The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
Birth of a Nation theatrical poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Harry Aitken [1]
Screenplay by D. W. Griffith
Frank E. Woods
Based on The Clansman
by T. F. Dixon Jr.
Starring Lillian Gish
Mae Marsh
Henry B. Walthall
Miriam Cooper
Ralph Lewis
George Siegmann
Walter Long
Music by Joseph Carl Breil
Cinematography G. W. Bitzer
Edited by D. W. Griffith
Production
company
David W. Griffith Corp.
Distributed by Epoch Producing Co.
Release date
  • February 8, 1915 (1915-02-08)
Running time
12 reels
133–193 minutes [2]
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget >$100,000 [3]
Box office unknown; estimated $50–100 million [4]

The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.

Three hours long, [5] the film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission; it was the first 12- reel film in the United States. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era over the course of several years: the pro- Union Northern Stonemans and the pro- Confederacy Southern Camerons. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.

The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. [6] [7] There were widespread African-American protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film. [8] The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. [8] Griffith's indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year. [9]

The film's release is also credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the "second era" Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation, along with the trial and lynching of Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta, was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. [10] Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House. [11]

Griffith's innovative techniques and storytelling power have made The Birth of a Nation one of the landmarks of film history. [12] [13] In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Plot

Part 1: Civil War of United States

The film follows two juxtaposed families. One is the Northern Stonemans: abolitionist U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman (based on the Reconstruction-era Representative Thaddeus Stevens [14] [15]), his daughter, and two sons. The other is the Southern Camerons: Dr. Cameron, his wife, their three sons and two daughters.

Phil, the elder Stoneman son, falls in love with Margaret Cameron, during the brothers' visit to the Cameron estate in South Carolina, representing the Old South. Meanwhile, young Ben Cameron idolizes a picture of Elsie Stoneman.

During the Civil War, the young men from both families enlist in their respective armies for the war. The younger Stoneman and two of the Cameron brothers are killed in the war. Meanwhile, the Cameron women are rescued by Confederate soldiers who rout a black militia, after an attack on the Cameron home. Ben Cameron leads a heroic charge at the Siege of Petersburg, earning the nickname of "the Little Colonel". But he is also wounded and captured. He is then taken to a Union hospital in Washington, D.C. During his stay at the hospital, he is told that he will be hanged. Also at the hospital, he meets Elsie Stoneman, whose picture he has been carrying; she is working there as a nurse. Elsie takes Cameron's mother, who had traveled to Washington to tend her son, to see Abraham Lincoln, and Mrs. Cameron persuades the President to pardon Ben.

When Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theater, his conciliatory postwar policy expires with him. In the wake of the president's death, Austin Stoneman and other Radical Republicans are determined to punish the South, employing harsh measures that Griffith depicts as having been typical of the Reconstruction era. [16]

Part 2: Reconstruction

Stoneman and his protégé Silas Lynch, a mulatto exhibiting psychopathic tendencies, [17] head to South Carolina to observe the implementation of Reconstruction policies firsthand. During the election, in which Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, blacks are observed stuffing the ballot boxes, while many Whites are denied the vote. The newly elected, mostly black members of the South Carolina legislature are shown at their desks displaying inappropriate behavior, such as one member taking off his shoe and putting his feet up on his desk, and others drinking liquor and feasting on stereotypically African American fare such as fried chicken.

Hooded Klansmen catch Gus. Gus was portrayed in blackface by white actor Walter Long.

Meanwhile, inspired by observing white children pretending to be ghosts to scare black children, Ben fights back by forming the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Elsie, out of loyalty to her father, breaks off her relationship with Ben. Later, Flora Cameron goes off alone into the woods to fetch water and is followed by Gus, a freedman and soldier who is now a captain. He confronts Flora and tells her that he desires to get married. Frightened, she flees into the forest, pursued by Gus. Trapped on a precipice, Flora warns Gus she will jump if he comes any closer. When he does, she leaps to her death. Having run through the forest looking for her, Ben has seen her jump; he holds her as she dies, then carries her body back to the Cameron home. In response, the Klan hunts down Gus, tries him, finds him guilty, and lynches him.

Lynch then orders a crackdown on the Klan after discovering Gus' murder. He also secures the passing of legislation allowing mixed-race marriages. Dr. Cameron is arrested for possessing Ben's Klan regalia, now considered a crime punishable by death. He is rescued by Phil Stoneman and a few of his black servants. Together with Margaret Cameron, they flee. When their wagon breaks down, they make their way through the woods to a small hut that is home to two sympathetic former Union soldiers who agree to hide them. An intertitle states, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright."

Congressman Stoneman leaves to avoid being connected with Lt. Gov. Lynch's crackdown. Elsie, learning of Dr. Cameron's arrest, goes to Lynch to plead for his release. Lynch, who had been lusting after Elsie, tries to force her to marry him, which causes her to faint. Stoneman returns, causing Elsie to be placed in another room. At first, Stoneman is happy when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman, but is then angered when Lynch tells him that it is Stoneman's daughter. Undercover Klansmen spies go to get help when they discover Elsie's plight after she breaks a window and cries out for help. Elsie falls unconscious again, and revives while gagged and being bound. The Klan, gathered together at full strength and with Ben leading them, rides in to gain control of the town. When news about Elsie reaches Ben, he and others go to her rescue. Elsie frees her mouth and screams for help. Lynch is captured. Victorious, the Klansmen celebrate in the streets. Meanwhile, Lynch's militia surrounds and attacks the hut where the Camerons are hiding. The Klansmen, with Ben at their head, race in to save them just in time. The next election day, blacks find a line of mounted and armed Klansmen just outside their homes, and are intimidated into not voting.

The film concludes with a double wedding as Margaret Cameron marries Phil Stoneman and Elsie Stoneman marries Ben Cameron. The masses are shown oppressed by a giant warlike figure who gradually fades away. The scene shifts to another group finding peace under the image of Jesus Christ. The penultimate title is: "Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more. But instead — the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace."

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