The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D.W. Griffith | 3hr 13min

On a purely technical and artistic level, it would be wrong to label The Birth of a Nation as anything less than one of the most accomplished films of the silent era. As a cultural and historical artefact however, it is a hateful, destructive piece of discriminatory propaganda that displays some of the most insidious use of blackface in film history, glorifies hate crimes as heroic acts, and inspired the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. From the film’s perspective, the Civil War crippled the rights of the Southern states, and the Reconstruction era was one long disaster that tore the nation apart. To call it reflective of the era’s politics is only true insofar that Hollywood’s early film industry was dominated by white people who were fine with letting it be released, and that there was indeed a desire for a race war lying dormant within white America, waiting for any excuse to leap into action. At the same time though, it did not go unchallenged by many civil rights groups. Protests outside theatres were overwhelming, and the backlash led to the first film directed by an African American filmmaker, Within Our Gates, which was a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s hateful politics.

If The Birth of a Nation was simply a racist film lacking the artistic backbone of parallel editing, epic set pieces, and astonishing innovations, then it would not be nearly as present and discussed in our culture today from any angle at all, and would have simply faded into the annals of history with so many other problematic films. But with directors like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino rightfully targeting it in their films today, and the cinematic techniques that Griffith developed still echoing through modern day movies, it is evidently not going away, and should not be left unaddressed lest we forget and fail to learn from America’s ugly history.

Epic set pieces glorifying the Ku Klux Klan – heinous, ugly politics.

As such, The Birth of a Nation also poses perhaps the greatest challenge of all for anyone wishing to evaluate film from as purely a formalistic standpoint as possible. Roger Ebert was not wrong in calling it “a great film that argues for evil”, as although it does not inspire or convince any right-thinking person to consider its ethos on any serious level, the sheer mastery of the artform and cinematic language lets it stand on a level that, divorced from its influence or any claims to being the first of its kind, is simply jaw-dropping on its own individual merits. Through the hundred or so years that feature narrative films have existed, The Birth of a Nation may indeed be the singularly most abhorrent work to hit such ambitiously artistic heights

The weight of The Birth of a Nation’s scale can be felt primarily in two ways – the editing which reveals key narrative developments taking place simultaneously across multiple locations, and the staging of set pieces that build out urban and rural environments with spectacular numbers of extras, stretching all the way through the camera’s depth of field. Both start relatively modestly, with a celebration in the South manifesting in a ballroom of dancing couples, energised by Griffith’s camera dollying through the crowd. Meanwhile, wild festivities around a bonfire are concurrently taking place in the streets outside, washing the frame in an invigorating red tint that distinguishes itself from the more civil affair taking place indoors. The insertion of shots revealing the young and elderly members of society sleeping back home do not go amiss, as it is the stories of these families which are just as important to Griffith as the action.

A dollying camera in a ball, and red-tinted film in the streets outside – Griffith drenches his film with lavish style.

It is about fifty minutes in that the smooth shift from small, individual perspectives to the staggeringly large war effort proves to be particularly impressive in its sheer economy. A tight iris on a woman and her children weeping with concern for the departure of their men is intimate in its framing, but then Griffith pans his camera to the right over a cliff edge where we see tiny troops in the distance riding to war on horseback. Suddenly, the iris expands, and the full scene is revealed in all its grandeur, with hundreds of soldiers moving away into the hills. Without so much as a cut, Griffith’s visual and narrative scope grows immensely, right before leading us into the burning of Atlanta which sees a return of that red tinting, now taking on the significance of bloodshed and fire. As smoke fills the air and friends from the North and South tragically die holding each other, Griffith paints the destruction out with chaotic collages, superimposing multiple images across the frame and sending silhouettes of extras running in terror through the carnage. And then, among all this devastation, he keeps cutting back to those melancholy, blue-tinted scenes of soldiers leaving home, unaware of what is waiting for them down the road.

Narrative economy rendered through a single camera pan and expanded iris.
Scenes of bloodshed built on fast-paced editing and super-imposed collages.

The rise of young Confederate soldier Ben Cameron as he leads a final charge at the Siege of Petersburg is captured with extraordinary ferocity, as once again Griffith lifts his camera off its static tripod to whisk it through the air, tracking the newly dubbed “Little Colonel” towards enemy lines. Strategy is important to the form of Griffith’s plotting here, as in carefully setting up the layout, goal, and stakes of planned missions, he lays the groundwork for an impeccable coordination of suspense and climactic release, propelled by its swift, muscular editing. Even in the heat of battle, Griffith still does not lose sight of these soldiers’ loved ones, intercutting the action with shots of families back home praying, reminding us of the widespread ramifications of violent conflict.

The Siege of St Petersburg is the first proper war scene of the film, and is executed flawlessly in its ambitious scale and cutaways.

As The Birth of a Nation moves into the downfall of the Confederacy and aftermath, Griffith’s focus shifts to representations of history on a broader level, and for all his attempts at creating authentic facsimiles of real locations, the film still stands more as a document of the 1910s than an objective depiction of events. Still, this isn’t to say it lacks detail or specificity, as the recreation of Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s shooting makes for a grand, decorated set piece, with establishing shots laying out its geography before the tension builds up in a gradually accelerating montage. As we cut between John Wilkes Booth’s advance, Lincoln sitting unaware, his equally oblivious bodyguard, the play onstage, and Ben Cameron’s own observation of these events from elsewhere in the audience, the editing culminates in a devastating murder, marking the end of the government’s conciliatory war policy, and replacing it with what Griffith deems a gross shift in the America’s attempt to unite the nation.

Another fine piece of editing at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, bouncing around Ford’s Theatre in the suspenseful build up.

