The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Toronto Film Society presented The Birth of a Nation (1915) on Monday, November 20, 1967 as part of the Season 20 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 2.

Main Auditorium, UNITARIAN CHURCH, 174 St. Clair West


Programme No. 2
Monday November 20, 1967
8.15 pm

T H E   B I R T H   O F   A   N A T I O N

Part One (The Civil War)
Part Two (The Reconstruction)




Produced by the Epoch Producing Corporation (originally D.W. Griffith and Harry E. Aitken; later Aitken alone).
Based on a novel “The Clansman”, with supplementary material from another novel “The Leopard Spots”, both by the Reverend Thomas Dixon, Jr., and on documented manuscripts and other data dealing with the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Period in the post-Civil War South.
Adaptation (screen treatment): D.W. Griffith, Frank Woods, and Thomas Dixon, Jr.

Directed by D.W. Griffith.  Edited by D.W. Griffith.
Photography by G.W. Bitzer.
Shooting time: from Jully 4 through October 30, 1914.

Music (for the original presentations in 1915): a score compiled and arranged, with a few original passages, by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith.

Original release-length: 13,058 feet or just over 13 reels.  Running time: 3 hours.  After the first weeks of the original New York City run, censored down to 12,500 feet or 12 1/2 reels; running time, 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Aitken’s sound-print of 1930 was reduced to 9 reels with a running time of about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  (SIC.  But at sound speed–which heaven forbid!–wouldn’t the running time of 9 reels be 1 hour and 30 minutes?)

Released by the Epoch Distribution Corporation (Harry E. Aitken): (1) under the title The Clansman, on February 8, 1915, at Clune’s (now the Philharmonic) Auditorium, Los Angels; and (2) under its new and permanent name, The Birth of a Nation, on March 3, 1915, at the Liberty Theatre, New York City.  (First Toronto run: September 20 to October 9, 1915, at the “Alexandra” Theatre).

NOTE that the authentic title of this film is The Birth of a Nation, and not as you frequently see it printed nowadays, simply Birth of a Nation.


The Cameron family (Southerners):
Dr. Cameron……………………………………Spottiswoode Aiken
Mrs. Cameron………………………………….Josephine Crowell
Ben Cameron (the “little Colonel”)……………Henry B. Walthall
Wade, the second son…………………………Andre Beranger
Duke, the youngest son……………………….Maxfield Stanley
Margaret, the elder sister……………………..Mariam Cooper
Flora, the pet sister…………………………….Mae Marsh
Flora as a child…………………………………Violet Wilkey
The two Negro servants………………………Jennie Lee and William de Vaull

The Stoneman family (Northerners):
The Hon. Austin Stoneman…………………..Ralph Lewis
His daughter, Elsie…………………………….Lillian Gish
His elder son, Phil……………………………..Elmber Clifton
His younger son, Ted………………………….Robert Harron
Lydia Brown, the mulatto housekeeper……..Mary Alden
The Negro servant…………………………….Tom Wilson

Historical characters:
Abraham Lincoln………………………………Joseph Henaberry
Mrs Lincoln……………………………………..Alberta Lee
General U.S. Grant……………………………Donald Crisp
General Robet E. Lee…………………………Howard Gaye
Senator Charles Sumner……………………..Sam de Grasse
Laura Keene (actress)………………………..Olga Grey
John Wilkes Booth…………………………….Raoul Walsh

Silas Lynch, “leader of the blacks”…………..George Siegmann
Gus, the renegade…………………………….Walter Long
Jeff, the blacksmith……………………………Wallace Reid

Some “bit” parts:
The mooning sentry (in the hospital)………..William Freeman
“White-arm” Joe, the gin-mill owner…………Elmo Lincoln
Slave auctioneer (Prologue)………………….Elmo Lincoln
Leader of Confederate counterattack
on Piedmont……………………………………Elmo Lincoln
Blackface spy at Camerons’ door……………Robert Harron
A Union soldier…………………………………Eugene Pallette
Man who falls from roof……………………….Erich von Stroheim
Negro woman with gypsy shawl……………..Mme. Sul-te-Wan
Night Haws (two riders of the Klan
who ride through the Southern countryside
to summon the clansmen……………………..Two members of the U.S. Calvary, names unknown.

