“America”: D. W. Griffith’s Flop

D. W. Griffith, probably the most famous director in the world in the 1920s, badly needed another blockbuster. His 1915 feature film about the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation, had taken the country by storm (although today it is seen as a racist film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan), so it was probably inevitable that his thoughts would turn to something similarly ambitious about the Revolutionary War. In 1923, he began filming America on location in Virginia. No full copies survive, only a partial, so it is hard to judge it today. But at the time, it was an expensive flop, costing $900,000. Griffith barely survived financial ruin. It was his last epic silent film and his longest, at 14 reels.

A new article by W. Barksdale Maynard in the summer issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal tells the story of this lavish production. Much of it was filmed in and around Williamsburg, in the years shortly before John D. Rockefeller, Jr., began to restore the town to its colonial heyday. Griffith found plenty of good locations for his story about a Massachusetts farmer and a Virginia belle. He used plantations along the James River and houses in Yorktown and Williamsburg, and the College of William and Mary, with student extras dressed up like Indians.  He moved to Massachusetts to film the scenes of the Battle of Bunker Hill and Paul Revere’s ride.

In the article, Maynard points out that fully half of all pre-1950 films are lost. America isn’t entirely lost–an edited copy was discovered in England, with the parts that were uncomplimentary to British soldiers cut out–but it does not survive in its entirety.

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