“The Birth of a Nation” was the first major motion picture and is both famous and infamous. It was directed by D.W. Griffith and the innovations he incorporated into the production are mind-boggling. The movie created cinema as we know it today. The script, which was co-written by Griffith was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. Relative to its budget, the movie became one of the most profitable films in history. When it opened in New York City, tickets were an astronomical $2 (equivalent to about $18 today). The success was in spite of the controversy with regard to its treatment of blacks. The NAACP encouraged boycotts of the film and it was banned in some cities. On the other hand, the movie became the first film screened in the White House. Pres. Wilson had been a classmate of Dixon’s in college. Supposedly Wilson complimented the film as “like writing with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” There is dispute whether Wilson said this and he later denied it. However, his historical take on Reconstruction appears on a title card in the movie and the plot fits his pro-segregation views. For the body of my review, I am going to summarize the plot, so spoiler alert. Every history lover should know what happens in the movie, but I would not recommend watching it unless you really, really love movies or you are in film school. Or you are a racist.
The movie begins with the first slaves being brought to America. “This sowed the seeds of disunion”. The movie concentrates on two families who are friends, at first. The Stonemans are Northerners and the Camerons are Southerners and own slaves. Their slaves are happy and are shown dancing during their lunch break.. The elder Stoneman is a congressman and is based on Thaddeus Stevens (one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction). There are dual romances that will link the families if nothing untoward happens. What happens is the election of Lincoln. “The powers of the sovereign [Southern] states…are threatened by the new administration.” When Ben Cameron’s unit marches off to war, the street is lined with cheering whites and slaves. The movie jumps two years. A black militia unit loots the Cameron mansion, but a Southern unit arrives to chase them off. White men rescuing white women from blacks will become a recurring theme. Several of the brothers die in the war. Atlanta is burned by the dastardly Yankees. At the siege of Petersburg, Ben’s unit leads a counterattack against Phil Stoneman’s regiment. In an iconic scene, Ben plants a flag in a cannon mouth. Ben is wounded and taken to a hospital where his crush Elsie Stoneman is a nurse. They hook up, but he is scheduled to be hanged as a guerrilla (which makes no sense). Elsie and her mother visit Lincoln to get a pardon. Lee surrenders to Grant to end the hope of state sovereignty. Ben returns home.
Reconstruction begins and radicals like Congressman Stoneman protest against Lincoln’s lenient policy toward the South. “The South under Lincoln’s fostering hand gets to work rebuilding itself”. Then everything goes to pot with the assassination of Lincoln, which is witnessed by Elsie in an excellent reenactment. A quote from Wilson’s History of the American People blames the carpetbaggers for exploiting the freedmen. Congress wanted to “put the white South under the heel of the black South”. The KKK was inspired by self-preservation, according to Wilson. Stoneman is one of the radical leaders. He has a creepy mulatto mistress (a white male actor in blackface) who is a Snidely Whiplash type schemer. A mulatto named Lynch is Stoneman’s protégé and is sent to South Carolina to reverse the social and political structure. Lynch is mentally unbalanced. He urges blacks to stop working. Meanwhile the Freedmen’s Bureau is duping the black farmers. Stoneman brings Elsie to visit. Lynch has designs on her, of course. In the election, blacks exercise their right to vote (some more than once) while whites like Ben are prevented from voting. Lynch is elected Lt. Governor. Black legislators make a mockery of the legislative session. One eats fried chicken, another swigs from a bottle. A pro-shoes law is passed after one of them puts his smelly bare feet on a desk. And you think Congress is bad today! But the worst is they pass an intermarriage law. Something has to be done.
Ben is inspired when he sees some white kids scaring black kids with sheets. Thus is born the “organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule.” Flora Cameron goes to fetch water and is confronted by a vile black deserter named Gus. He wants to marry her, but does not want to wait for the honeymoon night. She jumps off a cliff and dies in Ben’s arms. The Klan takes care of Gus. Lynch has the elder Cameron arrested for abetting Ben, but his loyal ex-slaves help him escape with the help of Phil Stoneman (who had been engaged to Flora before the war). They take refuge in a cabin inhabited by two Union veterans. “The former enemies of North and South are united again in common defense of their Aryan birthright.” Gag! Elsie goes to Lynch for help and he proposes marriage. Stoneman had been in favor of his marrying a white woman until he finds out it’s his daughter. Meanwhile, black mobs rule the town and surround the cabin. It’s time for the white-robed knights to ride to the rescue. There is a big battle in the town. Ben rescues Elsie and then it’s off to the cabin to rescue the others. There is a victory parade. White supremacy rules. Hurrah!
How can a movie be both great and terrible? Watch “Birth of a Nation” and see. If you changed the word “writing” to bullshitting and the word “true” to false in the Wilson quote, you’d be spot on. The film did hit the nation like a lightning bolt. If it had come out ten years later, it would not have been successful. It was the spectacle that drew people to the theater outside the South. This is the best explanation for why the movie did well in the North. Griffith was a master movie-maker. His innovations helped cinema take off. The movie was the “Citizen Kane” of its day.
The cinematography is astounding. The film features “panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots, and color tinting”. The burning of Atlanta has surreal effects and a split screen for the refugees. The last sequence has intercutting between the town, the cabin, and Elsie. The battle scenes are epic. Some of the shots come from a tower. The action is tense with good hand-to-hand. Surprisingly, the actors reload their rifles. Often overlooked, the score is also revolutionary. Joseph Carl Briel composed it with a mixture of classical, new arrangements of popular songs, and new music. It fits the movie perfectly. Briel created leitmotif’s for the main characters. They each have their own tune.
Less commendatory is the creation of some vile stereotypes. The movie features Uncle Toms, the mammy, the ignorant black fools, and the unstable mulattoes. You can spot the villains from the balcony (which is where blacks in the South would have watched the movie.) Surprisingly, it is only the villains like Lynch who chew the scenery as only silent movie actors can. The rest of the cast is fairly restrained. It’s not the acting that turned my stomach. One thing I was thankful for was the surfeit of title cards. The movie does not have subtitles so it can be a bit hard to follow at times. This is not a movie designed to attract modern audiences. But when you consider what was probably coming out of the characters’ mouths, it is a good thing we could not “hear” them.
When I reviewed Military History magazine’s 100 Greatest War Movies, I found that what critics mean by “greatest” is not the same as “best”. Surprisingly, “Birth of a Nation” was not on that list. But plenty of other classics that don’t hold up well made the list. None of them were offensive, however. This movie is obscenely racist and it does not have the excuse that it was of its time. It was offensive in 1915 as shown by the reaction of the NAACP and the fact that the KKK revival of the 1920s was partly fueled by using the movie as a recruiting tool. It passes on a lot of Civil War and Reconstruction mythology that people like Pres. Wilson should have known were myths. The fact that the movie was popular with white Northerners means that people back then were just as ignorant of America’s past as people are today.
GRADE = F