In so many ways, the United States was a different place a century ago. There weren’t 50 states, for example, and in 1915, cars were just starting to show up on streets that had been primarily designed for horses and wagons. The Civil War had ended just a few decades earlier (1865), an event still relatively fresh in the memories of many citizens, Northerner and Southerner alike. In 1915, 100 million people lived in the United States, and more than half were under 25. Today we have more than 3x that number. 1915 was also one year into the War to end all Wars, World War I.
It was also the year that genius, innovator and Southern racist D. W. Griffith released the extraordinary silent movie The Birth of a Nation. The first talking movie wouldn’t be released for another decade (The Jazz Singer, 1927), so watching The Birth of a Nation is an exercise in paying attention, cutting between action scenes and quaint title cards, all accompanied (in the modern Kino Classics release) by a symphonic soundtrack that swells and crescendoes as the action does in the movie.
In preparation for the upcoming release of Nate Parker’s radically reimagined film The Birth of a Nation, I decided to sit down and watch all three hours and 12 minutes of the original silent film, a film long reviled as the origin story and justification of the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacist movement in the South. And with good cause: that aspect of the 1915 film is abhorrent.
But it turns out that the original film is broken into two very distinct parts, and the first part, telling the story of the Old South and the Civil War, muchly from the Southern perspective, is brilliant and remarkable, well worth watching. Griffith essentially invents modern cinema in this film, offering a creativity to the storytelling, filming and editing that was far ahead of its time. When other silent films from the era are basically “put camera on tripod, start recording” he demonstrates a remarkable sophistication with pacing, cuts, point of view shots, and even visual effects.
Narratively, the film is a love story set during the horror of war, particularly that worst of wars that pits brother against brother, a civil war. Many of the lead characters are members of the Cameron family, Southern scions with an antebellum mansion and, yes, a few household slaves, along with a cotton plantation staffed by African slaves. It’s 1863 in the South and Griffith is portraying the reality of the times: There was an inherent (and abhorrent) inequality in society and it was always rich white families with slaves. But just as you need to read any book or view any other artwork from another era within its context, it’s important to be able to view The Birth of a Nation through the era both of its production (1915) and its setting (1863).
The full cast adds the Northern Stonemans, and the story explores the weaving together of the two families before, during and after the Civil War. The Cameron boys are eager to sign up and join the Confederate Army when tensions break out, and the Stonemans join the Union Army. But by that point Southerner Elsie Stoneman (the first really big film star Lillian Gish) has fallen in love with Northerner Colonel Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) and Northerner Phil Stoneman (Elmer Clifton) has fallen in love with Southerner Margaret Coleman (Miriam Cooper).
There’s romance. There’s drama. There’s a faked rape intended to cast aspersions on a hated Southerner. There’s comic relief in the role of a hospital guard who only has eyes for the beautiful Elsie. And there’s the tension, challenges and horror of a civil war, as captured particularly in the scene when Cameron and Stoneman meet on the field of battle.
Griffith was no lover of warfare. In one of the title slides, he opines “On the battlefield, War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice…”
And Griffith’s staging and vision are extraordinary, as demonstrated in this complex reenactment of one of the major battles of the Civil War:
Nowadays we’d have walkie-talkies and hundreds of workers directing the action while the camera rolls at the top of the hill, but in 1915, this was almost unbelievably hard to accomplish. And yet in scene after scene during the Civil War phase, The Birth of a Nation has these amazing long shots that still give the feeling of complete verisimilitude.
Even the editing was innovative, a style that we are so used to now that it’s hard to remember that the earliest films didn’t have two-shots and close/long shot rhythms to achieve certain emotional responses. A two-shot is a classic dialog edit where we switch between the two characters conversing. That’s one of the innovations that Griffith introduced and it’s done so smoothly in this film that many of the scenes have a far more contemporary feel.
Based on the book The Clansman that’s basically a history and justification of the hate group the Ku Klux Klan, it’s no surprise that the films fatal weakness is its portrayal of African Americans, even going so far as to have many of the slave roles portrayed by white actors in blackface. Ghastly, horrible to see on screen, and very difficult to ignore when trying to find the innovation in the film.
Being told from the Southern Confederate perspective, it’s also no surprise that all Southerners are genteel and honorable, while the Union soldiers (including “negro” raiding parties) are monsters, ready to pillage and (at least implied) rape and cause mayhem. That’s highlighted in the scene where a group of Union soldiers attacks the citizens in the Cameron’s hometown of Piedmont, South Carolina:
The Confederate soldiers stationed just outside of the city come in to rescue the citizens, and just in time as the houses are being trashed and innocent folk are being shot.
Post war, the story moves to Washington DC and the fateful night that President Lincoln (portrayed by Joseph Henabery) is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh) and the hard won peace after the cessation of hostilities is lost and chaos again ensues. Here’s Griffith’s masterful staging of that scene — look closely and you’ll see Booth as he shoots Lincoln:
The post-war era in the South was a mess and the tension between the beaten Confederate South and the Northerners and newly emancipated African-Americans was extremely high. This was most recently explored in the film Free State of Jones, though with a slightly different bent to the story (as you would hope!)
It’s shortly after the assassination that the first portion of The Birth of a Nation ends. And it’s here that you would be smart to just stop watching.
Trust me. Just turn it off.
While the first half is unquestionably flawed by its offensive portrayal of blacks and so-called “mulattos”, the second half of the film is far, far worse. It endeavors to show the offenses of the newly freed slaves and carpetbaggers from the North and collapses into a ridiculous justification of the KKK as the saviors of the poor, downtrodden white folk. This title slide from the film demonstrates:
The vigilantes are portrayed again and again as heroes, rescuing poor damsels in distress and more. In one scene, the title slide explains that an African-American is “tried by a court of citizens” and the cuts to this scene:
Horrible. Really hard to watch, even from a historical or research perspective.
It’s difficult to review The Birth of a Nation because the second portion in particular is so terrible, but if you stick to the first portion and focus on the technical and storytelling achievement of director D.W.Griffith and keep in mind that the film reflects the world of 100 years in the past, there’s much to appreciate and learn nonetheless.