"More than any picture before it, it made moviegoing a middle class activity," writes Joan L. Silverman of The Birth of a Nation (French, ed., The South in Film). "Soon movie palaces were built in fashionable neighborhoods all over the United States." More than that, the film remains one of the most controversial of the medium's first century. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branded it racist; riots followed in cities such as Boston; widespread picketing and lawsuits continued for years in many cities and states. Although D.W. Griffith found it difficult to raise the $110,000 that the film cost, and production was halted at times for fund-raising drives, by the end of the silent film period, it had made $18,000,000.
Griffith's much-hailed narrative techniques are relatively simple but enormously influential adaptations and expansions of the "villain still pursued her" formulaic storytelling of 19th-century theatrical melodramas. Griffith was an unknown actor when he was hired by Biograph Studios of New York to make the one-reel, 12-minute fictional films that were changed weekly at storefront nickelodeons. By the end of 1910 he had made 250, but was losing patience with the length limitation. An experimental two-reeler, however, was split by producers into two weeks' shows. Not until the summer of 1913, after he had completed another 175 or so films, was he allowed finally to expand to four reels with Judith of Bethulia. Dissatisfied, he left Biograph to join Harry E. Aitken's new company to make five fiveto-seven reel films during the first six months of 1914. Meanwhile he was plotting – in a double sense – to match the competition from abroad, especially Italy, where since 1911, the flamboyant poet Gabrielle D'Annunzio, had developed a series of spectacular but static films based on classical motifs into the ten-reel Cabiria. Critics predicted this would "convince many doubtful people that high art and the motion picture are not incompatible" (Pratt, ed., Spellbound in Darkness, 1966).
Griffith was determined, after moving his operations from overcrowded New York City to Los Angeles, to push American films to the forefront just at the time that European production was curtailed by World War I. He opted, however, for action over art. In 1908 he had worked briefly for the self-proclaimed bigot Thomas Dixon, Jr., who had cobbled together two of his rabble-rousing novels about the South during Reconstruction into a play called The Clansman. The Reverend Dixon was willing to sell the rights for the then huge sum of $10,000 (£2,000).
The opening portion of the film was apparently created on the spot by Griffith, as no script exists. The scene opens in pre-Civil War Piedmont, the gracious pastoral capital of a deep Southern state, in which the Cameron family and those "faithful souls," their household slaves, are entertaining affectionately the sons of northern Congressman Austin Stoneman (based somewhat fancifully on Pennsylvania's radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens). The outbreak of war disrupts this relationship – and when the boys face each other on the battlefield, the younger son of each family is killed. Griffith proclaimed in an opening subtitle that this message was that "war must be held in abhorrence."
Ben Cameron is falsely accused of spying and sentenced to death; his mother makes a precarious trip to Washington to plead for him, and the Great Heart, President Lincoln, grants a pardon. Mrs. Cameron's cause is abetted by Elsie Stoneman, who had not visited Piedmont with her brothers, but who has come to know and love Ben while nursing him back to health. Through this episodic section of the film, Griffith interrupts the heart-rending saga of the families with what he insisted were authentic reconstructions of some of the great moments of the war and its aftermath, including the assassination of President Lincoln, whom Griffith believed could have ameliorated the situation after the war.
With the assassination, Dixon takes over; and public history gives way to private myth. Congressman Stoneman becomes the fiery apostle of Reconstruction, determined to replace traitorous Southern leaders with freed slaves whom his cabal can manipulate. He appoints Silas Lynch, his mulatto cohort, the new lieutenant-governor in Piedmont to organize this. When a renegade black soldier, inflamed by Lynch's proddings and free liquor, threatens to rape Ben Cameron's "pet sister," she jumps from a cliff to her death rather than suffer dishonour. Outraged, Ben, after watching children donning sheets and playing ghosts, is portrayed by Griffith as founding the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to restore proper law and order to the South and keep the blacks in their place. Enraged, Silas Lynch sets out to destroy the Klan and the Camerons, and also to marry Elsie Stoneman, by force if necessary. When the Congressman learns of his henchman's audacity, he sees the error of his ways. In the most famous sequence of the film, Griffith uses the stunning effect of alternating closeups and long-shots, enhanced by printing the black images on stock tinted in a variety of colours that it was theorized influenced viewers' reactions (red for battle scenes, green for pastoral romance, etc.).
Elsie is rescued from Lynch's townhouse to join the frenzied dash to the lonely cabin where the Camerons are preparing to join their dead daughter. The Klan comes to the rescue at the last moment, paving the way for a double wedding between the Camerons and the Stonemans which restores peace to the community. However, it leaves open the question of whether the "nation" whose "birth" Griffith had in mind was that of the "Invisible Empire" of the KKK or of the disunited states, at last peacefully amalgamated by this symbolic marriage.
The first audiences saw the long runs of the big city "road shows"; a live orchestra accompanied the film, playing a rousing score by Joseph Carl Breil. Griffith travelled around the country constantly editing the film; the censors insisted upon other cuts. The results of this editing toned down the racist elements that Lillian Gish had feared might make people object to the film; however, protests to the film continued.
Griffith tried to remedy the situation by making his first talking picture Abraham Lincoln and by releasing a cut version of The Birth of a Nation, which was almost an hour shorter than the original; all references to the KKK were eliminated.
The film remains a landmark in the development of motion pictures. Its length (rarely equalled since), its exploitation of technical devices (producing startlingly new effects), and its establishment of the pattern of the horse opera that dominated American film melodrama, accord it a unique place in the evolution of American and international filmmaking.
It retains its sentimental and provocative power, but its circulation is restricted to groups studying both Griffith's reasons for making the film and the damage inflicted on a new medium by a great innovator's propagandistic vision. Perhaps the most perceptive judgement was written by a reviewer for the New York Times in 1921: "Sometimes it is almost epic in quality. But in many scenes it is falsely romantic and as blindly partisan as the most violent sectional tradition. It may be said that, as a rule, it comes closest to historical truth when it is furthest from Thomas Dixon."
Release Date: 1915
Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Violet Wilkey, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, Andre Beranger, Maxfield Stanley, Jennie Lee, William De Vaull, Lillian Gish, Ralph Lewis, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Mary Alden, Tom Wilson, Sam De Grasse, George Siegman, Walter Long, Elmo Lincoln, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henaberry, Alberta Lee, Donald Crisp, Howard Gaye, William Freeman, Olga Grey, Raoul Walsh, Eugene Palette, Bessie Love, Charles Stevens, and Erich von Stroheim
Director: D. W. Griffith
Writers: D. W. Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and Frank Woods
Source Citation: French, Warren. "The Birth of a Nation." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 133-137.