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7 Best Movies of D. W. Griffith: Legacy Collection of the Father of Film

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith may have passed away in the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, he will never be really gone.

Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to meet the father of film, and to witness his masterful depiction of the cruelty of humankind, all you have to do, is watching one (or more) of his movies.

But which ones should you watch?
Well, if that’s the very question lurking in your mind right now, then you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the 7 Best Movies of D. W. Griffith.

If this is your first ride on the time-travelling FrameTrek Wagon, here’s what this is all about:

We choose a topic, in this case: “Best Movies of D. W. Griffith”, and we set sail for a journey, where the bricks of the trek are made of movie frames, and each stop represents a magnificent achievement in Film.

The Best Movies of D. W. Griffith is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet D. W. Griffith, the Father of Film

(1875 – 1948)

D. W. Griffith is widely considered as the most important filmmaker of the early Silent Era, and as one of the most dichotomous figures in movie history.

Lillian Gish called Griffith “the father of film”, Charlie Chaplin called him “the teacher of us all”, and scholars often refer to him as “the man who invented Hollywood” or “the Shakespeare of the screen”.

Born in Kentucky, young Griffith grew up with his father’s romantic war stories and melodramatic nineteenth-century literature that were to eventually shape his movies.

He began his career as a playwright, then moved to stage acting, then film acting, and finally to movie directing. In fact, Griffith went from being a bit player to the industry’s leading director in a period of only five years.

He produced and directed the first movie ever made in Hollywood, and he was the first to utter the catchphrase “Lights, camera, action!” which is still widely used in film-making.

A film without a message is just a waste of time.

D. W. Griffith

Griffith was one of the most prolific directors of all time, with over 450 shorts and over 80 feature-length films to his credit.

While making the shorts, he was experimenting with the story-telling techniques he would later perfect in his epic The Birth of a Nation.

He pioneered the feature-length movie and many enduring cinematic techniques and filming innovations, such as the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting, the iris shot and the systematic use of the soft focus shot and the split screen.

Most of Griffith’s films depict the cruelty of humankind, and he was said to have been an imperious, humorless man. He was hailed for his vision in narrative film-making, but he was similarly criticized for his blatant racism.

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to D. W. Griffith, but this article concentrates on his Top 7 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, a director is as good as his greatest achievements. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Griffith, is through watching his best films as a marathon.

Ready? Buckle up then, and let the best movies of D. W. Griffith carry you to the early days of the Silent Era!

See FrameTrek's definition of 'Best' and the story behind this List (click to expand) ↴

How to define ‘Best’?

That’s a pretty good question, since ‘Best’ is relative. A movie can be considered being among the best for multiple reasons, such as: Critical Acclaim, Audience Feedback, Box Office Performance, Awards and Nominations, Iconic Status, Popularity, Watchability, and even Personal Preference, or for being part of a famous list such as the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die or Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list – or because that particular movie defined its era, or because it was a defining achievement of the artist(s) involved.

So how did we pick the Top 7 Movies of D. W. Griffith?

Well, it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy! D. W. Griffith directed so many excellent films, that it’s almost impossible to build a “Top List”, without leaving some of his great movies out of the spotlight. We did our best though.

While composing the Best Films of D. W. Griffith list, we tried to consider all of the factors mentioned in the ‘How to define Best’ paragraph above, and then some.

We believe that the movies that made the cut should not compete with one another any further, so we will just present them in the order they were released in.

If you watch these movies in a chronological order, you will embark on a cinematic journey through D. W. Griffith’s life, following him from the start of his career to the end.



Presenting the 7 Best Films of D. W. Griffith

Chronologically


A Corner in Wheat (1909)

A Corner in Wheat (1909), Greatest movies of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

Short silent drama film.

Story: A greedy capitalist tycoon tries to corner the world market on wheat. As a result, the price of bread doubles, pushing the masses into poverty.

Between Frames:
✪ One of the first films in which D.W. Griffith used the technique of parallel editing. It was used to create the effects in the wheat suffocating scene.

A Corner in Wheat was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The Birth of a Nation (1915), Lillian Gish, Greatest films of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent epic historical drama film starring Lillian Gish.

The story takes place during the American Civil War. It is based on the groundbreaking historical novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, first published in 1905, written by american author Thomas F. Dixon Jr. Would you like to read the book?

Between Frames:
✪ Reportedly, Griffith visualized the whole film in his mind and did not write out a script or keep written notes.

Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Birth of a Nation among the best movies of D. W. Griffith?
✓ It’s one of the most controversial movies of all time, due to its racist overtones and for being responsible for the revival of the long-dead Ku Klux Klan.
✓ It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.
✓ The earliest feature-length film among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and it’s also on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.


Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), Lillian Gish, Best movies of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent epic historical drama film starring Lillian Gish.

The movie tells four parallel stories of intolerance in four different historical eras. These stories revolve around a mountain girl of ancient Babylon, Jesus Christ, two Huguenots in 1572 and a young couple in modern America.

Between Frames:
✪ The inspiration for this film came from D. W. Griffith’s surprise at the loud protests against his previous film, The Birth of a Nation. In response to those attacks, he wanted to illustrate the problem with intolerance to other people’s views.
✪ During filming of the battle sequences, many of the extras got so into their characters that they caused real injury to each other. They were treated at the production’s hospital tent.

A pioneering classic and one of the most influential films ever made, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance stands as the crowning jewel in an incredible filmography.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Intolerance among the best films of D.W. Griffith?
✓ In the years following its release, this movie would strongly influence European film movements.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and selected by the Vatican in the “values” category of its list of 45 “great films”.
✓ It was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), Lillian Gish, Best films of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

American drama romance film starring Lillian Gish.

It is based on the romantic short story The Chink and the Child written by British author Thomas Burke, in his collection of Chinatown tales, entitled Limehouse Nights, first published in 1916. Would you like to read the book?

The heartbreaking story of a waterfront waif from the Limehouse district of London who escapes the abuse of her father through a doomed relationship with a Chinese immigrant. (Amazon)

Between Frames:
✪ While filming the closet scene, Lillian Gish’s performance of pure terror was so realistic that D.W. Griffith was compelled to shout back at her and urge her further. A passerby heard this and he was so convinced that something terrible was going on, that he had to be restrained from entering the studio.

Thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms presents a master at the top of his form.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Broken Blossoms among the top movies of D. W. Griffith?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.



True Heart Susie (1919)

True Heart Susie (1919), Lillian Gish, Top movies of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent romantic drama film starring Lillian Gish.

Story: Susie, a plain young country girl, secretly loves a neighbor boy, William. She believes in him and sacrifices much of her own happiness to promote his own ambitions, all without his knowledge. (Amazon)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most beautiful films, a pastoral fable of a sort that no one could ever make again, because the sensitivity and spirit have vanished along with the landscape.

Dave Kehr

Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East (1920), Lillian Gish, Top films of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

American silent romantic drama film starring Lillian Gish.

Story: A naive country girl is tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy womanizer, then must rebuild her life despite the taint of having borne a child out of wedlock. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Reportedly, D.W. Griffith was frostbitten on one side of his face during the shooting, and it bothered him the rest of his life.

Why is Way Down East among the top films of D. W. Griffith?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ One of the most popular and highest grossing movies of the 1920s, and an all-time silent classic.


Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Orphans of the Storm (1921), Lillian Gish, Greatest movies of D. W. Griffith
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic history drama film starring Lillian Gish, and her sister, Dorothy.

Story: Two orphaned sisters are caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, encountering misery and love along the way. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ D. W. Griffith used this movie as a means of commenting, obliquely, on the politics of his time, using the French Revolution to warn about the rise of Bolshevism.

Orphans of the Storm is included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.


The end of D. W. Griffith’s Story

In the years following Birth of a Nation, Griffith never again saw the same monumental success as his signature film.

As the 1920s roared on, Griffith’s films seemed more and more old-fashioned, and no longer appealed to the younger audiences.

He had become temperamentally and artistically out of sync with his times, and, in 1931, his increasing failures forced his retirement.

In 1948, aged 73, Griffith suffered a fatal stroke in the lobby of a small Los Angeles hotel where he had been living alone, and he died on the way to a Hollywood hospital.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of D. W. Griffith’s life and death, you may want to read D.W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel.



…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 7 Greatest Films of D. W. Griffith

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

7 Best movies of D. W. Griffith
Legacy of the Father of Film
A Corner in Wheat 1909
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Birth of a Nation 1915
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages 1916
Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)
Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl 1919
Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)
True Heart Susie 1919
True Heart Susie (1919)
Way Down East 1920
Way Down East (1920)
Orphans of the Storm 1921
Orphans of the Storm (1921)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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