- Great War Films
- Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
- A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group
The Birth of a Nation 1915
D. W. GRIFFITH / HARRY E. AITKEN / EPOCH PRODUCING CORP. (distributor) 1915
CAST: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Donald Crisp, Joseph Henabery, Raoul Walsh, Walter Long, Eugene Pallette.
CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods, screenplay; based on the novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon; G. W. Bitzer, photographer. Running time: 185 minutes.
D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most famous and influential motion pictures of all time. It was the first great epic, and the film that introduced many of the cinematic conventions we take for granted today. And it is one that has been steeped in controversy from its initial release right up to the present day.
Birth of a Nation details the events before, during. and after the Civil War of 1861-65 and focuses on two families—one Northern (the Stonemans) and one Southern (the Camerons)—whose sons are friends. Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), known as “The Little Colonel,” falls for Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) just by looking at her picture; one of the Stoneman boys, Phil (Robert Harron), also falls for one of Ben’s sisters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper).
But the love stories are secondary to the Civil War action; Birth of a Nation features panoramic battle scenes employing thousands of extras who engage in fighting in such a realistic manner that it creates a near-documentary effect. Stoneman and Cameron eventually meet as enemies on the battlefield, where the latter is badly wounded but succored by his new found friend, who writes to sister Elsie, asking her to take special care of his pal in the hospital where she is a nurse.
Cameron’s reunion with his mother is touching, as is an affecting scene when he finally comes back home and greets his older sister on the doorstep; the two feign a happy air at first, but eventually both succumb to grateful tears. The assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, is meticulously detailed. For many of the war scenes, Griffith worked from photographs by Matthew Brady and others to help recreate the settings and action as authentically as possible. The picture is initially choppy and episodic, but eventually the audience comes to know the characters and gets caught up in their stories.
The main problem with Birth of a Nation is that it has absolutely no perspective (thus giving it an almost comically dated quality), as it is told by Griffith—a native of the South—strictly from the Confederacy’s point of view. Thus the scene that follows the title card “The master in chains before his former slaves” is not depicted as poetic justice but as the tragic downfall of a noble character (Ben Cameron, who later forms the Ku Klux Klan in response to Northern and carpetbagger-inspired Negro outrages).
The depiction of blacks in Birth ofa Nation has always engendered much comment. On the one hand, the scenes of blacks rioting, breaking into houses, and disporting themselves in a disgraceful manner often seem disquietingly and shamefully contemporary. On the other hand, Birth of a Nation unmistakably suggests that the only “good blacks” are those who toe the line and remain loyal to their former masters. Virtually all of the black characters (most of whom are played by white actors in black-face) are negatively portrayed, and their Northern supporters are the worst kind of “guilty white liberals.” Phil Stoneman’s father is pleased to hear that his protege, mulatto Silas Lynch, is going to marry a white woman. That is, until Stoneman learns that Lynch has designs on his own daughter—after which he is repulsed and furious. The final scenes show the “heroes” in their white hoods and raiment rushing to the rescue of the Camerons who are trapped in a cabin by crazed Negroes and Northerners. Birth ofa Nation may be historically accurate in some respects, but it lacks balance.
The NAACP protested strongly against the film upon its release, and many in this era of political correctness would like to see it consigned to oblivion. Others, such as black filmmaker John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood), feel that Birth of a Nation’s artistic achievements override its political content. “It’s like the Holocaust,” Singleton has said. “We should never forget.”—W. S.