Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
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A controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece - these all describe ground-breaking producer/director D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). The domestic melodrama/epic originally premiered with the title The Clansman in February, 1915 in Los Angeles, California, but three months later was retitled with the present title at its world premiere in New York, to emphasize the birthing process of the US.

The film was based on former North Carolina Baptist minister Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s anti-black, 1905 bigoted melodramatic staged play, The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy:

  • The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900
  • The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan
  • The Traitor

Its release set up a major censorship battle over its vicious, extremist depiction of African Americans, although Griffith naively claimed that he wasn't racist at the time. Unbelievably, the film is still used today as a recruitment piece for Klan membership - and in fact, the organization experienced a revival and membership peak in the decade immediately following its initial release. And the film stirred new controversy when it was voted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and when it was voted one of the "Top 100 American Films" (at # 44) by the American Film Institute in 1998.

Film scholars agree, however, that it is the single most important and key film of all time in American movie history - it contains many new cinematic innovations and refinements, technical effects and artistic advancements, including a color sequence at the end. It had a formative influence on future films and has had a recognized impact on film history and the development of film as art. In addition, at almost three hours in length, it was the longest film to date. However, it still provokes conflicting views about its message.

The debate regarding the film's form versus content will never end. The film is many things: repulsive, naive, biased, simplistic, historically inaccurate, and astonishing in its view of history and racist glorification of the KKK. Yet it is also a tremendously significant and powerful work of art (and example of movie propaganda), with extraordinary effects and brilliantly-filmed sequences.

Director Griffith's original budget of $40,000 (expanded to $60,000) quickly ballooned, so Griffith appealed to businessmen and other investors to help finance the film - that eventually cost $110,000! The propagandistic film was one of the biggest box-office money-makers in the history of film, partly due to its exorbitant charge of $2 per ticket - unheard of at the time. This 'first' true blockbuster made $18 million by the start of the talkies. [It was the most profitable film for over two decades, until Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).]

The pro-war propaganda film The Fall of a Nation (1916), writer/director Thomas Dixon Jr.'s follow-up film to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, is widely considered to be the first film sequel. [Note: It is a lost film that no one alive has seen.] Dixon, whose 1905 book The Clansman was the source for Griffith's 1915 film, sought to capitalize on the film's financial success by writing and publishing a new novel in 1916 titled The Fall of a Nation - he then made it into a film. It was a commercial disaster and his Dixon Studios went bankrupt. Some have argued that The Fall of a Nation isn't a true sequel, because it didn't follow a similar story, wasn't set in the same time period, and didn't include any of the same characters.

The subject matter of Griffith's film caused immediate criticism by the newly-created National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its racist and "vicious" portrayal of blacks, its proclamation of miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance, and its endorsement of slavery. As a result, two scenes were cut (a love scene between Reconstructionist Senator and his mulatto mistress, and a fight scene). But the film continued to be renounced as "the meanest vilification of the Negro race." Riots broke out in major cities (Boston, Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis, eight states in total). Subsequent lawsuits and picketing tailed the film for years when it was re-released (in 1924, 1931, and 1938).

The resulting controversy only helped to fuel the film's box-office appeal, and it became a major hit. Even President Woodrow Wilson during a private screening at the White House is reported to have enthusiastically exclaimed: "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true." To his credit, Griffith later (by 1921) released a shortened, re-edited version of the film without references to the KKK.

In its explicitly caricaturist presentation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains and violent rapists and threats to the social order, it appealed to white Americans who subscribed to the mythic, romantic view (similar to Sir Walter Scott historical romances) of the Old Plantation South. Many viewers were thrilled by the love affair between Northern and Southern characters and the climactic rescue scene. The film also thematically explored two great American issues: inter-racial sex and marriage, and the empowerment of blacks. Ironically, although the film was advertised as authentic and accurate, the film's major black roles in the film -- including the Senator's mulatto mistress, the mulatto politican brought to power in the South, and faithful freed slaves -- were stereotypically played and filled by white actors - in blackface. [The real blacks in the film only played in minor roles.]

Its climactic finale, the suppression of the black threat to white society by the glorious Ku Klux Klan, helped to assuage some of America's sexual fears about the rise of defiant, strong (and sexual) black men and the repeal of laws forbidding intermarriage.

To answer his critics, director Griffith made a follow-up film, the magnificent four story epic about human intolerance titled Intolerance (1916). A group of independent black filmmakers released director Emmett J. Scott's The Birth of a Race in 1919, filmed as a response to Griffith's masterwork, with a more positive image of African-Americans, but it was largely ignored. Prolific black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's first film, the feature-length The Homesteader (1919) (a lost film), and Within Our Gates (1920) more effectively countered the message of Griffith's film.

