Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 3 hrs. 7 min.
Release Date: March 3rd, 1915 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: D.W. Griffith Actors: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Seigmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Jos Henabery, Josephine Crowell
ased on Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman,” the opening title cards (added upon a re-released exhibition) insist that offending audiences is not the intention, but rather to artistically express history and entertainment by showing “the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue.” If the idea of war can be held in abhorrence after witnessing “The Birth of a Nation,” a worthwhile accomplishment has been made. To its creators, despite the controversial content (namely the dramatized, exaggerated heroism of the Ku Klux Klan), it’s held in the same creative liberty as the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. Indeed, among scholars and historians, the picture is considered a significant work, an outright classic, and among the greatest of all American films.
A single shot portrays the Africans who are brought to America to work on plantations. The next scene shows the abolitionists of the nineteenth century demanding their freedom. By 1860, the great Northern parliamentary leader, Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), rises to power in the House of Representatives, introduced as he relaxes in Washington and Pennsylvania with his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish), enjoying their wealth and luxury.
Meanwhile, in Piedmont, South Carolina, the Southern Cameron family is also well to do. Bennie Cameron (Henry Walthall) and elder sister Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper) await the arrival of visitors – the young Stoneman brothers. One falls in love with Margaret, while Ben is instantly enamored by Elsie’s photograph. Shortly after they depart, President Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) signs the proclamation and calls for volunteers to enforce the rule of the coming nation over the individual states. A grand ball sends off troops for glory at Bull Run, with three Cameron boys heading to war.
Two and a half years later, on the front lines, Ben (“The little Colonel”) gets a letter from his youngest sister, Flora (Mae Marsh). But in South Carolina, black guerrillas, led by a scalawag white captain, ransack the Cameron’s home. Fortunately, the confederates arrive just in time to drive out the militia. At the same time, the Cameron sons and the Stoneman sons reunite, this time on the battlefield, which claims several of their lives. The bombardment of Atlanta, a misled food train and General Lee’s attempt to save it, the siege of Petersburg, and Ben’s final failed assault against the intrenchments of surviving son Captain Phil Stoneman (Elmer Clifton) are all chronicled as the film progresses. The little Colonel is wounded and transported to a Washington patents-office-turned-hospital, where Elsie coincidentally works as a military nurse. In 1865, General Lee surrenders at the Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War.
But there is no instantaneous peace. Radical leaders (led by Austin Stoneman and his mulatto protégé Silas Lynch, played by George Seigmann) protest Lincoln’s plan for clemency toward the South, demanding that their commanders be hanged and that the defeated states be treated like conquered provinces. When Lincoln is assassinated, the Reconstruction Period takes a turn for the worse, inviting Northern exploiters (carpetbaggers), continued hatred, a determination by Northern radicals to punish the South for their use of slaves, and finally the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (inspired by black children being scared by white-sheeted ghost costumes) – a veritable empire of the South – to protect the Southern country from vengeful negroes and crusading extremists (the introduction to this second part uses excerpts from Woodrow Wilson’s “History of the American People”). For a long time, there would still be a very separate North and South – and the KKK’s defense against tyrannous black rule would spill more blood than Gettysburg.
The combat scenes are smartly choreographed, action-packed, and suspenseful, aided by smoke, fire, explosions, gunfire, and all manner of artillery. “The Birth of a Nation” is perhaps best known for its battle recreations, many of which are of an impressively large scale, employing hundreds of actors and utilizing countless props. To further shake up the visuals, a combination of black-and-white, sepia tones, magenta-tinted scenes, and even a handful of lavender and turquoise tinged sequences are seen, all generally employed to separate day and night, wartime clashes, interiors vs. exteriors, or location changes. But more prominent than the adventuresome Civil War reenactments or the educational historical retellings (the ones based on actual records) are the fictional love stories that insert cinematic entertainment value amidst the more slanted history lessons. Elsie and Ben are doomed to be apart, torn between love, family, and loyalty, their stories wrought with tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. The epic scope (and running time) of “The Birth of a Nation” serves as a precursor to the familiarly set, far more viewer-friendly “Gone with the Wind” that would arrive decades later.
It’s clear that the North is meant to be more monstrous and evil than the South (primarily after Lincoln is removed from the picture), and that several depictions of slave life don’t reflect the embitterment desired by historians (during a two-hour dinner break from their twelve-hour shifts, slaves seem merry and celebratory). Also, Reconstruction era Africans are portrayed as vindictive and villainous (renegade Negro Gus, played by Walter Long in blackface, is a chief antagonist, personifying the injuriousness of rapidly empowered, freed slaves). Contrastingly, the KKK is heroic (like Robin Hood and his men), sprung from the necessity to control the abusive Africans who are persuaded to overindulge in Northern generosities, misuse voting rights as whites are disfranchised and mistreated (trials with all black juries easily convict white defendants), and negro politicians make a mockery of the House of Representatives. The haughty, aggressive Northern blacks are similarly despised by humbler Southern blacks, disquieted by their inflated airs.
At one point, a particularly unbelievable intertitle states: “The helpless white minority.” But questionable racism, historical inaccuracies, and jaded viewpoints aside, “The Birth of a Nation” still serves as an important milestone in filmmaking from a technical standing, with a genuinely riveting finale that juxtaposes two epic confrontations: a triumphant storming of the streets by the clansman to rescue Elsie, and the last-minute, thrilling disruption of the siege to Dr. Cameron’s family in an isolated cabin. It’s a shame that director D.W. Griffith chose this particular subject matter – for which he has an obvious bias – to shape his war epic, as this resulting masterpiece of filmic achievements (including storytelling, if one can overlook the more prejudiced depictions, which were considered racist by many even in 1915) was one of the first to demonstrate the grand-scale spectacle of the art form and to present techniques and qualities that would evolve into modern blockbusters.
– Mike Massie