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BIRTH OF A NATION (director/writer: D.W. Griffith; screenwriters: from the book “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon/Frank E. Woods; cinematographer: Billy Bitzer; editor: James Smith; music: D.W. Griffith/Joseph Carl Breil; cast: Lillian Gish (Elsie, Stoneman’s daughter), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron, the pet sister), Henry Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron, elder sister), Mary Alden (Lydia, [Brown] Stoneman’s mulatto housekeeper), Ralph Lewis (Hon. Austin Stoneman, leader of the house), George Siegmann (Silas Lynch, mulatto Lieut. Governor), Walter Long (Gus, a renegade Negro), Wallace Reid (Jeff, the blacksmith), Jos. Henabery (Abraham Lincoln), Elmer Clifton (Phil, Stoneman’s elder son), Robert Harron (Tod Stoneman), Maxfield Stanley (Duke Cameron); Runtime: 187; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: D.W. Griffith; Kino International; 1915-silent)
“Like it or not, its tremendous influence can’t be denied.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Southerner D.W. Griffith’s racist telling of the south’s cause during the Civil War is based on the 1905 book and play “The Clansman” by the white supremacist Southerner named Reverend Thomas Dixon. It became the first acclaimed great picture of modern times and the first tremendous commercial success. Steeped in controversy because of its blatant racism, its monstrous portrayal of blacks (all the lead blacks are played by whites in blackface), its statement that the south’s loss would lead to miscegenation, its pro-Klan stance, its approval of slavery, its distorted romantic view of the Old South as a place where master and slave got along just fine and calling out the Negro as a rapist of white women. It nevertheless also was one of the most influential films (most film scholars call it the most influentual) because of the skilled way it was made changing the language and techniques of cinema. I’ll mention only a few of its many innovations: night photography, cross-cutting or “panning” tracking shots, use of color tinting for dramatic or psychological effect, effective use of total-screen close-ups to reveal intimate expressions, high angle shots and definitive usage of the still-shot. Upon its release and even today, it has been effectively used by the Ku Klux Klan as a recruitment aid for membership. It was voted # 44 of the “Top 100 American Films” by the American Film Institute in 1998. Upon its release it sparked protests and riots in such cities as Boston and Philadelphia. But like it or not, its tremendous influence can’t be denied.

It takes us from the opening to the finish of the Civil War, to the aftermath period of Reconstruction.

The story revolves around the Camerons from Piedmont, South Carolina, and the Stonemans from Pennyslvania. Phil and Tod Stoneman (Elmer Clifton & Robert Harron), sons of abolitionist leader and congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), visit Phil’s school friend, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), and his family in their Piedmont plantation. Phil makes a play for Ben’s sister Margaret, while Tod and Ben’s young brother Duke (Maxfield Stanley) become friends. Ben gets hold of a locket of Phil’s sister Elsie (Lillian Gish) and falls in love with her without ever seeing her in person. When the south secedes from the Union, each family remains loyal to where it was born and the eligible family members join the warring armies on opposing sides. During the conflict Duke and Tod die in each others’ arms. A white captain of a Negro outfit orders the raid of the Cameron’s Piedmont mansion and wrecks the place, but the family are saved from further misfortune by the arrival of the Confederate army. Ben, a colonel, is wounded during the Petersburg campaign but is rescued by Phil. At a Washington hospital Ben meets Elsie, now a nurse, for the first time. After Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, Stoneman has great power in Congress as its leader. He sends his protégé, the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), to Piedmont, where the whites are getting the short end of the stick from the new carpetbagger government and are left without power. Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, and illiterate blacks gain control of the corrupt political system. Stoneman visits Piedmont with Phil and Elsie to see first-hand how his plan is going. Ben and Elsie become engaged, but the dye-in-wool Confederate sympathizer Margaret rejects Phil because he’s a Yankee. Ben reacts to the cruel and chaotic rule of the blacks and carpetbaggers by organizing like-minded Southerners into a secret enforcement group called the Ku Klux Klan. Elsie breaks off the engagement upon learning that Ben is a clansman. The film’s most infamous scene has Gus (Walter Long), a renegade black soldier who becomes one of Lynch’s followers, finding Flora (Mae Marsh), Ben’s youngest sister, alone in the woods, where he asks her to marry him. She runs in fright, and jumps off a cliff rather than give into what she thinks are Gus’s sexual advances. After she dies in Ben’s arms, Gus is hanged by the Klan. Black militia troops take control of Piedmont, as Lynch asks Elsie to be the queen of his black empire. Elsie is disgusted by the offer and tries to fend off Lynch. But even her father can’t prevent a forced marriage. In the nick of time, Ben leads the Klan to rescue Elsie and Stoneman and the rest of the Camerons. As a result of the so-called noble KKK, the blacks are disenfranchised. Margaret and Phil honeymoon with Ben and Elsie. In an allegorical epilogue, the whites are seen as uniting again in a move for brotherhood under the cross of Christ to stave off the power play of the blacks and the corrupt Northern white politicians.

Its battle scenes were truly remarkable; the beautiful costumes were reportedly made by Lillian Gish’s mother. The film went over its projected $100,000 budget, as Griffith put his last cent into it and had to get additional backing from businessmen. But it paid off at the box office, where it became the biggest money earner of some $18 million until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”