NOTE: The Credits and Cast information given above (apart from editorial interjections) was copied from FILM CULTURE No 36, (Spring-Summer 1965), a special issue by Seymour Stern for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of The Birth of a Nation.


If you can approach this film with our previous feature Queen Elizabeth (rather than present-day films or even a late-1920s silent film) firmly in mind, you will experience something of the impact that The Birth of a Nation had in 1915, when it was seen by people who, two years earlier, had found Queen Elizabeth quite satisfactory.

At the time that Queen Elizabeth was being filmed in France in 1912, D.W. Griffith in America was well into his fifth year as a maker of films for the Biograph Company.  Griffith’s original ambition had been to be a writer, and in order to learn how to write plays he became an actor.  In 1908, finding himself temporarily unsuccessful at either playwriting or acting, he was forced into the humiliation of applying for work in moving pictures.  He got a day’s work at the Biograph studios on 14th Street in New York, was asked to return, and was soon working there steadily, also selling them stories.  Presently he was offered the job of director, and for the ensuing five years he turned out hundreds of films–one-reelers mostly, made at the rate of two a week.  (It was during this period that film production gradually shifted from New York to California).

The Biograph brass clung to its tried and true policy of shorts-only; the growing interest in “features” (introduced from Europe) was fought stubbornly.  Finally in 1913 Griffith (like Don Owen with his Nobody Waved Goodbye for the National Film Board) secretly made a four-reel feature, a costume spectacular after the Italian taste, Judith of Bethulia, and the front office was so insensed that Griffith was deprived of his authority; whereupon he promptly resigned, and eventually formed his own company–taking with him most of his Biograph staff of actors and technicians.  (Biograph didn’t survive very long).

But his five years with Biograph were probably the most fruitful five years in the evolution of the cinema.  In these innumerable little films Griffith gradually worked out the films’ own methods of telling a story, freeing it from the artificial limitations of the photographed play by borrowing the novelist’s ability to jump back and forth (“Why not?  Doesn’t Dickens write that way?”); inventing or exploiting the film’s own punctuation devices: fades, dissolves, irises; and evolving the technique of screen acting as opposed to stage acting.  The Birth of a Nation is a film that nobody, including Griffith himself, could have made seven years earlier.  It and the ensuing Intolerance (1916) are the exuberant fruition of those five years of experiment and experience.

And the simplest way to appreciate what Griffith contributed to the cinema is to remember what Queen Elizabeth was like–and then to see for yourselves what The Birth of Nation is like.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Another art that film-makers learned to borrow from, in addition to the arts of the novel and of the portrait-painter (close-ups), was literature itself, or rather its medium: the written word.  We touched on this briefly in our notes for Queen Elizabeth when we discussed the use of subtitles.  We called your attention to the contemporary custom of using a “subtitle” at the beginning of each scene to explain what was about to happen.  This was a custom that prevailed at that time, as will be quickly apparent in The Birth of a Nation.  But notice that Griffith also uses what were known as “spoken titles”, to supply some of the dialogue.

In addition, he also occasionally uses a subtitle after the manner of a Victorian novelist, to address the reader/viewer and to comment on the action, usually with emotional appeal (as in the death of Flora), . . which always strikes modern audiences as ludicrous, this being an anti-romantic age.  But like the photographed play, this was something that the cinema had to pass through in its evolution.  Even in literature, of course, this was on its way out; the Hemingway era was just around the corner.  Griffith’s poetic subtitles are consistent with his own literary style as we know it from his published early poetry.  And in all fairness, though some of it is over-purple for present-day tastes, some of it is very apt and demonstrates a gift for words that even today still “works” . . provided that you are not one of those who find all subtitles howlingly funny just because they are subtitles.  (One of the subtitles in this film, incidently, became the title of one of Winston Churchill’s volumes of war memoirs: THE GATHERING STORM).