Its pioneering technical work, often the work of Griffith's under-rated cameraman Billy Bitzer, includes many techniques that are now standard features of films, but first used in this film. Griffith brought all of his experience and techniques to this film from his earliest short films at Biograph, including the following:

  • the use of ornate title cards
  • special use of subtitles graphically verbalizing imagery
  • its own original musical score written for an orchestra
  • the introduction of night photography (using magnesium flares)
  • the use of outdoor natural landscapes as backgrounds
  • the definitive usage of the still-shot
  • elaborate costuming to achieve historical authenticity and accuracy
  • many scenes innovatively filmed from many different and multiple angles
  • the technique of the camera "iris" effect (expanding or contracting circular masks to either reveal and open up a scene, or close down and conceal a part of an image)
  • the use of parallel action and editing in a sequence (Gus' attempted rape of Flora, and the KKK rescues of Elsie from Lynch and of Ben's sister Margaret)
  • extensive use of color tinting for dramatic or psychological effect in sequences
  • moving, traveling or "panning" camera tracking shots
  • the effective use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions
  • beautifully crafted, intimate family exchanges
  • the use of vignettes seen in "balloons" or "iris-shots" in one portion of a darkened screen
  • the use of fade-outs and cameo-profiles (a medium closeup in front of a blurry background)
  • the use of lap dissolves to blend or switch from one image to another
  • high-angle shots and the abundant use of panoramic long shots
  • the dramatization of history in a moving story - an example of an early spectacle or epic film with historical costuming and many historical references (e.g., Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs)
  • impressive, splendidly-staged battle scenes with hundreds of extras (made to appear as thousands)
  • extensive cross-cutting between two scenes to create a montage-effect and generate excitement and suspense (e.g., the scene of the gathering of the Klan)
  • expert story-telling, with the cumulative building of the film to a dramatic climax

The film looks remarkably genuine and authentic, almost of documentary quality (like Brady's Civil War photographs), vividly reconstructing a momentous time period in history - and it was made only 50 years after the end of the Civil War. Its story includes the events leading up to the nation's split; the Civil War era; the period from the end of the Civil War to Lincoln's assassination; the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era detailing the struggle over the control of Congress during Andrew Johnson's presidency and actions of the Radical Republicans to enfranchise the freed slaves, and the rise of the KKK.

Plot Synopsis

The picture is prefaced by "A PLEA FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE":

We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue - the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word - that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

Another message precedes the film with a warning about the horrors of war: "If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain."

First Part of the Film:

The story opens with a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century, with a prediction that it will sow future discord and disorder:

The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.

An image of Africans being brought to America and sold at auction in the South follows the title. The rise of the abolitionist movement of the 19th century demands the freeing of the slaves.

Then, in pre-Civil War 1860, the film dramatically focuses on two families. The Northern Stoneman family (of Washington D.C., with a country home in Pennsylvania) is led by imposing parliamentary leader, the Hon. Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), an abolitionist leader in the National House of representatives [in a role patterned after Pennsylvanian Senator Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican leader and anti-slavery crusader]. Stoneman has three children:

  • a lovely daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish)
  • light-hearted Phil (Elmer Clifton)
  • the youngest Tod (Robert Harron)

The two Stoneman boys are friends with another family - the Camerons. The Southern Cameron family (of Piedmont, South Carolina) are plantation gentry. They live in the pastoral Southland, "where life runs in a quaintly way that is to be no more." The Camerons are plump parents with two pretty daughters and three sons:

  • eldest Margaret (Miriam Cooper), "trained in the manners of the old school"
  • younger pet sister, Flora (Violet Wilkey as a child), known as "Little Sister"
  • eldest son Benjamin (Henry B. Walthall), known as "the Little Colonel"
  • second son Wade (Andre Beranger)
  • youngest son Duke (Maxfield Stanley)

A subtitle "Hostilities," is placed before a shot of a kitten and two puppies playing in the Cameron household, in a humorous moment. Although the Camerons live in town, their cotton plantation is nearby - a beautiful place where happy slaves work in the fields contentedly picking cotton. All is at peace, the calm of the glory days of the Old South.

Pennsylvanians Phil and Tod Stoneman visit their boarding-school friends, the tolerant slave-owning Camerons, in Piedmont, South Carolina. Romance develops with the sisters on either side in the idyllic setting of the South.

