I thought I’d look at DW Griffith’s AMERICA, as it seemed like both a good source of intertitles and a good patriotic American movie. After watching five minutes of it, however, I revised my plans and thought I’d look at it while drunk. One large vodka and tonic later (I’m a total lightweight), I thought I’d stop looking at it and write this.
I’ve long had a theory that Americans don’t like movies about the American Revolution. Actually, that’s not a theory, it’s a fact — from AMERICA to High Hudson’s wretched REVOLUTION to Mel “Mr Sensitive” Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, films dealing with this conflict have proved, slightly weirdly, even less popular than those detailing the current middle eastern embroilments. OK, so my actual theory is that Americans don’t respond to those films because they’re bored of hearing about the subject in school. At least the Civil War has a tang of controversy about it, especially if Griffith is the one revising the history. And if the filmmaker isn’t a bona fide racist nut, then you have the entertainment value of watching them tiptoe on eggshells for fear of offending the red states.
But my theory collapses slightly in the face of the fact that AMERICA, like Hudson’s snore-o-rama epic and Gibson’s British-as-Nazis exercise in bellowing understatement, is quite a weak film. Of course, my copy comes from the Killiam collection and hence has a weird voice-over declaiming woodenly all over it, which enhances the flavour of the history class which imbues the proceedings. So that doesn’t help. But the movie is dramatically leaden and devoid of the passion which animates BIRTH OF A NATION, which at least had on it’s side the fact that Griffith was anxious to convince his audience of something. Here, universal agreement is guaranteed from the outset. Though ironically, this version is a restoration of a film available for years only in a “British” version, produced by Griffith for UK distribution, which omitted the more severe attacks on George IV III and the Brits. Typical of Griffith, a man who made anti-war films in peacetime and propaganda films in wartime. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others.”
So no theory of scholastic overkill is needed to explain AMERICA’s failure at the box office. Still, on a kitsch level I enjoyed the way George Washington was introduced as a periwig rising majestically over the back of an armchair. Such reticence reminds me of the treatment of Christ in BEN HUR, or the way some Indian audiences were reluctant to see Gandhi played by a flesh-and-blood actor. One concerned citizen wrote to Sir Richard Attenborough suggesting that the great-souled one might be portrayed by a moving light. Sir Dickie did not follow this thoughtful advice: “I’m afraid I wrote back saying I’m making GANDHI, not bloody Tinkerbell.”
Later in the movie, David Wark Griffith overcomes the scattershot schoolroom approach of the opening mass of expoz, and gets a bit of drama going by falling back on old tricks. Not content with an entire nation of dandified fops to traduce, Dave forges a satanic bond between the Brits and the American Indians. You can sense his confidence growing once he has a proper crew of dusky-hued rapists as bad guys. The climax shamelessly reruns the eleventh-hour rescue from BIRTH, with redskins insread of blackskins. Wicked Captain Walter Butler (a nubile Lionel Barrymore) is shown cavorting with half-dressed Indian gals who kiss his boots in fawning ecstasy. It’s fascinating how reactionary rage can be stoked by scenes of taboo sexuality, forming a seething cocktail of anger and erotic response…
All of which seems an entirely appropriate way to celebrate today. Doesn’t it?