Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith, Harry Aitken
Written by D. W. Griffith, T. F. Dixon, Jr. Frank E. Woods
Starring Lillian Gish Mae Marsh Henry B. Walthall Miriam Cooper Ralph Lewis George Siegmann
Music by Joseph Carl Breil
Cinematography G.W. Bitzer
Editing by D. W. Griffith
Studio David W. Griffith Corp.
Distributed by Epoch Producing Co.
February 8, 1915
Running time 190 minutes (at 16 frame/s)
Country United States
Language Silent film English intertitles
Budget $110,000 (est.)
Box office $50,000,000
The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 silent drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and based on the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915. The film was originally presented in two parts, separated by an intermission.
The film chronicles the relationship of two families in Civil War and Reconstruction-era America: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.
The film was a commercial success, but was highly controversial owing to its portrayal of African-American men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread protests against The Birth of a Nation, and it was banned in several cities. The outcry of racism was so great that Griffith was inspired to produce Intolerance the following year.
The movie is also credited as one of the events that inspired the formation of the "second era" Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first motion picture to be shown at the White House.
The film follows two juxtaposed families: the Northern Stonemans, consisting of the abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman, based on the Reconstruction-era Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, his two sons, and his daughter Elsie; and the Southern Camerons, a family including two daughters, Margaret and Flora, and three sons, most notably Ben.
The Stoneman brothers visit the Camerons at their South Carolina estate, representing the Old South. The elder of the two Stoneman sons falls in love with Margaret Cameron, while Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman. When the Civil War begins, all the young men join their respective armies.
A black militia (with a white leader) ransacks the Cameron house. The Cameron women are rescued when Confederate soldiers rout the militia. Meanwhile, the younger Stoneman and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Ben Cameron is wounded after a heroic charge at the Siege of Petersburg, in which he gains the nickname "the Little Colonel". He is taken to a Northern hospital where he meets Elsie Stoneman, who is working there as a nurse.
While recovering, Cameron is told that he will be hanged for being a guerrilla. Elsie takes Cameron's mother, who has traveled to Washington to tend her son, to see Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Cameron persuades Lincoln to issue a pardon.
When Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, his conciliatory postwar policy expires with him. Austin Stoneman and other radical congressmen are determined to punish the South, using harsh measures that Griffith depicts as typical of the Reconstruction era.
Stoneman and his mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch, go to South Carolina in 1871 to observe the situation first hand. Black soldiers parade through the streets. During the election, whites are turned away while blacks stuff the ballot boxes. Lynch is elected Lieutenant Governor. The newly-elected mostly-black legislature is shown at their desks, with one member taking off his shoe and putting his feet up, and others drinking liquor and feasting. They pass laws requiring white civilians to salute black officers and allowing mixed-race marriages.
Meanwhile, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare off black children, Ben fights back by forming the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Elsie breaks off their relationship out of loyalty to her father. Gus, a freedman and soldier who is now a Captain, follows Flora Cameron as she goes alone to fetch water. He tells her he is looking to get married. Frightened, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora warns Gus she will jump if he comes any closer. When he does, she leaps to her death.
Ben finds his sister, having run through the Forest looking for her and seen her jump, and holds her as she lies dying. The Klan hunts Gus down, tries him, and finds him guilty. The clansmen leave his corpse on Lynch's doorstep.
Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. Dr. Cameron, Ben's father, is arrested for having Ben's Klan costume, a crime punishable by death. Ben and their faithful servants rescue him, and the Camerons flee. When their wagon breaks down, they make their way to a small hut, home to two former Union soldiers, who agree to hide them. As an intertitle states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."
Austin Stoneman leaves to avoid being connected with Lynch's crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron's arrest, goes to Lynch to plead for his release. Lynch tries to force Elsie to marry him and she finally faints. Stoneman returns, causing Elsie to be placed in another room, and is happy at first when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is angered when Lynch tells him which one. Disguised Klansmen spies discover Elsie's plight when she breaks a window and cries for help and leave to get help. She falls unconscious again, and revives gagged and being bound.
The Klan, gathered together at full strength and with Ben leading them, rides in to regain control of the town. When news reaches Ben about Elsie, he and others go to her rescue. Elsie frees her mouth and screams for help. Lynch is captured. Victorious, the clansmen celebrate in the streets. Meanwhile, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The clansmen, with Ben at their head, race to save them just in time.
The next election day, blacks find a line of mounted and armed Klansmen just outside their homes, and are intimidated into not voting. The film concludes with a double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman with Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. The masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Christ.