We said earlier that Griffith evolved screen punctuation, such as the fade-out.  But notice that in 1914, when this film was made, its use had not yet become standardized.  It is sometimes quite disconcerting to us, brought up in the tradition, to find Griffith fading out of a scene, leading us to assume it is finished, and then carrying on with the same scene in the very next shot.  Obviously the fade-out had not yet acquired the conventional meaning it was later to have.  (Nowadays of course it is fashionable to dispense with such punctuation and paragraphing.  You cut directly to the next scene and leave your audience to figure out whether or not time is supposed to have elapsed).

Birth of a Nation (1915)

For The Birth of a Nation Griffith also drew on still another art form to enrich the cinema.  As noted in the credits on page 1, there is an official musical score that belongs with this film, arranged by the conductor-composer Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith himself.  Following the film’s official openings in Los Angeles and New York, twelve different “roadshows” carried the film to all the larger cities of the United States and Canada, each furnished with a symphony orchestra to play this special score.  It was mostly a scissors-and-paste score (like our own taped scores from recordings) drawn from numerous ready-made compositions, mostly classics; but there was some original music too, notably a love theme which was later published under the title “The Perfect Song”, which in the 1930s became familiar to radio listeners as the theme music of the comedy series, Amos and Andy.

Unfortunately the TFS cannot offer you the original score, for ours is a silent print.  (The score used with the 1930 sound print was based on the original; but that print is an abridged version of the film, omitting nearly a quarter of the original).  When the Silent Series showed The Birth of a Nation back in January 1960, we put a scissors-and-paste score of our own to Part 1, but didn’t have time for Part 2.  Now, seven years later, we hope to finish the score by finding music for Part 2 (and with luck, find time to touch up and revise Part 1).  The aforementioned Birth of a Nation editon of FILM CULTURE includes a series of articles describing the original score in detail.  We may be able to borrow a few ideas from it, but unfortunately, in the fifty years that have elapsed since Griffith and Breil prepared their score, recordings and radio have made hackneyed much that was undoubtedly very fresh and effective in 1915, but which comes to us today with built-in associations that are at variance with the mood of the film.  We cannot see ourselves using Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” for the burning of Atlanta.  Yet this proved so ideal at the time that Griffith added extra footage to the film at this point (a repetition of some shots used earlier) in order that the music could be allowed to play to its conclusion instead of being arbitrarily broken off at the height of its climax.

This is but one instance of the way in which the film at times was edited by Griffith deliberately to coordinate with the music, to permit the perfect integration of music and image.  All the more reason that we must apologize for having to substitute different music.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

If you compare the acting in this film with that in Queen Elizabeth, you will realize that Griffith had managed to teach his actors that they were playing to the intimate camera, not to the vast auditorium beyond the footlights.  Some of the acting is still overdone, it is true, but in its better moments no apology is needed even today.  Consider the famous Homecoming Scene.  The War over, Ben Cameron arrives back at the war-impoverished family home in Piedmont.  His little sister runs out into the front yard to greet him.  With wry humor they note one another’s shabbiness; then for a brief moment each one looks away sadly, obviously recalling how different things were in the bygone happy days before the war.  Then they quietly snap out of it, resume their brave cheerfulness, and go into the house.  It is a perfect example of the film camera’s ability to reveal thoughts.  (It has been pointed out that this particular scene could have been done on the stage too; but even those sitting in the front row would never be so close to the players’ faces as the camera is).

Following his usual custom, Griffith rehearsed with his cast for about six weeks before shooting began.  And as with the later Intolerace, there was no shooting script for The Birth of a Nation.  Griffith rehearsed, shot and edited this enormous film from a script that existed only in his head.

