DW Griffith: Cinema’s Greatest Pioneer at BFI Southbank, June 2015

True Heart Susie (1919)
True Heart Susie (1919)

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it feels like a long time since we saw a solid silent retrospective in this town. No need to bleat about it much longer though, eh, as the BFI has just the thing. DW Griffith – still arguably the most important American movie director of all time – will inhabit the BFI Southbank for most of June.

The season concentrates on the feature films up to and including Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie. Especial care is taken over Griffith’s best-known, and still-controversial, film Birth of a Nation (1915), in its centenary year. The movie will screen with introductions on both occasions, and a special roundtable event will bring together keynote speakers from UCL’s “In the Shadow of Birth of a Nation” conference to discuss the film. To provide further context, on 7 June the BFI will screen all three parts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s DW Griffith: Father of Film documentary.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)

This is one of those events that should have every cinephile in the city licking their lips. And you don’t have to be a silent nerd or a completist to understand why. There’s far more to DW Griffith than the awful things he believed and the clever things he is credited with doing first. Watching the films, especially on the big screen, is the best way to appreciate his genius. And look at the cast list here too: the season features several turns from the wonderful Lillian Gish, as well as Richard Barthelmess, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Mae Marsh.

Highlights of the season include screenings of the undisputed classics Broken Blossoms, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm and Way Down East, as well as less-often-seen titles such as Hearts of the World, Isn’t Life Wonderful, A Romance of Happy Valley, True Heart Susie and America. Several of the films screen with shorts (Judith of Bethulia with two). I’d have preferred to see more of the shorts in the programme, but then, I’m quite obsessed with them – and these features can prove surprisingly elusive.

Hearts of the World (1918)
Hearts of the World (1918)

On to specifications – most, but not quite all, of the films will be shown in 35mm. And of the silents, most, but not quite all, will have live piano accompaniment. I’m happy with that.

Tickets go on sale in May, so you have plenty of time to scour the programme. Hats off to anyone who gets along to EVERYTHING. That would be a fine thing to do. And an excellent curtain-raiser for In Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

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