After the premiere of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, director D.W. Griffith was furious. Then (and now) considered a landmark film, it was nevertheless hopelessly racist, sparking widespread protests in Boston among African-Americans. Griffith, as a Southern man with a father who had fought for the Confederacy in the war, obviously saw it differently and felt that his right to free speech was under attack, a subject he came to treat in his next silent-era classic, Intolerance (1916). Griffith may have been furious, but watching The Birth of a Nation today is an infuriating experience.
Shortly before the start of the Civil War in 1861, we are introduced to a Northern family, the Stonemans, and a Southern, the Camerons. The families are friendly with each other, even though Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is an abolitionist and the Camerons are slaveowners. During a visit to the Camerons in South Carolina, the sons and daughters of the two families are revealed to harbor feelings for each other. This is complicated once the war begins and the young men are sent to fight on opposing sides. After the end of the war, Austin Stoneman and his mulatto protege Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) travel to the defeated South to take part in the Reconstruction, with partly disastrous results…
Employing numerous new tricks
There are many divisive ingredients in this war epic, but what cannot be disputed is its standing in the history of cinema. Griffith was a first-rate filmmaker who realized even sooner than his brilliant Russian contemporaries how to tell a story and build tension. Audiences at the time had never seen such an ambitious film, one that employed numerous tricks such as night photography, iris effects, panning camera shots and panoramic long shots, which was specially useful for the battle sequences featuring hundreds of extras. Color tinting helped audiences separate locations and created moods for certain scenes, and a special music score was written. All of these ingredients are the reason why this movie deserves its rating. But it’s impossible to ignore the deeply warped view of the war and Reconstruction that Griffith forced on its audience. We laugh at the way the Camerons’ slave quarters are portrayed as an idyll in the beginning of the film. We are annoyed at the way Griffith tries to make President Lincoln look like the aggressor at the start of the war without even mentioning Fort Sumter. And we are fully outraged when African-Americans are consistently portrayed either as ignorant children or as dangerous, drunken clowns who do everything after the war to keep the white man down, until – ta-da – the Ku Klux Klan is formed as a resistance movement that, wait for it, unites white Northerners and Southerners against the real foe, the black man. Order is restored, lovers are reunited, and very little (if anything) is said about whippings and lynchings. The melodrama is not strong enough to overcome this craziness.
One of the first films to be shown at the White House, The Birth of a Nation was described by President Woodrow Wilson as “writing history with lightning”. That quote may in fact have been invented by Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of the novel. Regardless, it was an apt description of the technical aspects of the film. As for Dixon’s story, it was all about falsifying history.
The Birth of a Nation 1915-U.S. Silent. 186 min. B/W. Produced, directed and edited by D.W. Griffith. Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods. Novel, Play: Thomas Dixon, Jr. (“The Clansman”). Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer. Music: Joseph Carl Breil. Cast: Lilian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron), Miriam Cooper, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid… Donald Crisp.
Trivia: Exists in several different cuts, most of them shorter. Future directors John Ford and Raoul Walsh worked on this film, the former as an actor, the latter as an actor and co-editor. Erich von Stroheim allegedly has a bit part. Followed by The Fall of a Nation (1916), directed by Dixon and now considered a lost film.
Last word: “When you’ve heard your father tell about fighting, day after day, night after night. And having nothing to eat but parched corn. And about your mother staying up night after night, sewing robes for the Klan. The Klan at that time was needed. It served a purpose. Yes, I think [the film is] true. (sighs) But as Pontius Pilate said, ‘Truth? What is the truth?'” (Griffith, “D.W. Griffith: Interviews”)