The penultimate title rhetorically asks: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."
“He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.”
These words by James Agee about D. W. Griffith are almost by definition the highest praise any film director has ever received from a great film critic. On the other hand, the equally distinguished critic Andrew Sarris wrote about Griffith's masterpiece: "Classic or not, 'Birth of a Nation' has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can't be ignored...and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word."
"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." -- President Woodrow Wilson, allegedly after seeing it at a White House screening. The words are quoted onscreen at the beginning of most prints of the film.
"...the President was entirely unaware of the nature of the play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his approbation of it."--Letter from J. M. Tumulty, secretary to President Wilson, to the Boston branch of the NAACP, which protested against the film's blackface villains and heroic Ku Klux Klanners.
Certainly "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) presents a challenge for modern audiences. Unaccustomed to silent films and uninterested in film history, they find it quaint and not to their taste. Those evolved enough to understand what they are looking at find the early and wartime scenes brilliant, but cringe during the postwar and Reconstruction scenes, which are racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.
Cited until the 1960s as the greatest American film, "Birth" is still praised as influential, ground-breaking and historically important, yes--but is it actually seen? Despite the release of an excellent DVD restoration from Kino, it is all but unwatched. More people may have seen Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916), made in atonement after the protests against "Birth." It says something about my own conflicted state of mind that I included Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919) in the first Great Movies collection, but have only now arrived at "Birth of a Nation."
Griffith demonstrated to every film maker and moviegoer who followed him what a movie was, and what a movie could be. That this achievement was made in a film marred by racism should not be surprising. As a nation once able to reconcile democracy with slavery, America has a stain on its soul; to understand our history we must begin with the contradiction that the Founding Fathers believed all men (except black men) were created equal.
Griffith will probably never lose his place in the pantheon, but there will always be the blot of the later scenes of “Birth of a Nation.” It is a stark history lesson to realize that this film, for many years the most popular ever made, expressed widely-held and generally acceptable white views. Miss Gish reveals more than she realizes when she quotes Griffith's paternalistic reply to accusations that he was anti-Negro: "To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives."
Griffith and "The Birth of a Nation" were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.
To understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.
The crucial assumption here is that art should serve beauty and truth. I would like to think it should, but there is art that serves neither, and yet provides an insight into human nature, helping us understand good and evil. In that case, "The Birth of a Nation" is worth considering, if only for the inescapable fact that it did more than any other work of art to dramatize and encourage racist attitudes in America. (The contemporary works that made the most useful statements against racism were “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and "Huckleberry Finn.")
Racism of the sort seen in "The Birth of a Nation" has not been acceptable for decades in American popular culture. Modern films make racism invisible, curable, an attribute of villains, or the occasion for optimistic morality plays. "Birth of a Nation" is unapologetic about its attitudes, which are those of a white Southerner, raised in the 19th century, unable to see African-Americans as fellow beings of worth and rights. It is based on Thomas Dixon's racist play, The Clansman, and the fact that Griffith wanted to adapt it reveals his own prejudices.
Griffith, for example, was criticized for using white actors in blackface to portray his black villains. There are bizarre shots where a blackface character acts in the foreground while real African-Americans labor in the fields behind him. His excuse, as relayed by Miss Gish: "There were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast" and "Mr. Griffith was accustomed to working with actors he had trained." But of course there were no Negro actors, because blackface whites were always used, and that also explains why he did not need to train any.
Griffith's blindness to the paradox in his own statement is illuminating. His blackface actors tell us more about his attitude toward those characters than black actors ever could have. Consider the fact that the blackface is obvious; the makeup is not as good as it could have been. That makes its own point: Black actors could not have been used in such sexually-charged scenes, even if Griffith had wanted to, because white audiences would not have accepted them. Griffith wanted his audience to notice the blackface.
Some of the film's most objectionable scenes show the Ku Klux Klan riding to the rescue of a white family trapped in a cabin by sexually predatory blacks and their white manipulators. These scenes are credited with the revival of the popularity of the Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared. Watching them today, we are appalled. But audiences in 1915 were witnessing the invention of inter-cutting in a chase scene. Nothing like it had ever been seen before: Parallel action building to a suspense climax. Do you think they were thinking about blackface? They were thrilled out of their minds.