There sits the climactic end of The Birth of a Nation’s first act, and the point in which its relatively vague alliance to the Confederacy begins to escalate to unambiguously derogatory depictions of African Americans as slovenly, perverted, and treacherous people. The introductory Act 2 intertitle provides little justification for what follows.

“This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.”

Here, Griffith’s attempts at historicity devolve into cartoonish represents of some imagined past where white Americans were the true victims. It starts with Silas Lynch, a malicious, mixed-race protégé of a Northern politician, being voted in as South Carolinian lieutenant governor in a badly rigged election that sees white people intimidated away from voting. The first U.S. legislature to have a Black majority thus takes power, and in the assembly room Griffith dissolves from an empty grid of desks and tables to an environment of chaos and heinous racial stereotypes.

Leading into the “riot in Master’s Hall” with a long dissolve like a before and after picture.

Cinematic talents have rarely been put to more vile use as they are here, as in one smaller set piece that sees freedman Gus chase Ben’s sister, Flora, through a forest, it is again the energetic editing which takes over and drives the scene forward. Interspersed throughout the action are wide shots of the dense wilderness with trees crowding the frame, and as the characters reach the top of a cliff, Griffith plants his camera at its base, gazing up at the drop from a low angle steep enough to make your head spin. Flora’s fatal leap is the final trigger for the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to take action against Black people. Scenes that venerate their rituals are chillingly cultlike in their presentation, and now as they hunt down and brutally lynch Gus, one wonders how any of this could ever be interpreted as valiant.

The forest and cliff setting an intimidating environment for Gus’ chase of Flora.

Though the Civil War is over, Griffith now depicts a new battle between races raging in Griffith’s depiction of American Reconstruction, and continues to showcase his mastery over narrative in evenly balancing several plot threads weaving around each other. Even within quieter scenes devoid of action, his use of cutaways to break up his astounding long shots keep it from ever being so stage-bound as to become flat. The Birth of a Nation may carry colossal weight in its scale, but it never lumbers, and especially with a star in the making like Lillian Gish playing the role of Elsie Stoneman, Ben’s Northern love interest, it remains consistently gripping, for better and for worse.

It is ultimately Elsie’s kidnapping and Silas Lynch’s attempted forced marriage with her which motivates the enormous final thirty minutes for which the film is most infamous. A significant part of this obviously has to do with the sickening image of hooded Ku Klux Klan members riding to her rescue like white knights, quashing the uprising of their enemies in one final, monumental battle. On a political level, it is this scene which has been repeatedly drawn on to underscore the film’s moral atrocity, reprehensibly turning this white supremacist hate group into heroes, and suggesting that they successfully united the North and South “in common defense of their Aryan birthright.”

Griffith filling the frame with a huge number of extras preparing to ride into battle, before launching into the infamous final thirty minutes of The Birth of a Nation.

However regrettable that it is, this scene is also the one which stands as the film’s finest technical achievement. As formerly Confederate soldiers assemble for their mission, Griffith stages hundreds of extras in a line stretching into the distance, blowing up the spectacle to a level that few films have practically topped since. The finely orchestrated editing that follows essentially sets a timer in the narrative thread of Elsie’s impending marriage to Silas, intercutting its development against the red-tinted advance of the Klan riding to her rescue, street riots taking place outside, and a siege on Ben’s family hiding out in their home, all happening in the same instance. The movement of each set piece along parallel trajectories is strengthened by their remarkable coordination, each one supporting the others and rising to synchronised climaxes in a manner which fully recognises the unique potential of cinema as a truly dynamic artform. It is here that we also observe the foundations of the Soviet montage movement which would emerge a decade later, as well as the rapid-fire style of editing that Abel Gance would further revolutionise in his epic silent films La Roue and Napoleon.

A climax unlike anything that had coming before, intercutting between multiple locations. Technically flawless, even while the subject of Griffith’s hero worship is nauseating.

The place that The Birth of a Nation occupies in history is a strange paradox in both its extreme artistic highs and ethical lows, though within a stylistic and formal assessment that seeks to separate cinematic elements from moral judgement, however justified, it is also a masterpiece. With his ambitiously envisioned and astonishingly executed narrative structure, Griffith singlehandedly defines feature filmmaking here, naturally building out the artform from the short films of Georges Melies and the Lumiere brothers. That he also so finely manipulates these elements for such hideous purposes is impossible to ignore, as he unintentionally exposes a depravity baked into the history of nationalistic mythologising, offering inherent bias towards those voices that dictate it. Perhaps then it is fitting that such a provocative, unscrupulous film claiming to offer a definitive interpretation of American history is the father of virtually every other movie to follow it. After all, what is cinema if not an ongoing conflict between reality and flawed artists trying to explore it?

Super-imposed images of Christ over scenes of Paradise – Ben and Elsie dreaming of their future together.

The Birth of a Nation is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

4 thoughts on “The Birth of a Nation (1915)”

  1. A tricky film to review, for sure, Declan, but you’ve done extremely well! I haven’t been able to conjure up the courage to explore Griffith myself yet.

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    1. Thanks Pedro, I’ve felt the weight of this one hanging over me for a long time so thought it was time to finally tackle it. I’ve got a review for Intolerance coming in a few days which I agree with Drake is technically superior to this and far less repugnant. I’m interested to explore a few of his smaller films now though I’ll see how I go.

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      1. Isn’t Intolerance misinterpreted, though, as an apology? I’ve read somewhere that Griffith actually thought the critics were the intolerant ones. Anyway, Griffith is incredibly interesting and (I assume) very difficult to analyze critically. But I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

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      2. Yep it is a bit more of a defence than an apology, but he keeps it just vague enough that solely within the text it could be taken either way. He’s no great intellectual but he’s a master behind the camera.

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