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D. W. Griffith and His Transformation in Narrative Film

Linna Wang

Film 106A
Professor J. Kuntz
TA Michael Potterton
Section 1J
Jan 26 2013
In both his narrative film style and his artistic skills in film editing techniques, D. W. Griffith offered new perspectives on filmmaking method. Rather than following the cinematic principles and using cameras merely as a recording machine, he boldly ran to aesthetic innovation on different aspects of filmmaking. We can call him the inventor of the early film techniques. Although controversy rose due to his ignorance of his own racism, exaggeration in certain films and late years failure, it is with no doubt that Griffith had led filmmaking into a new era. Like other art forms, film then developed into a new kind of art form.

A new way of telling a screen story
In early years of filmmaking, we can see filmmakers attempted to be innovators in narrative of film. The first narrative film in 1903, The Great Train Robbery, produced and directed by Edwin S. Porter, who was an employee in the Edison Company, was indeed a coup and gained enormous popularity among a vast majority of audiences. The 12-minute-silent film gave people ideas of story telling in motion pictures. It seemed that D.W. Griffith had an unusual perspective on telling a story happening before cameras. Although he ran with failures on the point of being an actor, he certainly was a successful writer, especially a “screenwriter” when dealing with motion pictures. His inspiration of his romantic and poetic ideals mostly came from his favorite novels like those of Maupassant and Lev N. Tolstoy. Some of his inspiration was even inspired by some famous epic poem. From his perspective, telling a story on screen is not only keeping the audiences understanding of what is happening without confusion. Rather than merely recording with continuity using cameras, storytelling from his perspective is more like artistic creation of art and literature. The company noticed that the movies he had made were entirely different from those in early cinema. Just like what he said when responding to his employer who was astonished by his novelty in using a parallel story line during his film, “How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know that way.” “Well, doesn’t Dickens write that way?” “Yes, but writing is different.” “Not much. These stories are in pictures, that’s all.” Similar to different styles in the creation of literature, Griffith was creating his own style on film narrative, concerning every problem of humanities, history and nations, and unveiled the philosophy behind these. Early filmmaking companies like Edison and The Lumiere Brothers hired employers from all kinds of careers to be cameramen. They let them understand how the technology works and forced them to make improvements on this technology to sell their product. However, when it came to D. W. Griffith, he was concerned by, not the industry itself, but shaping filmmaking to an independent art form. His narrative film concept propelled filmmaking to new heights. People called Griffith a whole-souled romantic. The romanticism implanted in him was due to his father’s subtle affect on him in childhood. As he became more sophisticated in controlling motion pictures, he realized that a film would become convincing and emphatic only if the content was meaningful and attractive. Therefore in telling a story D. W. Griffith seemed to have more meaning to convey. “His aesthetics were used to dramatize the social and cultural tensions of the era, giving them an explicitly Protestant tone. Reporters referred him as the ‘messianic savior of movie art, a prophet who made shadow sermons more powerful than the pulpit’…the merging of politics, vice crusading and films represented in Griffith’s career offers a chance to probe one of the great historical dilemmas of the era.” Compared to the Lumiere Brothers who regarded film as a “scientific...
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