Total Film - 11/01/2000
"...The sheer scale and energy of the battle scenes still carry a powerful charge..."
Premiere - 12/01/2003
"...It's gripping drama..."
This landmark film from silent director D.W. Griffith was the first movie blockbuster. However, it also reveals a horribly racist version of American history. The first part of the film chronicles the Civil War as experienced through the eyes of two families; the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons of the South. Lifelong friends, they become divided by the Mason-Dixon line, with tragic results. Large-scale battle sequences and meticulous historical details culminate with a staged re-creation of Lincoln's assassination. The second half of the film chronicles the Reconstruction, as Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) puts evil Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) in charge of the liberated slaves at the Cameron hometown of Piedmont. Armed with the right to vote, the freed slaves cause all sorts of trouble until Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) founds the Ku Klux Klan and restores order and "decency" to the troubled land. While THE BIRTH OF A NATION was a major step forward in the history of filmmaking, it must be noted that the film supports a racist worldview. But there is no denying that it remains a groundbreaking achievement, setting a high watermark for film as an art form.
D.W. Griffith's film tells the story of two families, one Northern and one Southern, facing the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. The Camerons, headed by "Little Colonel" Ben Cameron, and the Stonemans, headed by politician Austin Stoneman, have been friends for years, but find themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines when the war comes. The Civil War exacts a personal toll on both families, only to be followed by the equally destructive Reconstruction period. Griffith links the consequences of the war with the formation of Ku Klux Klan and Lincoln's assassination.
Civil War |
Essential Cinema |
Period Piece |
Race Relations |
Silent Cinema |
Premiered at Clune's Auditorium in Los Angeles, February 8, 1915, under the title THE CLANSMAN. Premiered in New York City at the Liberty Theater on March 3, 1915, as THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The film toured the rest of the country as a road show attraction.
In 1906, the same Liberty Theater had housed a run of Thomas Dixon's stage play, THE CLANSMAN, which was one of the sources for the film. At the New York premiere, Dixon stated that he would have "allowed none but the son of a Confederate soldier to direct the film version of THE CLANSMAN." (New York Times, 3/4/1915)
THE BIRTH OF A NATION was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.
The film originally ran 13,058 feet on 12 reels. At 16 frames per second, it ran approximately 185 minutes.
This landmark cinematic achievement features the first use of now-standard techniques like cross-cutting and deep focus, as well as the unprecedented long shot of the Lincoln assassination and a color sequence at the end.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION was originally silent with a musical score. In 1930, the film was reissued with sound effects and synchronized music adapted from Joseph Carl Breil's original score, but at a much shorter length--108 minutes. Current prints run between 108 and 185 minutes, sometimes due to deleted footage, sometimes due to incorrect projection speeds.
At some theaters, ticket prices cost up to $2 per seat, a record figure at the time. THE BIRTH OF A NATION was also reportedly the first film to utilize ushers.
The film reportedly made $20 million dollars at the box office. Because the film's rights were simply sold outright in some states, accurate figures are difficult to obtain, and the film may have actually grossed $50 to $100 million.
Director D.W. Griffith shot this film without a script or even written notes, saying that he had visualized the entire movie in his mind.
One scene deleted from the end of the film professes to depict "Lincoln's Solution," in which African-Americans are shipped back to Africa, while Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ look approvingly on.
From the moment the film premiered, the NAACP organized mass demonstrations against THE BIRTH OF A NATION; not only did black people object to its racial stereotypes, but they feared that its glorification of the Klan would lead to increased violence against African-Americans. In fact, the Klan used THE BIRTH OF A NATION to recruit new members, and its ranks supposedly swelled after screenings of the film.
Estimated cost: $110,000.
THE BIRTH OF A RACE was produced by a group of independent black filmmakers in response to THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Filmed in Florida, New York, and Chicago, it cost $500,000, nearly five times THE BIRTH OF A NATION's budget, and was at least partially funded by the sale of stock. Released in 1918, it was panned by Variety, who stated that it was "replete with historical inaccuracies, gross exaggerations, and bromidic appeals to patriotism," noting that the film was "full of rape, murder, and suicide." The film was directed by John W. Noble and written by Noble and Rudolph de Cordoba. It starred John Reinhardt, Jane Grey, George Le Guerre, Ben Hendricks, Gertrude Braun, and Mary Kennevan.