  • Eldest boy Phil Stoneman falls for the elder Cameron daughter, Margaret -- they walk together "by way of Love Valley"
  • Benjamin Cameron becomes enchanted with Phil's sister, the beautiful Elsie, after he sees a daguerrotype picture of her and idealizes her: "He finds the ideal of his dreams in the picture of Elsie Stoneman, his friend's sister, whom he has never seen"

In the slave quarters, the slaves are given a two-hour interval for dinner, during their working day from six till six. Outside the slave quarters of the plantation, the white masters are entertained by the dancing and performance of black slaves, their family servants.

"The Gathering Storm. The power of the sovereign threatened by the new administration." Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) reads to his family and the two Stonemans the news of the South's threat to secede from the Union. The Charleston newspaper headlines are highlighted with an iris shape: "If the North Carries the Election, the South will Secede." War threatens to interrupt the peaceful calm and order.

In the North, Charles Sumner, leader of the Senate, confers with Austin Stoneman, the master of Congress in his library in Washington. Lydia Brown (Mary Alden), Stoneman's mulatto housekeeper, "is aroused from ambitious dreamings by Sumner's curt orders." Lydia is observed brimming with lust and rending her clothes in sexual frenzy after Sumner leaves. Stoneman's sexual obsession with her is "the great leader's weakness that is to blight a nation."

Soon, the young Stonemans must leave and return North, Phil vowing his fidelity to Margaret "that his only dreams shall be of her till they meet again." The outbreak of the Civil War disrupts the familial relationships of the Stonemans and Camerons. The separation of the domestic families and the couples by war and disunion serves as a symbol of the political divisions between North and South.

In "an historical facsimile" tableaux, President Lincoln signs the proclamation for the First Call for 75,000 volunteers, "to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states." With Civil War declared and the outbreak of fighting, the two families are put on opposite sides of the rivalry. The Stoneman brothers (Phil and Tod) depart to join their regiment and fight for the Union.

The Southern town of Piedmont is jubilant after early victories at Bull Run, holding a military ball in the Cameron Hall living room: "After the first battle of Bull Run, Piedmont's farewell ball on the eve of the departure of its quota of troops for the front." Bonfire celebrations are held at night (with night photography) in the streets of the South. "While youth dances the night away, childhood and old age slumber." Margaret Cameron and the entire younger set attend the ball, while Flora the youngest child and the two elder Camerons sleep during the festivities. More subtitles floridly describe the war effort: "The first flag of the Confederacy, baptized in glory at Bull Run," is proudly displayed during the ball.

Daybreak comes, and the time is set for the troops' departure. The pride of the South is assembled. The South's flag expresses their fighting spirit: "Conquer We Must For Our Cause is Just: Victory or Death." The three Cameron boys, "a mother's gift to the cause," Wade, Duke and Ben, join the Confederate army, going off to war. Ben and his flower-decked horse ride out of Piedmont to waving, cheering, jubilant crowds - a gallant example of the southern gentry.

Two and a half years later, Ben Cameron in the field has a letter from his sister Flora. In close-up, he reads: "...I'm growing up too - they say I'm such a big girl now, you wouldn't know me. xxxxxx (kisses) Your little (crossed out) big Sis." In turn, Flora (Mae Marsh as an adult), now grown-up, reads a letter from her brother, telling of news from the front. Piedmont is scarred by the war. An irregular force of guerillas raids the town. The scalawag white captain influences his Negro militia to follow his orders, and the troop of raiders terrorizes the Cameron family. As the Cameron house is raided, ransacked, and set on fire by the black Northern militia, the Cameron women hide. A company of Confederate state troops is informed of the raid, and they rescue the town and the Cameron household from the intruders.

On the warfront, Ben reads letters from home, and his dreams of Elsie are stirred when he looks at her picture again. "On the battlefield, war claims its bitter, useless sacrifice. True to their promise, the chums meet again." The youngest Cameron son Duke raises his bayonet on the battlefield over a wounded soldier and then abruptly stops. He appears to recognize the face of the fallen soldier - with a look of shock, he sees the face of his friend, the youngest Stoneman boy Tod. At that ironic moment when both boys face each other on the battlefield, and at the instant that Tod dies of wounds, a bullet strikes Duke - he falls down next to the body of his friend. Both families are devastated by the news of the deaths of their youngest sons. War affects family life on both sides. The Camerons must sell "the last of their dearest possessions" for the failing cause. Elsie volunteers as a nurse in the military hospitals in the North.

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