Cinematic Firsts: The First Big Budget Hollywood Movie (And The First Sequel) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Big Budget Hollywood Movie (And The First Sequel)

So good they made it twice. Sort of.
1915's The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is an American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era over the course of several years: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons. During the film, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatised.

Often cited as one of the landmarks of film history (indeed, in 1992 the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry) The Birth of a Nation holds many cinematic firsts titles. As well as being the first big budget Hollywood epic production, costing upward of $100,000 (which would be over $2.5 million today when adjusted for inflation), it was the first 12-reel film ever made and, at three hours, also the longest up to that point.

As well as those significant titles, The Birth of a Nation also holds some controversial ones. It was the first film the NAACP campaigned to ban. Although unsuccessful, in response to the film's depictions of black people (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women and the twisting of Civil War history, African Americans across the nation organised and participated in protests against it's release. In places such as in Boston where thousands of white people viewed the film, black leaders tried to have it banned on the basis that it inflamed racial tensions and could incite violence. It also portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatised here) as a heroic force. It's the kind of film Donald Trump probably has playing on a loop at Mar-a-Lago.

MAGAs great, great grandparents came out in force and The Birth of a Nation proved to be a huge success, earning it another cinematic firsts achievement - the first film to earn more then $1million at the box-office! And it didn't stop there! Although the exact take is not known, and was long subject to exaggeration. Griffith's own records put worldwide investor earnings from the film at $5.2 million as of 1919, which was reported as being approximately 10% of the gross earnings. This would certainly tally with trade paper Variety, which for years had the gross box office take listed as $50 million. However, in 1977 they repudiated the claim and revised the estimate down to just $5 million - which would still be over $1billion today when adjusted for inflation. Ch-ching!

The Birth of a Nation also holds one more cinematic firsts record - it was the first film to spawn a full-length sequel.
Several short, single-reel films had received sort-of sequels before The Fall of a Nation arrived in 1916 (including The Little Train Robbery which was a 1905 parodic sequel to the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery with an all-child cast), but this feature length film was produced explicitly to cash-in on the success of The Birth of a Nation. Like so many sequel films that followed over the next 100+ years, it proved to be a huge disappointment.

Produced on a much smaller budget of approximately $31,000, no-one from the original film was involved in The Fall of a Nation, rather director Thomas Dixon, Jr. attempted to cash in on the success of the controversial first film with an attack on the pacifism of William Jennings Bryan and Henry Ford and a plea for American preparedness for war. However, the film, which is now sadly lost in entirity, depicted an unprepared America, succumbing to the "European Confederated Army" (a European army headed by Germany) who invades and executes children and war veterans. In a final twist, America is saved by a pro-war Congressman who raises an army to defeat the invaders with the support of a suffragette.

No exact box-office figure is known for The Fall of a Nation but the production company, Dixon Studios, went bust in 1921 having produced only this one film, so I think we can assume it was a commercial failure. Still, The Fall of a Nation finds its place in our list of cinematic firsts as the first sequel to a big budget Hollywood movie.

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

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