By Kim Curtis, Research Editor
March 18, 2016
Silent film director D.W. Griffith may be best known for his narratively and technologically groundbreaking but controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. However, his filmography also includes a little-seen movie called America: Or Love and Sacrifice (1924) that is worth looking at as well.
Based on the novel The Reckoning by Robert W. Chambers, America tells the story of the American Revolution through a romance between Nathan Holden, an express rider and minuteman, and Nancy Montague, the daughter of a wealthy Tory.
Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and the Daughters of the American Revolution wished for someone to make a film about the American Revolution that was both positive and educational.1 D.W. Griffith, now involved in the film that would eventually become America, wanted to include the moments that every child learns in school, such as Paul Revere’s ride and the Battle of Bunker Hill. For Griffith, historical accuracy was of key importance, so he included detailed reconstructions of real settings, such as the English Parliament and the Virginia House of Burgesses. He also shot at actual locations, such as the Old North Church in Boston and the Yorktown battlefield in Virginia.2
Reviews for America were mixed; the critics complained that the second half of the film didn’t live up to the first half’s sweeping vision of historical details. However, certain members of the press argued that seeing the film was the patriotic duty of every American, whereas on the other side of the pond, the United Kingdom banned America for being anti-British.3
America contains negative portrayals of Native Americans, who are actually played by white actors in “redface.” The film shows the British officers using the Native Americans as pawns to commit violent acts against American men, women, and children. The officers, as well as the film itself, excuse this choice because the Native Americans are supposedly savage by nature. Similarly, America’s slaves are portrayed by white actors in “blackface,” much like how The Birth of a Nation uses white actors to portray Civil War-era and Reconstruction-era enslaved and free African Americans, who are also represented as savage by nature.
In addition to these negative portrayals, America, shares another interesting connection with The Birth of a Nation. While America shows the literal birth of a new nation through revolution, Griffith refers to the Revolutionary War as a civil war. The film’s very first intertitle reads:
The story of the sacrifice made for freedom in the American Revolution is that of a civil war between two groups of English people: one group, the Americans, being merely Englishmen on the American continent.
A later intertitle refers to the Americans as rebels, the same language used to describe the Confederates:
King George the Third… looked upon America as a rebel colony of Englishmen who wanted more liberty than he thought good for them.
Actor Arthur Dewey plays George Washington in America. Not much is known about Dewey other than he was born in 1878, appeared in eight films, and died in 1933 in Los Angeles.4 At first, Dewey’s portrayal seems like the stereotypical heroic version of Washington, but there are some unusual ways that Washington is presented that contradict this easy analysis.
Near the beginning of America, instead of making the expected grand entrance, Washington is first seen by the audience sitting in an armchair with his back to the camera. Although we cannot see him, this withholding contributes to a sense of mystery and gravitas about Washington as a leader and person. He is in a casual, intimate domestic setting, visiting with Nancy Montague and her brother, Charles, at their family estate in Williamsburg. The intertitle reads:
The visitor, Colonel George Washington, descended from the Washingtons of Sulgrave Manorhouse, Northhamptonshire, England, was always a good listener.
In addition to highlighting Washington’s English ancestry,5 this text, alongside the image, also presents Washington as quiet, contemplative, passive, and what we might nowadays call introverted. He is hardly the brave, brash leader. For the entire scene, we only see the back of his head and, very briefly, his profile; we never see him head-on.
We see Washington fully for the first time in a scene at the Virginia House of Burgesses, though he looks tired, stiff, depressed, and older than his actual age. Washington perks up when he sees Nancy and Charles in the balcony. Like a giddy teenager, Nancy remarks (through intertitle):
Ah, what happiness to marry such a man!
Although Washington was married to Martha by this point, Nancy’s proclamation highlights Washington’s effect on women. Later in the scene, when Washington learns the British have attacked Boston, he gives a rousing speech, but Griffith chooses to withhold an intertitle, so we have no idea what Washington is saying. The same lack of voice happens in a future scene showing Washington’s appointment as commander in chief.
So, why is Griffith portraying Washington in this uneven light? Is an ideal representation being downplayed in order to focus more on the love story between Nancy and Nathan? Maybe, but I would argue that Griffith is attempting to show that all the Americans, including someone as familiar to us as Washington, were imperfect and even awkward at times. This portrayal emphasizes Griffith’s desire for us to see the Americans as ordinary people who acted bravely and extraordinarily to create the United States. This representation stands in stark contrast with the film’s portrayal of the British and Tories as frivolous and extravagant. For instance, when Griffith shows Paul Revere’s famous nighttime ride through Boston, Revere and his horse aren’t seen accomplishing their mission with grace and ease. Revere and his horse, although fast, run into obstacles and fumble all over themselves; at one point, the horse and rider fall to the ground and struggle to get back up. But through all these somewhat humorous challenges, Revere and his horse ultimately succeed in their mission.
When Washington wishes Charles and Nancy farewell after the earlier House of Burgesses session, Washington tells Charles in an intertitle,
Charles, you are the son of an honourable father – do your duty – but do it as you see it.
Washington then hugs Charles. Acting affectionately and paternally toward him, Washington has started Charles on a road of giving up his privileged, Tory life and fighting for the Americans.
Although George Washington in not onscreen during much of America’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, his orders and emphasis on duty drive the film’s plot and characters throughout.
1. Hays also oversaw Hollywood’s Production Code or the “Hays Code” of the 1930s. The code sought to self-censor film content before the federal government could force content to be cut or changed.
2. Richard Schickel, D.W. Griffith: Am American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 486-489.
3. Schickel, D.W. Griffith, 492-493.
5. There is apparently some accuracy to this intertitle about GW’s ancestry: http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/ancestry/