The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- Director: D.W. Griffith
- Writer: Thomas Dixon Jr.
- Release Date: 3 March 1915 (USA)
Griffith’s camera was high on the platform looking down on the battle field, so that he could obtain a grand sweep of the action. This camera took the long shots. Hidden under bushes or in back of trees were cameras for closeups. When the din of cannons, galloping horses, and charging men grew too great, no human voice, not even Mr. Griffith’s, was powerful enough to be heard. Some of the extras were stationed as far as two miles from the camera. So a series of magnifying mirrors was used to flash signals to those actors working a great distance away. Each group of men had its number—one flash of the mirror for the first group, two for the second group, and so on. As group one started action, the mirror would flash a go-ahead to group two. Care was taken to place the authentic old guns and the best horsemen in the first ranks. Other weapons, as well as poorer horsemen, were relegated to the background.
Extras were painstakingly drilled in their parts until they knew when to charge, when to push cannons forward, when to fall. Some of the artillery was loaded with real shells, and elaborate warnings were broadcast about their range of fire. Mr. Griffith’s sense of order and control made it possible for the cast and extras to survive the broiling heat, pounding hoofs, naked bayonets, and exploding shells without a single injury. He was too thoughtful of the welfare of others to permit accidents. In most war films it is difficult to distinguish between the enemies unless the film is in color and the two sides are wearing different colored uniforms. But not in a Griffith movie. Mr. Griffith had the rare technical skill to keep each side distinct and clear cut. In The Birth, the Confederate army always entered from the left of the camera, the Union army from the right. One day he said to Billy, “I want to show a whole army moving.”
“What do you mean, a whole army?” Bitzer asked.
“Everyone we can muster.”
“You have to move them back to get them all in view,” Billy said.
“They won’t look much bigger than jackrabbits.”
“That’s all right. The audience will supply the details. Let’s move up on this hill, Billy. Then we can shoot the whole valley and all the troops at once.”
They never talked much, but they always seemed to understand each other. People around Mr. Griffith didn’t bother him with idle talk. When daylight disappeared, Mr. Griffith would order bonfires lit and film some amazing night scenes. Billy was pessimistic about the results; he kept insisting that they would be unsuccessful. But Mr. Griffith persisted. One big battle scene was filmed at night. The subtitle was to read, “It went on into the night.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Those of us who had time were there—the women to watch, the men to help. Although everything was carefully organized, whenever he saw a spontaneous gesture that looked good—like the soldier’s leaning on his gun and looking at me during the hospital scene—he would call Billy over to film it.
In that scene, the wards were filled with wounded soldiers, and in the background nurses and orderlies attended their patients. In the doorway of the ward stood a Union sentry. As Elsie Stoneman, I was helping to entertain the wounded, singing and playing the banjo. The sentry watched me lovingly as I sang and then, after I had finished and was passing him, raised his hang-dog head and heaved a deep, love-sick sigh. The scene lasted only a minute, but it drew the biggest laugh of the film and became one of its best-remembered moments.
Lillian Gish (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)
“Of whatever excesses or outrages the blacks may be guilty, these they commit as blind and misguided, if violent, pawns of their satanic new white masters from the North ” (DW Griffith)
Two years after the uproar over “The Birth”, when he agreed, at the behest of British and French officials, to make propaganda films, Griffith was obliged to portray all Germans as loathsome. This troubled him, for he never believed that there were marked differences among people. Regardless of background, he felt, they were all children of God.
In the midst of these battles, Mr.Griffith began work on an answer to his critics in the medium he had created. “The world is too full of ‘Think as I think or be damned.’”
“What the censors are doing has been done time and time again in the history of mankind.”
(The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me)
The American Civil War interrupts the friendships and budding romances between members of a southern family whose patriarch is a proud colonel and a northern family ruled by an antisecessionist U. S. senator. During the war, younger sons from both families meet on the battlefield, fighting on opposite sides, and die in each other’s arms. An- other southern son is wounded in battle, rescued by his northern friend on the opposing line, and taken to a hospital, where he meets his friend’s sister, a nurse there. After the war the south is plagued by self-serving politicians led by the father of the southerner’s new sweetheart. The young southerner, meanwhile, founds a night riding terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan to reassert the rights of southern landholders against the white northern carpetbaggers and the new black puppet government they have set up to crush any future rebellion.
The Birth of a Nation is rightly credited with being the single motion picture from the medium’s formative years that established film as a method of artistic self-expression, a means for political propaganda, and a form of mass entertainment that would soon become one of the country’s major industries. It was not the first feature-length film, nor was it the first widely popular feature film. It was not the first film to use many of the now commonplace techniques it is sometimes said to have pioneered. But no film ever captured the public’s imagination or created such an effect on the industry like The Birth of a Nation. Director D. W. Griffith was able to use the film medium so well and manipulate audience emotions so effectively that the picture quickly became a “must-see” production among all social classes, whereas previously film attendance was largely by lower income people. Griffith’s rhythmic use of editing and cross-cutting to build excitement, his emphasis of small details in characters’ mannerisms, and his painstakingly authentic-looking recreation of the period he portrayed impressed viewers immensely. These aspects remain remarkable today, although Griffith’s flair for floridly worded explanatory intertitles now seem intrusive and dated. Increasing the impact upon its initial release was the film’s specially commissioned musical score and the “roadshow” manner of presentation, although again it was not the first to use either. So powerful was its effect on audiences that Griffith’s parochial and condescending racial attitudes incited violent protests about racism, pickets, widespread print campaigns against the film, and demands for censorship. Even today the film’s controversy has all but eliminated screenings outside of controlled classroom settings. Griffith’s naive assertion was that he was merely recreating historical events and did not intend to provoke or cast aspersions upon any present-day people, yet his picture inspired a national revival of the KKK as well as, ironically, strengthening the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and creating public awareness of African-American concerns. The Birth of a Nation set both production and exhibition trends, and had a significant impact on America’s sociopolitical and historical consciousness for decades to come.
GUIDE TO THE SILENT YEARS OF AMERICAN CINEMA
DONALD W. MCCAFFREY AND CHRISTOPHER P. JACOBS