The film opened in Los Angeles with the same title as the book and play on which it had been based: THE CLANSMAN.  The play had been very popular in Los Angeles; but in New York (1906) it had been severely criticized, and this may be the reason that the title of the film was changed for the New York opening a month later (in the same theatre where the play had been performed nine years earlier).  Tradition has it that it was Dixon himself (a shareholder in the film) who suggested the new title after seeing a private screening a few days before the New York opening.  “THE CLANSMAN is too tame; let’s call it The Birth of a Nation!” he is alleged to have said.  If so, he wasn’t inventing the name on the spur of the moment, for in Los Angeles it had already been advertised as “THE CLANSMAN, or: The Birth of a Nation“.  (According to the LIbrary of Congress Catalogue of Copyright Entries, the film was copyright on Feb 8, 1915, as “The Birth of a Nation“, and on Feb 13 as “THE BIRTH OF THE NATION, or THE CLANSMAN”).  But the new title did represent Dixon’s conception of the theme of the work, for in his novel there occurs a paragraph in which he says: “She (Elsie Stoneman) began to understand why the war, which had seemed to her a wicked, cruel and causeless rebellion, was the one inevitable thing in our growth from a loose group of sovereign States to a United Nation”.

There were no official “stars” in this film when it opened; but the film quickly made stars of its leading players, especially Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall and Mae Marsh.  Many of the smaller parts were played by actors who later rose to stardom.  Elmo Lincoln a few years later became the first of the long list of Tarzans.  Wallace Reid had been moderately prominent in films before this, but it was his short but vivid role as the Blacksmith that drew him to the attention of Jesse Lasky and Cecil DeMille, who promptly secured his services for their own company, where he quickly rose to be one of their biggest box-office attractions.  Four of the actors in The Birth of a Nation later became directors: Joseph Henaberry, Elmer Clifton, Donald Crisp and Raoul Walsh.  (Donald Crisp claims to have directed the battle scenes in this film, but this has been denied).  On the other hand, William Freeman left films immediately after doing his little bit as the lovesick sentry, and by the time people began to wonder who he was, no one could remember.  Not until the 1930s was his identity established, by which time so much ink had been spilt over this “unknown” actor that many people are still unaware that it is no longer a “mystery”.

It will be readily apparent that most (not all) of the Negro characters in this film are being played by white actors in blackface.  This, apparently, was due to the fact that there were at that period very few if any professional Negro actors.  The only Negroes on the stage were in minstrel shows or vaudeville.  Consequently the burnt-cork Negro was such a familiar theatrical convention at that time that stage and screen audiences alike took it for granted.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

And this brings us to the delicate subject which we must face sooner or later when discussing The Birth of a Nation.

It goes without saying that the anti-Negro sentiments expressed by this film do not represent the view of the Toronto Film Society.  (Some of our best friends…etc.)  One does not have to be anti-French to be thrilled by the Shakespeare-Olivier Henry V; and one can discount Griffith’s Southern bias and be moved by The Birth of a Nation as a great film.  Admiration for its positive virtues must ultimately outweigh the flaws in its basic premise.  To what extent this film is correct or incorrect in its representation of what actually happened in history is something this ignorant Canadian is in no position to know.  Our attempt to research the period with the aid of three different historical textbooks only resulted in three different answers to many of the questions, and an appreciation that a simplified viewpoint, however inaccurate, is inevitably more vivid than any attempt to convey the whole tangled truth.

Griffith himself was a Southerner, born in Kentucky in 1875, ten years after the end of the War.  Kentucky, to be sure remained in the Union, but Griffith’s father had fought with Lee in the Confederate Army, and the War and the events of the Reconstruction Era were things that were still talked about throughout his childhood.  “I was driven to tell the story”, he later explained, “the truth about the South, touched by its eternal romance which I had learned to know so well”.  (As a film-maker he also had an eye on the Civil War battles as material for outdoing the Italian costume spectaculars with some American instead of foreign or ancient history).  Naturally he did not depend on his second-hand memories but did a great amount of research, but the Southern viewpoint was native to him.

One of the history books we consulted for these notes had this pertinent observation:

Reconstruction is still a controversial subject in American history, distorted by emotion.  A proud people led by a warrior caste who believed themselves invincible were badly whipped; and on top of the resulting emotional trauma, reconstruction was imposed by the victors.  Naturally, a fabulous theory about the war and reconstruction was built up as in Germany about World War I; and as Hitler used the Jews and Allies as scapegoats, so the white South used Negroes and Republicans.  This Reconstruction stereotype, already generally accepted in 1890, was promoted by David W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation (1915), and reinforced by Margaret Mitchell’s novel GONE WITH THE WIND (1936).  It has now taken so strong a hold on the American mind, North as well as South, that it seems hopeless for a mere historian to deflate it.

