The Birth Of A Nation (1915)

Film Review

THE BIRTH OF A NATION

Release Date: 8 February, 1915

Studio: David W. Griffith Corp.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.

Synopsis

Part 1: America Before the Civil War

A title card states the hope that the film will convey the ravages of war and so promote abhorrence of it. After two brief scenes, depicting the bringing of the African to America and a church meeting of northern abolitionists, the main characters are introduced. Austin Stoneman lives in Washington D.C. with his daughter, Elsie, and two sons. Dr. and Mrs. Cameron live in Piedmont, South Carolina with their three sons and two daughters. The two families develop a strong union during a visit by the Stoneman sons to the Cameron family. Margaret Cameron and Phil Stoneman declare their mutual affection, Ben Cameron sees a picture of Elsie and calls her the ideal of his dreams, and the youngest sons, Tod Stoneman and Duke Cameron, become friends. Back in Washington, Austin Stoneman's mulatto servant, Lydia, gains his amorous attention.

Four years of civil war begins. President Abraham Lincoln calls for volunteers, and the Stoneman boys join the Union Army. The three Cameron sons fight for the Confederacy. Several years of war brings hardship and sadness to both families. A raiding Negro militia smashes Piedmont. Tod Stoneman and Duke Cameron die in battle. Sherman's troops burn Atlanta and march through South Carolina. The Cameron family sells its possession to aid the cause. Ben Cameron (called the Little Colonel by his troops) is wounded. The Cameron parents receive notice that their middle son is dead, and that Ben is severely injured. Ben is visited in hospital by his mother and Elsie Stoneman, where they learn that he has been condemned to hang for being a guerilla. Elsie takes Ben's mother to appeal to President Lincoln. Moved by her grief, Lincoln grants a reprieve.

Grant and Lee meet at Appomattox. The Civil War ends. A title card proclaims that state sovereignty has ended, and that liberty and union have triumphed. The Little Colonel, coming home, is shocked by the broken down condition of his city and his home. His youngest sister, Flora, wearing a poor dress decorated with raw cotton, comes out to greet him. Standing on the steps, they pause in shared sorrow over the altered circumstances of their lives. As he enters his home, his mother reaches out and draws him in. Phil and Elsie Stoneman are at Ford's Theater when Lincoln is assassinated. With Lincoln dead, Austin Stoneman gains political power. In Piedmont, the Cameron family wonders what will happen next.

Part 2: Reconstruction

A title card states that the White South was put under the heel of the Black South until the Ku Klux Klan arrived to protect the whites. Now a powerful man in Washington, Austin Stoneman promotes black equality. He sends his mulatto protégé, Silas Lynch, to South Carolina to organize a Negro government. Austin and Elsie visit the Cameron family and introduce Lynch to the Little Colonel, who refuses to shake his hand. In response to the elections of Lynch as Lieutenant Governor and a black majority to the state assembly, southern white men, including the Little Colonel, organize the Ku Klux Klan to save the south from the anarchy of black rule. Austin and Elsie oppose the formation of the clan. The Stoneman and Cameron families become bitterly divided by their political and social differences. Phil Cameron separates from Margaret Stoneman, as does Elsie Stoneman from the Little Colonel.

In the Cameron home, the mother and her daughters sew Klan costumes for the men. One afternoon, Flora Cameron goes out for water. A renegade Negro, Gus, finding her alone, grabs at her and proposes marriage. She slaps him and flees in terror. Reaching the edge of a cliff, she tells Gus to stay away or she will jump. As he approaches, she jumps. The Little Colonel finds her dying, and she tells him what happened. The Klan tracks down Gus, then tries and executes him. They dump his body on the doorstep of the Lieutenant Governor's house as a warning to carpetbaggers. The Negro militia fills the streets searching for members of the Klan. Stoneman leaves town to avoid any personal involvement in the confrontation. A fiery cross is raised by the Little Colonel as a message to disarm the blacks. Silas Lynch plans to destroy the Cameron family. His militia invades the Cameron house and drags off the father. Phil Stoneman and the Cameron's faithful black servants rescue Dr. Cameron, then escape with him, Mrs. Cameron and Margaret. They hide in the cabin of a pair of Union Veterans.

Elsie goes to Lynch seeking his help for her brother and the others. In response, Lynch proposes marriage and tells her that she will be his queen in a black empire. Horrified, she refuses. Lynch makes plans to force her into marriage. At this moment, Stoneman returns. He approves Lynch's plan to marry a white woman, until he learns the bride is his daughter. Events reach a climax. Enraged blacks overrun the town attacking whites. Lynch seizes Elsie, and her father cannot protect her. Black militiamen surround the little party in the cabin. The Klan organizes and rides to the rescue of the white townsmen. The Little Colonel and other Klansmen rout the blacks and rescue Elsie from the clutches of Lynch. The Klan then rides to save the desperate party in the cabin. The Klansmen arrive just as the blacks are breaking through the doors and rescue the besieged.

The Klan ride triumphantly through town with Elsie and the other rescued folk as the blacks run away. At the next election, the Klan intimidates blacks and prevents them from voting. White government is restored. After a double wedding, two couples honeymoon joyously. An end title pleads for the Peace of Christ, Liberty and Union.

Discussion

After reading the plot synopsis, it is fair to question the presence of this ugly movie on any list of great films. The fact that The Birth of a Nation is the first American epic film compels its inclusion. Griffith planned and executed a film with scope and complexity that far exceeded any previous film. Whereas Griffith's prior films are small in scale and utilize few actors, The Birth of a Nation was intended to awe its audience in every aspect: length, scope, sweep, and narrative. Prior to the world wars, no event in American history had been of greater magnitude than the Civil War. The war and its aftermath provided the elements for a film broad in scale and important in content. The Birth of a Nation can be appreciated for its historic importance and the breadth of its storytelling and technical achievements, but the film remains an unpleasant viewing experience.