The Birth of a Nation (1915)

In 1915, D. W. Griffith directed The Birth of a Nation, a silent epic drama film based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel and play The Clansman. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay with Frank E. Woods, and Harry Aitken produced the picture.

The Birth of a Nation is a prominent film landmark, according to the film’s technical prowess. It was the first non-serial American film ever produced, with a running time of 12 reels. It tells the tale of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, and of two families, the Stonemans and Camerons, as they struggle for supremacy during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. It was the first American film to feature a musical score for an orchestra. It introduced closeups and fadeouts, and it was the first film to include a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras that appeared to be thousands. A 13-page ‘Souvenir Program’ was included. President Woodrow Wilson and his family viewed the film at the White House with members of his cabinet, making it the first film screened at the White House.

The film has been a subject of controversy ever since its release, as it has been described as “the most offensive film in Hollywood history.” The image of Lincoln as a Southern sympathizer is at odds with the Lost Cause narrative, which promotes sympathy for the South. The film has been condemned for its racist portrayal of African Americans. Because the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is depicted as a virtuous organization that defends American values and protects white females from sexual assaults by blacks, the film has been condemned for its racist portrayal of blacks. The film has also received criticism due to the fact that white actors play blacks in blackface, and because the film portrays blacks as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women.

Because the movie was popular across the country, its success was both a consequence of and a contributor to racial segregation in the United States. Across the country, black Americans organised and protested after seeing the film’s negative portrayals of black people and Civil War history. In Boston and other localities, the NAACP and black leaders campaigned unsuccessfully to have the film banned because it was believed to provoke racial tensions and violence. Griffith’s Intolerance was produced the following year in response to the controversy over Birth of a Nation.

Despite being divisive, The Birth of a Nation was a nationwide commercial success, grossing more than any previous film, and it had a significant impact on both the film industry and American society. An unfortunate consequence of the film was that a few months following the film’s release, the Ku Klux Klan was revived, inspired by the movie. The film was inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1992 because it was deemed to be culturally, historically, and aesthetically important.

CREATORS

Directed by D. W. Griffith
Screenplay by D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods
Based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr.
Produced by D. W. Griffith and Harry Aitken
Restored and upscaled by moonflix, LLC

PLOT

The movie comprises two equal-length sections. After the murder of Abraham Lincoln, an intermission occurs. On the New York premiere night, Dixon reminded the audience that The Clansman had previously been presented in that location as a dramatic piece. Mr. Dixon also noted that he would have employed only a son of a Confederate soldier to direct the film version of The Clansman.

The movie follows two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons. U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman, his daughter and two sons are part of the Northern Stonemans. Dr. Cameron, his wife, their three sons and two daughters comprise the Southern Camerons. The Stonemans become connected with the Camerons when the Cameron brothers visit the Cameron estate in South Carolina, representing the Old South. While Phil Stoneman falls in love with Margaret Cameron, young Ben Cameron idolizes Elsie Stoneman. When the Civil War starts, the young men of both families enlist in their respective armies. The Cameron women are saved by Confederate soldiers as they rout a black militia after an attack on their home. Two Cameron brothers are killed in combat, while the younger Stoneman and two Cameron brothers are killed in combat. A courageous final charge at Petersburg prompts Ben Cameron to be known as “the Little Colonel,” but he is wounded and captured.

At a Union military hospital in Washington, D.C., he is told that he will be hanged. Elsie Stoneman is working as a nurse at the hospital when she meets Ben Cameron, whose picture she has been carrying. Mrs. Cameron takes Ben’s mother to see Abraham Lincoln, and Mrs. Cameron persuades Lincoln to pardon her son. Because Lincoln’s conciliatory postwar policy expires with his death, Austin Stoneman and other Radical Republicans are intent on punishing the South, as Griffith depicts the Reconstruction era as having done.

In order to witness Reconstruction policies being implemented firsthand, Stoneman and his protégé, Silas Lynch, a psychopathic mulatto (modeled after Alonzo J. Ransier and Richard Howell Gleaves), travel to South Carolina. Lynch wins the lieutenant governor election, and it’s apparent that many whites were unable to vote. During the legislative session, newly elected black legislators at South Carolina’s desks are seen behaving in racially stereotypical ways, such as putting their feet up on their desks, taking off their shoes, and eating fried chicken and drinking alcohol.

After learning of Gus’s murder, Lynch orders a crackdown on the Klan. He also passes legislation allowing mixed-race marriages. Because possessing Ben’s Klan regalia is now a capital offense, Dr. Cameron is arrested. Phil Stoneman and a few of his black servants rescue him. Margaret Cameron and Phil escape. The Camerons seek refuge at a hut in the woods where two former Union soldiers live. They agree to hide them after their wagon breaks down. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”

Congressman Stoneman abandons his connection with Lt. Gov. Lynch’s crackdown in order to prevent his involvement being unveiled. Elsie learns that Dr. Cameron has been arrested, so she goes to Lynch to request his freedom. Lynch, who has been lusting after Elsie, tries to force her to marry him, which leads to her fainting. Stoneman is initially pleased when Lynch declares his desire to marry a white woman, but he is enraged when Lynch reveals that it is his own daughter he desires to marry (against her will). Elsie screams for help after breaking a window and loses consciousness again. She wakes up while gagged and being bound, meanwhile, the undercover Klansmen search for Elsie after hearing her screams. Ben and his Klansmen ride into town to rescue Elsie. As an outcome of her cries for help, Lynch is captured. The Klansmen celebrate in the street as a result of their victory.

Lynch’s militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, led by Ben, arrive to save them just in time. On the next election day, blacks are intimidated into not voting as they see a line of mounted and armed Klansmen outside their homes. The Camerons marry in a double ceremony at the end of the film. The masses are depicted as oppressed by a warlike figure, which slowly fades away. Another group finds peace while looking at Jesus Christ’s image. The final phrase is ‘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.’

CAST

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman
Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron, the pet sister
Henry B. Walthall as Colonel Benjamin Cameron (“The Little Colonel”)
Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron, elder sister
Mary Alden as Lydia Brown, Stoneman’s housekeeper
Ralph Lewis as Austin Stoneman, Leader of the House
George Siegmann as Silas Lynch
Walter Long as Gus, the renegade
Wallace Reid as Jeff, the blacksmith
Joseph Henabery as Abraham Lincoln
Elmer Clifton as Phil Stoneman, elder son
Robert Harron as Tod Stoneman
Josephine Crowell as Mrs. Cameron
Spottiswoode Aitken as Dr. Cameron
George Beranger as Wade Cameron, second son
Maxfield Stanley as Duke Cameron, youngest son
Jennie Lee as Mammy, the faithful servant
Donald Crisp as General Ulysses S. Grant
Howard Gaye as General Robert E. Lee

Original release date:
February 8, 1915

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Genres: New Arrivals, Movies, 1910's, Silent Films, War, Silent Films, American Classics, Drama Movies, ALL Movies, War Movies

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