The accepted fable represents reconstruction as the ruthless attempt of Northern politicians to subject the white South, starving and helpless, to an abominable rule by ex-slaves which, as the Bible says, is a thing the earth cannot bear, and from which it was rescued by white-hooded knights on horseback who put the Negro “back where he belonged”.  There is some truth in this, but it is far from being the whole truth; and only recently have Southern as well as Northern historians endeavoured to bring out facts on the other side.  yet, even after that is known, reconstruction was a deplorable and tragic episode in our history.

(Samuel Eliot Morison: The Oxford Book of the American People, 1965, p.709)

In short, what Griffith shows in his film is indeed the truth; these things really happened.  But it’s not the whole truth.  Other things happened too.  And some of the things that happened were the South’s own fault . . as Griffith himself unintentionally reveals in a brief but symbolic incident, when Ben Cameron ostentatiously refuses to shake the hand of the Negro, Silas Lynch, who is being presented to him.  It is true that Lynch is the villain of the story; but at this point nobody is yet aware of this, and who knows but what things might have taken a completely different turn if Cameron had shown a little noblesse oblige courtesy.

If the violent events did occur as Griffith shows, one can still be understanding.  An enslaved people suddenly given freedom can easily become intoxicated by it.  If in fact the Southern Negroes behaved moderately–and Professor Morison insists that for the most part their conduct was exemplary–so much the better.  If things didn’t really happen in Piedmont the way Griffith says they did, they certainly did many years later in the Congo.

To get back to the matter of the film’s racial prejudice: Griffith was genuinely surprised and upset by the criticisms that were levelled at him for this.  Indeed, he had greatly toned down the anti-Negro sentiments that were in his source material, Dixon’s novels THE CLANSMAN and THE LEOPARD’S SPOTS, where they are quite blatant.  Furthermore, he carefully shows Negroes in a favorable light by his sympathetic treatment of the Camerons’ two servants, whose loyal and brave devotion to the family is admirable and touching; and he is at pains to point out that the “bad” Negroes were under the influence of bad white men: the Northern “carpetbaggers” and the Southern “scalawags”–opportunists who manipulated the new Negro vote to their own selfish ends.  In short, Griffith tried to show both “good” and “bad” Negroes.  But of course it becomes obvious that his idea of a “good” Negro is similar to our idea of a “good” child: one who is docile and loving and respectful to his elders.

It should be remembered, of course, that racial prejudice is of two kinds.  One is an active hatred for all Negroes (or whatever the race in question).  The other is devoid of animosity, but maintains a calm and unquestioning conviction that Negroes are an inferior order of being.  One should be polite to them, poor things, but of course they’re not as good as we are; and their feelings (if they have any) don’t count.  This latter type of prejudice may not be admirable or intelligent; but let’s at least admit it’s an improvement over the other.  Griffith’s prejudices were undoubtedly of the second type rather than the first.  He didn’t hate Negroes; but naturally he wouldn’t want one marrying his sister.  Nor would he want a Negro bossing him around, least of all one of his former slaves.  And naively he assumed that everybody else in the world felt exactly the same way.

And so we repeat: we do not endorse the anti-Negro bias of this film.  It represents only the views of a Southerner of fifty years ago, based on what the South at least believed had happened fifty years earlier.  If we are to appreciate this film, we must understand and forgive this bias in the same way that we must understand and overlook Griffith’s sentimentality and occasional mawkishness, which likewise stems from his childhood upbringing in mid-Victorian days.  (Indeed, they probably both spring from the same source: 19th century Romanticism, in which emotional display and self-dramatization were considered grand and admirable.  The Southerners were ultra-Romantic–it was one of the reasons the Civil War broke out).

