Film History – The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941)

An in-depth study of film history is fast proving a necessary requirement for students seeking a better perspective on the development of the discipline. Instead of fiddling with equipment, seeking internships, toying with various methods of editing or auditioning for scenes, history provides a better comprehension of the field for any curious individual. Looking back in time discloses a period when film production was nascent together with the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of ambitious directors. Episodes and scenes produced during this epoch in history were cut in a particular way to enable the directors to tell their stories in a meticulous manner (Gibbs). Film aesthetics were built on experimentation that allowed the said individuals to introduce a wide array of novel concepts that had hitherto never been explored. These artistic experiments later became the reason why photogenic and agreeable candidates were at the center of film production leading to the production of some of arguably the most moving pieces of art. Among the most acclaimed films of all time are The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941). The Birth of a Nation (1915) depicts the post-Civil War United States in the first 12-reel film to ever premiere in the country. The plot is built around the relationship between two families that had emerged out of the Reconstruction Era while having to contend with the realities of this period. On the other hand,  Citizen Kane (1941) presents a mysterious drama centered on Charles Foster Kane and the search for the enigmatic “Rosebud” that was mentioned before his tragic death. The purpose of this research paper is thus to discuss these two films with a specific focus on their similarities and difference together with why a particular approach was favored during their production.

A similarity that stands out between the two films is that they are both feature films. The 20th century was punctuated by the production of short films that were often thought to be more economical and easy to produce. Directors were fond of this technique as they viewed the film production as a risky venture where there was a high likelihood of making substantive losses in the event that it fails. Only a handful of directors were brave enough to take this giant leap of faith and enter the unique world of feature film production. These were motion pictures that were considerably lengthened to produce works with a running time that was long enough to fill a program requirement. Both the British and American Film Institute unanimously are in unanimous agreement that a feature film should run for about 80 minutes or more. The directors, therefore, had plenty of time and angles to implement the mise-en-scene principle. They were at liberty to use shots from a variety of movements, composition or even lighting. Firstly, The Birth of a Nation ( 1915) is filled with scenes that exhibiting spaces and the overall effect that this technique has on the film’s quality.  The camera placement, in particular, came in handy in this case since the cinematic space enabled the filmmaker to determine the mood that would feature (Gibbs 67). Significant elements are, therefore, positioned together before the camera setting a definite design for each shot. A typical example in the film is that of shots representing unique framing of subjects such as Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes. Putting the two within one shot creates a visual relationship common in mise-en-scene. Citizen Kane (1941) also uses this technique, common when Orson Welles fiddles with the lighting to produce strong shadows and dynamic gradients. Every single scene represents a level of manipulation representative of a particular character or setting. A dark room becomes apparent in the “news on the march” scene, with light coming from the small windows, reporters remaining in the shadow, with the audience now being able to focus solely on the protagonist.

A stark difference that stands out between the two films is the representation technique employed by the two directors in depicting their subject matter. There are a plethora of strategies that a director can employ for a particular effect, The primary focus of the application of these techniques has often been to be better placed to communicate with the audience members. A film that is easily comprehended by the common audience member becomes a hit since they vital pieces of information communicated. This, hence, increases their engrossment and the focus they pay to the film, creating a sense of sheer focus on the theme being explored, at any particular instance. D.W. Griffin excels at his direct narration technique that seeks to place the characters at the center of each scene, affording them the ability to relate to what exactly takes place in real-time. The stories of the Camerons of Piedmont and Stonemans of Pennsylvania is at the center of each scene. Their cordial relationship is presented through the cordial interaction that takes place between the patriarchs and their spawn (Lang 89). Conversely, Citizen Kane (1941), uses a different approach with the director preferring to the use of storytelling as an appropriate strategy for his film. In truth, he nearly presents it as a biopic that seeks to provide realistic accounts of its characters while they age towards the end of the film. Moreover, the director chooses to use a unique approach where he avoids using a chronological or linear method of telling the story, but rather preferring the use of overlapping segments to present the story in a flashback. The end result of this technique is that the characters are accorded a particular perspective that now uses their memories to tell their stories (Mcgilligan). It is this particular technique that enables the feature to depict Charles Foster Kane as an enigma of some sort and leaves the audience with more questions than answers.

The similarities mentioned above were a reality simply because this period in time had given space for new and innovative filming techniques that were worth the trouble. A feature-length film provided the filmmaker with an exclusive opportunity to tell their story to the best of their ability. An increase in the time that would normally stipulated a serial, newsreel or even animated comics would now allow filmmakers to expand the time for each reel. The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941) run for 3 hours 13 minutes and 1 hour 59 minutes respectively to allow the directors to incorporate some of the best shots into the films. In contrast, the differences that exist in both films are purely circumstantial. The narrative technique applied in The Birth of a Nation (1915) was ideal for a story that was historically correct while Citizen Kane (1941) required a storytelling one.

In conclusion,  The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941) both represent a special era in history. It was during this period that momentous changes were made in the film industry, particularly seen in the production of feature-length films that used unusual angles. Nevertheless, differences were also present in the mode of presentation that points to the director’s quest to portray their characters in the best manner possible.

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