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Reconstructing 'Nation'

November 13, 1988

Inaccuracy characterizes Gary Nash's essay on Eric Foner's "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877" (Book Review, Oct. 16).

The title of D. W. Griffith's film is not "Birth of a Nation" but "The Birth of a Nation" (one would not write about "Sun Also Rises" or "Grapes of Wrath"). A partial source for Griffith's film was the 1906 stage melodrama "The Clansman" by Thomas Dixon, rather than "the novel" as claimed by Nash, although it is true that this novel as well as another called "The Leopard's Spots" served as source material for the stage play. The scene Nash describes as occurring in "the aisles" of a state capitol actually occurs on its floor; incidentally, it is based on a political cartoon of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina. The part Nash attributes to Lillian Gish is actually essayed in the film by Mae Marsh.

I do not know how Nash can state that "Birth of a Nation" (sic) played before 200 million Americans by 1946. The film was distributed by outright sale of territorial rights to regional distributors who were not thereafter accountable for the earnings to any prime owner, so no one really knows how many tickets were sold. We do know that the picture had pretty well played out by 1924, that 1926 and 1930 reissues were disappointments and that circulation of the film from 1931 until Nash's odd cut-off date of 1946 was negligible, being limited to museum showings and odd dates at small independent theaters in the South.

Perhaps Nash accepts as fact the imaginings of old publicists. Because Griffith for his own reasons was always trying to prove the movies better than the stage, he downplayed the stage origins of many of his works. Whatever the sources for Nash's errors, historians have known better for years.

As best as I can determine from the review, Foner does not discuss "The Birth of a Nation" so that the error-ridden work is Nash's alone. I look forward to reading Foner's work without prejudice carried forward from Nash's article.

DAVID H. SHEPARD

DIRECTOR, FILM & TELEVISION

STUDY CENTER

USC SCHOOL OF

CINEMA-TELEVISION

LOS ANGELES

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