Today, what they saw for the first time, we cannot see at all. Griffith assembled and perfected the early discoveries of film language, and his cinematic techniques that have influenced the visual strategies of virtually every film made since; they have become so familiar we are not even aware of them. We, on the other hand, are astonished by racist attitudes that were equally invisible to most white audiences in 1915.
What are those techniques? They begin at the level of film grammar. Silent films began with crude constructions designed to simply look at a story as it happened before the camera. Griffith, in his short films and features, invented or incorporated anything that seemed to work to expand that vision. He did not create the language of cinema so much as codify and demonstrate it, so that after him it became conventional for directors to tell a scene by cutting between wide (or "establishing") shots and various medium shots, closeups, and inserts of details. The first closeup must have come as an alarming surprise for its audiences; Griffith made them and other kinds of shots indispensable for telling a story.
One of Griffith's key contributions was his pioneering use of cross-cutting to follow parallel lines of action. A naive audience might have been baffled by a film that showed first one group of characters, then another, then the first again. From Griffith's success in using this technique comes the chase scene and many other modern narrative approaches. The critic Tim Dirks adds to cross-cutting no less than 16 other ways in which Griffith was an innovator, ranging from his night photography to his use of the iris shot and color tinting.
Certainly "Birth of a Nation" is a film of great visual beauty and narrative power. It tells the story of the Civil War through the experiences of families from both North and South, shows the flowing of their friendship, shows them made enemies as the nation was divided, and in a battlefield scene has the sons of both families dying almost simultaneously.
It is unparalleled in its recreations of actual battles on realistic locations; the action in some scenes reaches for miles. For audiences at the time there would have been great interest in Griffith's attempts to reproduce historic incidents, such as the assassination of Lincoln, with exacting accuracy. His recreation of Sherman's march through Georgia is so bloody and merciless that it awakened Southern passions all over again.
The human stories of the leading characters have the sentiment and human detail we would expect of a leading silent film maker, and the action scenes are filmed with a fluid ease that seems astonishing compared to other films of the time. Griffith uses elevated shots to provide a high-angle view of the battlefields, and cuts between parallel actions to make the battles comprehensible; they are not simply big tableaux of action.
Yet when it comes to his version of the Reconstruction era, he tells the story of the liberation of the slaves and its aftermath through the eyes of a Southerner who cannot view African-Americans as possible partners in American civilization. In the first half of the film the black characters are mostly ignored in the background.
In the second half, Griffith dramatizes material in which white women are seen as the prey of lustful freed slaves, often urged on by evil white Northern carpetbaggers whose goal is to destroy and loot the South. The most exciting and technically accomplished sequence in the second half of the film is also the most disturbing, as a white family is under siege in a log cabin, attacked by blacks and their white exploiters, while the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue.
Meanwhile, Elsie (Lillian Gish), the daughter of the abolitionist Senator Stoneman, fights off a sexual assault by Stoneman's mulatto servant Lynch. Stoneman has earlier told Lynch "you are the equal of any man here." Returning home, he is told by Lynch, "I want to marry a white woman," and pats him approvingly on the shoulder. But when he is told his daughter Elsie is the woman Lynch has in mind, Stoneman turns violent toward him--Griffith's way of showing that the abolitionists and carpetbaggers lied to the freed slaves, to manipulate them for greed and gain.
The long third act of the film is where the most offensive racism resides. There is no denying the effectiveness of the first two acts. The first establishes a bucolic, idealistic view of America before the Civil War, with the implication that the North should have left well enough alone. The second involves unparalleled scenes of the war itself, which seem informed by the photographs of Matthew Brady and have an powerful realism and conviction.
Griffith has a sure hand in the way he cuts from epic shots of enormous scope to small human vignettes. He was the first director to understand instinctively how a movie could mimic the human ability to scan an event quickly, noting details in the midst of the larger picture. Many silent films moved slowly, as if afraid to get ahead of their audiences; Griffith springs forward eagerly, and the impact on his audiences was unprecedented; they were learning for the first time what a movie was capable of.
As slavery is the great sin of America, so "The Birth of a Nation" is Griffith's sin, for which he tried to atone all the rest of his life. So instinctive were the prejudices he was raised with as a 19th century Southerner that the offenses in his film actually had to be explained to him. To his credit, his next film, "Intolerance," was an attempt at apology. He also once edited a version of the film that cut out all of the Klan material, but that is not the answer. If we are to see this film, we must see it all, and deal with it all.
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.
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.
The subject matter of the 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 politician 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 sequel, the magnificent four story epic about human intolerance titled Intolerance (1916).