- The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
- By Dick Lehr
- Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr
IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.
Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.
Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.
January 2, 1915
David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.
Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.
Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.
The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.
Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.
Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”
It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.
Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.
By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”
Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.
That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.
The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.
The Curtain Falls
William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.