The Birth of a Nation (1915)

directed by D.W. Griffith

Plot Summary


Part one opens in pre-Civil War America with the descriptions of two families: the Stonemans, a northern family led by an abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman who has a daughter Elsie and two sons; and the Southern Camerons who have two daughters, Margaret and Flora, and three sons including the central character Ben Cameron. The Stoneman boys are friends with the Camerons and visit their South Carolina estate, where the grandeur and hospitality of the Old South still exists, as does slavery. There, the eldest Stoneman boy becomes enamored by Margaret Cameron, and Ben Cameron is given a picture of Elsie Stoneman, who he begins to idealize. The Civil War begins, and all of the sons from both families join their respective sides. The Cameron house is ransacked by a black militia led by a white captain, but a Confederate unit eventually shows up to drive off these intruders. As the War drags on, the youngest Stoneman boy is killed, as are two of the Cameron's sons. Ben Cameron survives but is injured, and he recuperates in a Northern hospital where Elsie is a nurse. Lincoln's assassination at Ford's theater is dramatized, and his death allows political leaders, such as Austin Stoneman, to pursue their agenda of punishing the South for their secession.

Part two begins and attempts to illustrate the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Stoneman and his mulatto protege Silas Lynch go to South Carolina to see their plans to empower Southern blacks carried out as their factions sweep the elections. Ben Cameron intends to strike back against the perceived powerlessness of Southern whites by forming the Ku Klux Klan, and his participation in this group distances him from Elsie Stoneman. Later, a former slave, Gus, hints at wanting to marry Flora Cameron, and she runs off into the forest with him in pursuit. Trapped by him on a precipice, Flora jumps to her death rather than let him catch her. The Klan tracks down Gus, hangs him, and deposits his body at the door of Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch's house. Lynch retaliates by ordering that Klan members be hunted down and executed. The Cameron household escapes his militia and take refuge in an isolated country home. Meanwhile, with Austin Stoneman out of town, Lynch attempts to force Elsie to marry him. Disguised Klan spies find her screaming for help and ride off for reinforcements. The Klan speeds to her rescue and clears the rest of the unruly blacks out of town. Elsewhere, the militia is about to close in on the trapped Cameron family, when the Klan approaches to make their second successful rescue. A celebration follows as the white-robed heroes triumphantly ride through the streets, and we leap forward to the next election day where Klan members supervise the proceedings and prevent blacks from voting. The film ends with a double honeymoon of Phil Stoneman and Maragaret Cameron and Ben Cameron with Elsie Stoneman. A final allegorical image shows masses of suffering people under a warlike ruler transformed into angelic figures under an representation of Christ, and it is accompanied by a title asking if we dare dream of a day when war shall rule no more.

Commentary


David Wark Griffith stands out as one of the most complex and difficult subjects in American film history. At a time when movies were struggling to reach middle-class audiences and to attain the coveted status of art, Griffith played a key role in achieving these goals. After overcoming his own initial skepticism about the cultural and artistic importance of cinema, he proceeded to alter the nation’s, and indeed the world’s, view of the movies as well. The hundreds of short films he made for Biograph from 1908 to around 1912 provided ample opportunities for Griffith to experiment with various film techniques and eventually to develop a cinematic language that could effectively communicate with audiences. When Griffith was ready to create a feature-length motion picture, he was forced to leave Biograph who wanted him to continue churning out the successful one-reelers of which he had grown accustomed. Regular members of Griffith’s cast and crew, including cameraman G.W. "Billy" Bitzer and actress Lillian Gish, followed him into a more independent venture that was financed by head of Mutual distributors, Harry E. Aitken. The film that emerged from this collaboration turned out to be quite possibly the most controversial film of all-time, and certainly one of the most important for fostering cinema’s role as an art form.

Birth of a Nation puts Griffith’s finest filmmaking skills on full display, side-by-side with the glaring inaccuracies of his worldview that forced later film scholars to always put qualifiers around summaries of his work—to often separate the form from the content. Of course, this was not the case when the film premiered in 1915 and its attitude and ideas were much more consistent with the audiences’ who flocked to see it. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary "Hollywood: The Pioneers" reflects this by showing Lillian Gish, among others, speaking about the film’s immense power and Griffith’s singular genius. However, it is impossible for most people in today’s cultural environment to become fully involved, for instance, with the final rescue sequences that posit the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the drama. One can take a step back from these scenes and appreciate them merely for the adept editing and careful direction; yet in the end this effort is similar to riding a roller coaster that makes one sick afterwards, particularly because the rescues are punctuated with the scene of Klan members keeping black voters from voting on election day. Also problematic is the sequence where the "renegade Negro," Gus, chases Flora Cameron through a forest full of shadows broken up by patches of light. From an aesthetic standpoint, this segment is one of the most well-constructed in the film with its outdoor imagery lending a natural sense of beauty to the suspenseful chase. Gus, however, is simply a caricature of inherent barbarism or a symbol on which to project exaggerated fears, and the girl’s suicide intends to provide justification for the Klan’s striking back on the grounds of racial hatred.

