The silent film I chose to watch “The Birth of a Nation” is a 1915 American drama, directed by D. W Griffith, produced by D. W. Griffith and Harry Aitken, co-written by D. W Griffith, T. F.
Dixon J. R. and Frank E. Woods, and was based on the novel and play “The Clansman” both by T. F. Dixon J. R.
It was originally released on February 8, 1915 and was presented in two parts, separated by an intermission, as it is over three hours long. The film follows the lives of two families in Civil War era America.The pro Union, northern Stoneman’s and the pro Confederacy, southern Cameron’s over the course of several years.
On a visit to the Cameron’s southern estate the eldest Stoneman son Phil falls in love with Margaret Cameron. Correspondingly, Ben Cameron see’s a photograph of, and begins to fall for Elsie Stoneman. As the picture progresses though, the families split as the boys join their respective armies. While the boys are away at war a black militia pillages the Cameron household. The Cameron women are rescued when Confederate soldiers overtake the militia.Meanwhile, the younger Stoneman and two of the Cameron brothers meet once again on the battlefield just before they are killed. Ben Cameron is wounded after a heroic charge at the battle of Petersburg, in which he gains the nickname “the Little Colonel”.
He is taken to a Northern hospital where, coincidentally, he finally meets Elsie, who is working there as a nurse. While recovering, Cameron is told that he will be hanged for being a guerrilla. Elsie takes Cameron’s mother, who has traveled to Washington to tend her son, to see President Lincoln himself. With her emotional appeal Mrs.Cameron persuades Lincoln to issue a pardon. After Lee surrenders and the War is over President Lincoln is assassinated, which is depicted on screen with the likeness of Lincoln being stunningly convincing. It is then that Austin Stoneman assumes great power in Congress.
He sends his protege, the mulatto Silas Lynch, to Piedmont, where the whites are disenfranchised. Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, and blacks gain more rights and privilege, with blacks even being made judges and sitting on jury’s. Ben does not like what is happening. Nor does he like Silas or a black oldier named Gus and so, angry at the injustices he feels were being done (or as quoted in the movie “ In agony of soul over the degradation of his people”), he forms the Ku Klux Klan. Ben and Elsie become engaged, but Margaret, prideful over the South’s loss, is cold to Phil.
When Elsie learns that Ben is a clansman, she breaks their engagement. After Gus, the black soldier finds Flora, Ben’s youngest sister, alone in the woods, he asks her to marry him. She runs in fright, and jumps off a cliff because she thinks that Gus will rape her. After she dies in Ben’s arms, Gus is captured and hanged by the Klan.Dr. Cameron is arrested for having Klan costumes in his house, and although Phil and the Cameron’s black servants rescue him, they become entrapped, with Margaret and Mrs.
Cameron, in a country cabin. As black militia troops invade the streets of Piedmont, Lynch asks Elsie to be the queen of his black empire. Repelled, Elsie barely fends off Lynch. Her father arrives and is also horrified by Lynch’s proposal, but he is powerless to prevent a forced marriage.
After Ben leads the Klan’s ride to rescue Elsie and Stoneman–and afterward, the Camerons–the blacks are defeated and “disarmed”.At the end the romances blossom as Margaret and Phil and Ben and Elsie go on their honeymoons. In an allegorical epilogue the new day is depicted wherein Christ appears and seems to bind the nation with brotherhood and love. Albeit no African Americans are seen at all…
.. This film’s depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was at that time very controversial, along with its portrayal of African American men (many played by white men in blackface) as crude and sexually aggressive towards white women and as enemies of white people in general.It also seemed to show of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force. There were widespread protests against “The Birth of a Nation”, and it was banned in several cities. The outcry of racism was so great that D. W.
Griffith was inspired to produce “Intolerance” the following year. It was also the first motion picture to be shown at the White House. President Woodrow Wilson supposedly said the film was “… like writing history with lightning.
And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true”One of the reasons I chose this film, and something I found mesmerizing as I watched it was the fact that it is a picture about the Civil War that was made just years after it actually happened. Some of the actors in the movie were alive and maybe even at actual Civil War events which, along with the exterior shots showing a world so close to the time period, I felt brought a sense of reality to the picture. I did not find “The Birth of a Nation” to be predictable but I did find it, at times, to be a little hard to follow some of the plot details.This though, may because I am not in tune with watching silent films as this was the first. That being said I was pleasantly surprised at the continuity of the piece I felt that the story was told well and at a smooth pace, especially for such a long film with the constraints and challenges they faced in those times. As a first-timer I also felt that within it’s silence there was an intense intimacy with the actors as their characters, thus making them more real as well.
There were some very strong acting performances given.Notably Lillian Gish as Elsie who was featured in much of the film with some important close-ups with intense facial expressions. Also giving a great performance was Mae Marsh as Flora Cameron, Henry B. Walthall as Ben Cameron, Ralph Lewis as Austin Stoneman, George Siegmann as Silas Lynch and Walter Long as Gus. I was quite impressed with the photography, especially in the battle scenes, where there was a lot of action shots and some epic distant shots of very large proportions. Some were shot in panorama and must represent enormous effort as they achieved a striking degree of success.Also there was a nice ratio of interior to exterior shots that mirrored true life experience with the sets and backgrounds being very believable, which was something I really did not expect.
Also of much interest is the fact that “The Birth of a Nation”, which was filmed on a budget of an estimated $110,000 (equal to $2,380,197 today), is the highest-grossing film of the silent film era, with earnings of approximately $10 million (equal to $216,381,579 today). I must say that overall I was totally impressed and quite taken by surprise at how much I enjoyed watching this silent film.I was though disheartened to see film used for such negative propaganda, but I do keep in mind the times in which it was made. Conversely it does go to show how powerful film can be when used for good as well. Watching this movie has sparked in me a desire to explore more silent films as I can now clearly see how much of todays cinema is a direct result of these daring, early pioneers. It is also a bit of a challenge to endeavor in silent film that I now find invigorating.
I feel it instigates growth in me as person and as a fan of film as well!