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The Religious Affiliation of Director
D. W. Griffith
From "Deep Focus: D. W. Griffith":
David Wark Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, near La Grange, Kentucky. Much of the Southern brand of romanticism and melodrama one finds in Griffith's work can be traced to his childhood... His mother, a devout evangelical Methodist, shaped his moral values.
From: "American Civil Religion, The Lost Cause, and D.W. Griffith: The Birth of a Nation Revisited," by Kris Jozajtis (Institute of Film Studies, University of Stirling, UK), posted 16 September 2002:
Lary May [Screening Out the Past. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983] emphasizes the importance of the director's Methodist background in describing the way in which Griffith's work gave aesthetic form to the assumptions, tensions and dilemmas of the Progressive era in its quest to affirm a traditional moral order in the face of rapid change... This attitude, May argues, was rooted in Griffith's Southern Methodist upbringing. Appealing to all classes, but "never noted for its originality of thought, or rebellion from authority, the Church emphasized a life of self-denial and sinlessness, which would transform not only the believer, but the entire world as well"... Although May's discussion of Griffith's Methodist background is useful here, he does not really address the way the director's own religious orientation came to shift from his original Methodism. Reflecting the broader process wherein religion was increasingly seen as something private, Griffith would eventually become a freemason, holding "no strong sectarian beliefs." [Schickel, Richard. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984] Thus, while the religious allegories in several films including The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance support Schickel's assertion that Griffith "harbored somewhat loftier, somewhat more romantic, somewhat vaguer religious sentiments," this aspect of the director's work cannot be aligned with the reform movements of the progressive era in as straightforward a way as May appears to claim.
Griffith was buried in Mount Tabor Methodist Church Graveyard in Crestwood, Kentucky. [NNDB.com; URL: http://www.nndb.com/people/483/000032387/, v. 29 April 2005]
From: Gerald Mast, "D. W. Griffith" in World Film Directors, Volume One: 1890-1945, ed. by John Wakeman, H. W. Wilson Company: New York (1987), page 415:
...was born on a farm in Oldham, County, Kentucky... Throughout his career D.W. Griffith revealed himself very much the product of his Southern childhood. His films always reflected a special fondness for rural life and rural people, a longing for an idyllic pastoral world, simpler, clearer, and sweeter than the urban present. He cherished the chivalric traditions of the antebellum South, just as his father Jacob cherished the sword that hung by his side as a soldier and over his mantel after the Civil War. Like his father, Griffith identified human feelings with concrete symbols. He also identified with Southern attitudes toward the proper places of whites and blacks. But if he was a racist--as we now define the term--he was also a populist, sharing the late-nineteenth-century agrarian suspicion of big business and meddlesome government. From childhood also came his initiation into the "finer things" of art. His father, the possessor of a famously powerful and resonant voice, introduced him as a small child to Shakespeare, Poe, Dickens, Longfellow, and the Bible...
From: Lynn Haney, Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life, Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York, NY (2003), pages 44-45:
Like Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Greg was discovering there was an undercurrent of evil amidst the quotidian joys of La Jolla... In 1923, when a black family rented a house on the outskirts of town, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on Mt Soledad.
Mast, page 423:
'None of us youngsters knew what it was all about,' said Greg. 'But even with the sheets we could recognize some of the hot bloods of the town. They made quite an impression on us.
...Started [by Southern Baptists] after the Civil War, the KKK experienced resurgence in the 1920s. Members of the terrorist KKK presented themselves as defenders of the white against the black, of Gentile against Jew, and of Protestant against Catholic. They thus traded on the newly inflamed fears of credulous small-towners in places like La Jolla. Their message appealed to ordinary men with an infantile love of hocus-pocus and a lust for secret adventure. By setting a cross ablaze in the night, they aroused fears of burning houses, beatings and sometimes lynching.
When Greg [Peck] was older he was able to appreciate the immense power of movies as propaganda. As Darryl Zanuck liked to say: 'The movies are the greatest political fact in the world today.' In the case of the KKK, the organization benefited greatly from D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). This controversial, explicitly racist movie set up a major censorship battle over its victious, extremist depiction of African Americans. Nonetheless, the film was a huge box-office moneymaker, raking in $18 million by the start of the talkies. It was the most profitable film for over two decades, until Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Although [The Birth of a Nation] provoked the anger of antiracists--and still does--it remains an essential document in American cultural history. Most white Americans in 1915 shared Griffith's antipathy toward miscegenation and regarded social reformers who supported the black cause as meddlesome cranks... The enormous popular response to Griffith's film indicated that its depiction of blacks was neither offensive nor aberrational in the eyes of contemporary white audiences.
The film's enormous success converted an almost anonymous artisan into a famous public figure, speaking and writing widely and frequently about "the freedom of the screen" and the new art of the motion picture: "This is my art . . . whatever poetry is in my must be worked out in actual practice." Nowhere was Griffith's new role as visionary prophet more obvious than in his next film, Intolerance, perhaps the maddest, most idiosyncratic, most overwhelming and most overblown project in film history. While shooting The Mother and the Law, about gangs and crime in the city slums, Griffith got the notion that spectacular historical parallels could be found for its simply story. The most lavish was set in the ancient civilization of Babylon, which Griffith reconstructed on an enormous scale. The other historical settings were the Judea of Christ and the France of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The theme of Intolerance--which Griffith subtitled "A Sun Play of the Ages"--was that social catastrophes always resulted from intolerant bigotry. The fall of Babylon, the death of Christ, the slaughter of the Huguenots [French Protestants], and the dissolution of the modern family could all be traced to the hypocrisy of "Uplifters."
Webpage created 27 May 2005. Last modified 25 August 2005.
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