The First-Ever Movie Sequel Has Been Lost — But Maybe That’s a Good Thing

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The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film, is undeniably a milestone in the history of cinema. Despite its problematic content, the film introduced groundbreaking filmmaking techniques, such as fade-outs, close-ups, parallel action shots, and battle sequences with large-scale extras. It was a blockbuster success, earning over $60 million by 1920, and became the first American film with an orchestral score. Notably, it was also screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, who made racially insensitive comments in response. This film also paved the way for another significant first: the first feature-length film sequel, 1916’s The Fall of a Nation.

“The Fall of a Nation”: A Warning about America’s Possible Future

Unlike its predecessor, The Fall of a Nation explores a speculative future where the United States faces destruction due to its pacifist stance. After the sinking of the Lusitania, American millionaire Charles Waldron joins forces with the Germans to overthrow the American government. The invading European Confederated Army executes citizens, taking advantage of America’s unpreparedness caused by its pacifism. The Germans conquer the nation, installing Waldron as the puppet leader. However, after two years of German rule, Congressman John Vassar and suffragette Virginia Holland lead an uprising to liberate America. Women soldiers known as the “Daughters of Jael” seduce and eliminate the enemy forces. The revolt restores America’s rule, abandoning pacifism in favor of military preparedness. Vassar and Holland plan to marry, heralding a brighter future.

“The Fall of a Nation”: Propaganda with Its Own Agenda

The Fall of a Nation, based on a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr., sought to capitalize on the success of Griffith’s film. Dixon Jr., who profited from The Birth of a Nation, intended his film to attack pacifism while advocating American preparedness for war. By depicting life under German rule and their brutal acts, the film unabashedly served as pro-war propaganda. It found utility in Europe during World War I, where it was extensively screened in war zones and Russian cities.

However, unlike The Birth of a Nation and other problematic films like Triumph of the Will, The Fall of a Nation failed to leave a lasting impact on society. Griffith’s contributions to filmmaking techniques supersede the reprehensible content and racism of the story. In contrast, Leni Riefenstahl, director of Triumph of the Will, is recognized as one of the most talented yet controversial filmmakers of the 20th century. The Fall of a Nation, unfortunately, suffered commercial failure, leading to the bankruptcy and closure of Dixon Jr.’s production company, Dixon Studios, in 1921.

Regrettably, The Fall of a Nation is considered lost, with no known surviving copies. Only the novel, a few stills, and the soundtrack preserved by the Library of Congress remain. As a result, our understanding of the film is limited, fueling debates about its status as a true sequel. While some battle scenes were filmed in the same location as The Birth of a Nation, the films diverge in time, characters, and narrative continuity. Nonetheless, in a world that has witnessed questionable sequels like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, it’s arguable whether The Fall of a Nation should be dismissed as a sequel or not.

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