Nevertheless, there are many moments that can be appreciated without sacrificing one’s conscience. The Civil War battle scenes are expertly done and surprisingly moving: two former friends, now on opposite sides, dying next to one another; the extreme long shots of the chaos on the battlefield; the tracking shot as Ben Cameron charges against the enemy; the still shots of casualties accompanied by an intertitle, "War’s peace." Although the film displays admirable anti-war sentiments, the violence utilized by the Klan in the second half of the picture is condoned and celebrated. It seems that by showing the grievous results of war, Griffith is not so much mourning the losses of a regrettable but inevitable conflict as he is indicting the North for not allowing the South to continue their traditional lifestyle by maintaining slavery. The rosy, nostalgic scenes taking place at the Cameron home before the war support this idea as the sets of friends take a leisurely stroll around the estate, stopping here to chat and there to be entertained by slaves dancing during a break from their twelve-hour work day. Clearly, something is not right here in the prewar utopia the film hopes to establish.

Yet an effective later scene depends on the longing for this past when Ben Cameron, portrayed by Henry B. Wathall, first returns home after his recuperation and waits outside with a kind of slow bewilderment. His meeting with little sister Flora, played by Mae Marsh, is a skillfully acted encounter as the two can’t find words to express their conflicting emotions; the joy accompanying Ben’s return is undercut by thoughts of his younger brothers and of the loss of past happiness. But for every poignant, well-handled scene like this one, there is an embarrassing and offensive segment soon to follow. The Klan’s "fair trial" of Gus is made even more absurd by interrupting a shot of the proceedings with a title reading "Guilty," as if the white-hooded jury might have considered an acquittal. In this way the film keeps a viewer off-guard, not knowing whether the next sequence will exhibit brilliant filmmaking, inflammatory racism, or most likely, a combination of both.

What makes the film’s misguided sense of history more dangerous is the realism with which Griffith surrounds his fiction. A minor stylistic technique that works toward this end is the usage of off-center framing on some medium shots of the characters. This creates a sense of depth where the characters are more fully integrated with the natural surroundings visible in the background and, along with the natural lighting, adds to the film’s verisimilitude. Besides the previously mentioned powerful battle sequences, Griffith also stages other "historical facsimiles" like Robert E. Lee’s surrender and an effective portrayal of Lincoln’s assassination that exist on the fringe of the main narrative and that also work to place the drama in a realistic, historical context. Often, footnotes accompany these re-creations to show the filmmakers’ research in making these events replicate the actual occurrences. While also affording the new cinematic medium a certain amount of needed respect, all of these elements work together in equating what appears on the screen with what is real. This is particularly problematic not only because of Griffith’s bigotry but because cinema was still very young at this time, and audiences were understandably less sophisticated than they are today. Motion pictures’ natural ability to represent the world along with Griffith’s craftsmanship enabled this film to clearly speak to audiences’ racial fears—so much so that when the Klan makes their heroic ride at the end of the film, one critic wrote that "every audience spontaneously applauds when it flashes upon the screen."

The Birth of a Nation gives interesting insight into the nature of American cultural conflicts near the start of the century. The fact that it most likely propagated racial hatred and led to increased enrollment in the Ku Klux Klan disturbingly reveals the power effective filmmaking can wield over a wide audience. This fact was not only picked up on by Lenin, Eisenstein, and the Soviet realists but by the American government during World War I who sent speakers to movie theaters to ensure their propaganda would reach a large audience. Cinema needed someone like Griffith, a skilled filmmaker and innovator as well as a spokesman for the medium. He worked to give it importance and influence with inspiring quotes such as, "We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language—a power that can make men brothers and end wars forever." Birth of a Nation was not only an artistic success but an unqualified economic one as well, proving that movies of substantial length and quality would bring in audiences. Griffith’s next film Intolerance, a mammoth and perhaps less coherent spectacle, is arguably the greater picture, and undoubtedly it is not as offensive to contemporary audiences. Birth of a Nation, however, was the more successful picture financially and, consequently, was the movie that set the rules for narrative filmmaking.

4 of 10


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© 1999

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