Nowadays we pride ourselves on being more sensitive to the feelings of racial minorities (and let us hope the race riots of recent seasons won’t undo all this progress).  But even in 1915 the film provoked a storm of protest, not only from the NAACP but from numerous liberal whites as well.  Griffith immediately cut some of the offending material out of it; the film as we have it today, the official “complete” version, is still a little shorter than the versions that opened in Los Angeles and New York and played throughout the South.  (One of the omitted scenes is said to have shown the castration and execution of Gus for having allegedly raped the young girl).  Even so, efforts were made to suppress the film, and Griffith angrily denounced these attacks on “free speech”.  (Hence the subtitle at the opening of this print).

It was feared that the film would provoke racial riots.  No such riot occurred, but the controversy was publicity that a goldmine couldn’t have bought.  People who had never been to a “movie” in their lives went to see The Birth of a Nation.  Throughout the Southern states (where naturally the film had enormous appeal) and in parts of the mid-West the railways offered special excursion trains–the “Birth of a Nation Special”–for transporting farmers and other hinterland inhabitants to the big cities to see this film.  (Small towns and villages were not yet equipped with “picture shows” as they were to become within two or three years).

Part of the impact of this film was due to the fact that in 1915 the Civil War had ended only fifty years before; the events covered by the film were still within living memory, as those of World War I are for us.  The Civil War and Reconstruction were still very real, and the film touched wounds not completely healed.

The character of the Honorable Austin Stoneman is fictional, but it was immediately obvious (to those who knew their American history) that he represented the historical personage of Thaddeus Stevens, who was violently anti-Southern and pro-Negro, and who was responsible for introducing int he House, in February 1867, the Great Reconstruction Act which, two years after the end of the War, placed the rebel states under military occupation, enfranchising the ex-slaves and disenfranchising all who had taken part in the rebellion.  Unlike Stoneman, Stevens never married, but he had a mulatto housekeeper named Lydia Smith who was rumored to be his mistress.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

It is only fair to point out that the Ku Klux Klan of post-Civil War history and of this film (and of Gone With the Wind) has no connection with the reprehensible outfit of the same name that exists today.  The latter was organized in 1915, complete with character, and simply adopted thename of the bygone Clan (under the influence, not of the film as is sometimes supposed, but of the original novel and play, THE CLANSMAN).  The original Ku Klux Klan is said to have originated in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, as an innocent social club for young men; but by the following year its usefulness for frightening superstitious Negroes into submission had been discovered, and it became an underground organization (with branches or “Dens” throughout most of the South) for counteracting the wrongs perpetrated by the carpetbaggers.  By 1869, its purpose accomplished, the Ku Klux Klan officially disbanded, though it didn’t completely die out for several years more, by which time it had degenerated into a disguise for criminal activities.  But in its best days the Klan was as honorably regarded (among Southern whites) as the Underground Resistance movement in France during World War II.  Thus it is that they appear in this film as the “good guys”.  (But note that the Klan was not founded by Ben Cameron!)

The danger inherent in such illegal organizations was demonstrated in that shrewd and sometimes underrated film, The Wild One, which pointed out that when the proper law-enforcing authorities are too weak to be efficient, honest citizens must band together to take control for the purpose of ridding themselves of an encroaching evil; but in so doing they are setting themselves up outside the law, and with no legal restraint there is nothing to prevent them from perpetrating injustices as evil as those they are crushing.  And so it was with the Ku Klux Klan.  But within the narrow frame of reference of Griffith’s melodrama, they are the good guys riding to the rescue of the heroine (and the South); and such a masterly storyteller is Griffith that we readily accept them as “our side”; just as we do the valiant army of Henry V, conveniently forgetting that the English, as the invaders, were in fact the aggressors.

The Birth of a Nation continued to be reissued periodically (like Gone With the Wind nowadays) and always drew crowds to the box-office.  By 1939 it had grossed about $15,000,000 (in the days when dollars weren’t so cheap)–or nearly 150 times its original production cost of $110,000.  Unfortunately for Griffith he had long ago sold his share to help finance the costly and ill-fated Intolerance.

*     *     *

Next attraction: Monday January 22, 1968: a Douglas Fairbanks double bill: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) and Wild and Woolly (1917).  They were written by Anita Loos, so for homework we suggest you read her recent autobiography, A GIRL LIKE I.

Notes by Fraser Macdonald


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