The Birth of A Nation
Released: 1915 Producers: D.W. Griffith and Harry Aitken Director: D.W. Griffith Screenplay: D.W. Griffith and Frank Woods Based on: The novels The Clansman and The Leopard's Spots by the Reverend Thomas Dixon Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer Editing: James Smith Music: D.W. Griffith and Joseph Carl Breil
Principal Characters: Austin Stoneman Ralph Lewis Elsie Stoneman Lillian Gish Phil Stoneman Elmer Clifton Dr. Cameron Spottiswoode Aitken Mrs. Cameron Josephine Crowell Colonel Ben Cameron Henry B. Walthall Flora Cameron Mae Marsh Margaret Cameron Miriam Cooper Silas Lynch George Siegmann Gus Walter Long
Birth of a Nation was the first important feature length film. Although other feature length films had been released in the previous year none of them had the same impact on films and film making that Birth of a Nation did. Indeed Birth of a Nation not only changed the way films were made it changed the make up of the audiences that went to see them. Before Birth of a Nation film audiences were primarily composed of the working classes particularly of the immigrants who discovered that they were an easy way to understand America. Birth of a Nation changed all of that when it proved that an audience would be willing to pay $2.00 a ticket in order to see a moving picture.
In Birth of a Nation Griffith successfully merged emotional drama and cinematic technique in his depiction of the South following the Civil War. It is important to note that what Griffith depicts in this film is his point of view. A point of view that was undoubtedly influenced by the stories he was told by his father (a Colonel in the Southern Army). It is also important to note that when Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 the events that it depicts (which took place during the 1860's) were still fresh in the minds of many members of the audience. Is Griffith's view point racist? Definitely! For proof of that we need only listen to Griffith himself, who in 1930 told an interviewer that he believed that the KKK served a purpose during reconstruction. It is also noteworthy that Griffith chose to cast no black actors in any of the films principal roles. In fact there are only two sequences where any blacks actually appear. The fact that the mulatto Lieutenant Governor (who is one of the film's villians) is named Silas Lynch is really all the proof most viewers will need. Will most modern audiences find it offensive - probably. Certainly it is no wonder that the NAACP has consistently picketed this film. It remains to this day one of the most shown most controversial films ever made. None-the- less it also remains a visionary film that still merits our examination. And Griffith remains one of the cinemas greatest directors.
Birth of a Nation was based on two novels by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, The Clansmen and The Leopard's Spots. By today's standards these were extremely racist however in the same year that Birth of a Nation was released William Fox produced a film called The Niger, which argued that "the negro problem" was "bad whiskey".
The film was financed by private backers at a cost of approximately $110,000, which translates into several million dollars by today's standards. Although there has never been an accurate assessment of the films profits there is little doubt that Birth of a Nation is one of the most successful films of all time.
Griffith began filming Birth of a Nation on July 4, 1914. Film trivia buffs will be interested in the following statistics: 18,000 people and 3,000 horses were utilized during the production; more that 25,000 yards of white material was sewn into costumes for the KKK; nearly 200,000 feet of film was shot and then edited down to 12,000 feet for the films final release.
Griffith was a visionary director who included a number of firsts in Birth of a Nation. The use of dissolves, framing, a moving camera, quick cuts, diffused lighting, and innovative camera angels are all present in Birth of a Nation.
The Camerons live in the mythical city of Piedmont, South Carolina. The family consists of Dr. Cameron, Mrs. Cameron and their children, their oldest son Ben, daughters Margaret and Flora, and their two younger sons Wade and Duke (who die fairly quickly).
The Stoneman household is headed by Austin Stoneman (who is based on Thadeus Stevens a Congressman who is often blamed for many of the problems encountered by the South following Lincoln's assassination). Stoneman has a daughter, Elsie (who is Bens' love interest) and two sons Phil (who is Margarets' love interest) and Todd.
The two families friendship is interrupted by the Civil War. The film features several battle scenes which were historically accurate. Near the wars end Phil leads an heroic charge against the Union Army and is rescued by his old friend Phil (hey, otherwise we would not have a movie). Eventually he is taken to a military hospital in Washington where he is nursed back to health by the banjo playing Elsie. Later he is given a Presidential pardon by Lincoln. He and Elsie spend time together and coincidentally end up at Fords theater in time to see Lincoln get shot.
Following Lincoln's assassination Stoneman becomes a power in Washington and has an the arrogant mulatto, Silas Lynch, appointed Lieutenant Governor. Lynch falls in love with Elsie and unbeknownst to her father plans to marry her.
Another black, Gus has become attracted to Flora and follows her in to the forest. When confronted by Gus Flora eventually jumps to her death but lives long enough to identify Gus to her brother Ben. The title card superimposed over Flora's death reads, "For her who had learned the stern lesson of honor we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death." If you think that that is bad it should be noted that in Dixon's novel both Flora and her mother both return to the cliff and jump to their deaths. Following Flora's death Ben organizes the KKK and the capture and (following a suitably short trial) he is castrated - a scene that is implied in the film - and his lifeless body is deposited on Silas Lynch's doorstep. Dr. Cameron is then arrested when KKK uniforms are found in his home.
There follows a series of quick cuts as we see Cameron's rescue and Elsie's capture and eventual rescue from Lynch who wants to force her to marry her. The film concludes with a dramatic Parade through the streets of Piedmont by the KKK and the singing of the national anthem complete with a color tinted American flag.
As a film buff it is easy for me to appreciate this gifted filmmakers technique - he was responsible for many of the advances in the early development of the motion picture industry. However, as a human being it is virtually impossible for me to enjoy a picture that so effectively communicates its directors derragatory perspectives of African Americans and women. Thus, try as I might I must confess that I am none the less offended by the films sensibility. I have to admit that I would love to have Spike Lee and D.W. Griffith over to dinner to discuss film and human relations - now that would be entertaining!