thrill and violence into this naturalist piece with the madman assaulting the other patient, and then escaping the guards, taking refuge with a gun inside of a room that is occupied by a nurse and her single piano. Using his gun he forces her to play and through a series of close ups, Griffith shows the madman become increasingly moved by the music ultimately surrendering his gun to the young nurse and turning himself over to the cops. The ending of the film is brilliantly optimistic with the madman, now cured, meeting the nurse once again and apologizing for his previous exploits, showing not only a faith that mental illness can be helped but also the optimism in the mental health system itself.
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
This one frequently tops the contemporary lists of Griffiths best work and is one of the best silent shorts of the first half of the century. A perfect example of for the time contemporary storytelling about contemporary issues. Filmed six years before ‘Birth of a nation’, this piece chronicles several different stories all involving the industry of wheat. We see the poor farmer struggling to make a decent crop while his family goes hungry during a dry year, in contrast to the lavish lifestyle of the owners of the large wheat conglomerates and their wealthy shareholders. I believe this to be Griffiths best film, which of course is only an opinion. Something that cannot be argued however is that this is indeed Griffith’s most emotionally devastating work.
This is only a short introductory list, all of Griffith’s shorts are available on YouTube if you want to study developmental cinema.