Birth of a Nation Wasn’t the First Feature Film

By  · Published on February 11th, 2015

David W. Griffith Corp.

This is a public service announcement. Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first feature film ever made. It wasn’t even the first American feature film ever made.

It may be a lot of things – instantly and consistently controversial, a prototype for true 20th century filmmaking techniques, indescribably influential – but it is not, nor will it ever be (unless time travel is invented) the first feature film.

Yet this persistent and easily disprovable myth has gained new life since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the D.W. Griffith KKK epic. The superlative showed up in a Haaretz article recently, and now Vulture has a piece entitled “Why No One is Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Feature Film” whose thesis is that we’re too ashamed of Birth of a Nation to praise it. The correct answer, of course, is that no one is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the feature film because it isn’t the 100th anniversary of the feature film.

In the Vulture piece, Godfrey Cheshire (which is either a pen name or the 99th in line to become Duke of Marlborough) opens by proclaiming:

By one way of reckoning, this week – February 8, to be exact – can be called the 100th birthday of the medium that many of us have spent our lives enthralled with: the feature film.

That way of reckoning? Ignoring history. Or not knowing it. That should read “By zero ways of reckoning,” because there is no metric by which Birth of a Nation can be considered the first feature film.

Cheshire also concedes that, “of course, the definitions of such landmark dates can be debated,” and I’ll agree to that, but Birth of a Nation isn’t anywhere near the debate over what the first feature length film was. We know there were features before it, so we can cross it off the list.

By the best current accounts, the honor goes to 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, at least in terms of length and dramatization. Of course, events like boxing matches were being documented on film (at feature length) and shown to paying customers about a decade prior, and narrative, edited features emerged alongside Kelly Gang in several different countries.

If we’re only looking at the US, Cleopatra was a six-reeler made in 1912 (3 full years before Birth of a Nation’s release for those keeping score), but the truth is that we can’t know for sure what the first American feature film was because of how many silent films we’ve lost. However, even with that uncertainty, we can still be certain that Birth of a Nation wasn’t the first.

There was an episode of “This American Life” a few years ago that explored origin stories – specifically, why we’re drawn to dishonest or incomplete myths like Google starting in a garage. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We like drama. We like origin stories to be “stories,” which is why I think the myth of Birth of a Nation being the first feature film is so pervasive.

On the one hand, you have an Australian outlaw film that we’ve mostly forgotten. It’s claim to fame is that it was the first, but that’s as far as its survived in our cultural memory.

On the other hand, you have a massively innovative, American film that’s viewed as one of the most controversial and offensive movies of all time. Feature filmmaking didn’t just tiptoe onto the scene, it burst forth in a fiery blaze of controversy with “birth” right there in the title.

There’s drama there. There’s also a boost to our ego, and not just for Americans who want to think we did everything first. We get to live through the 100th anniversary of it. Never mind that we lived through the 100th anniversary of the feature film 9 years ago, we get to live through it today. It’s an historic event. It just isn’t real.

In a way, I get it. For one, a twitter follower told me that Birth of a Nation was taught in his film school as the first feature film. So there’s that problem. For two, it’s the kind of “fact” that feels real. First feature film? 1915? Sound about right. It was a long time ago, and that’s a recognizable title. Plus, there’s the undeniable appeal of the myth’s romance.

“The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature film,” while true, feels like trivia. “Birth of a Nation was the first feature film,” while not true, feels like an epic, bombastic beginning to the story of feature filmmaking.

There’s also not a lot at stake here (although it’s embarrassing to know that some teachers at film schools are getting basic facts wrong). The truth is out there for anyone who cares to look for it, and it’s not like an earthquake happens every time the lie is repeated, but history matters, and maybe you can make twenty bucks off someone in a bar blindly parroting what his film studies professor said.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.