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The Birth of a Nation

THE BIRTH OF A NATION



USA, 1915


Director: D. W. Griffith

Production: Epoch Producing Corporation; black and white, 35mm, silent; length: 13,058 feet, later cut to 12,000 feet. Released 8 February 1915, Los Angeles. Re-released 1930 with musical soundtrack. Filmed 4 July through 24 September 1914 in Reliance-Majestic Studios, Los Angeles, and various outdoor locations around Los Angeles; cost: $110,000.


Producer: D. W. Griffith; scenario: D. W. Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and Frank Woods, from the play The Clansman by the Rev. Thomas Dixon; assistants to the director include: Eric von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, Jack Conway, and George Siegman; photography: G. W. (Billy) Bitzer and Karl Brown; editor: James Smith; compiler of music for the sound version: Joseph Carl Breil, assisted by D. W. Griffith; costume supplier: Robert Goldstein.


Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron, the "Little Colonel"); Mae Marsh (Flora); Miriam Cooper (Margaret, the older sister); Violet Wilkey (Flora as a child); Josephine Crowell (Mrs. Cameron); Spottiswoode Aitken (Dr. Cameron); Andre Beranger (Wade Cameron); Maxfield Stanley (Duke Cameron); Jennie Lee (Mammy); William De Vaull (Jake); Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman); Ralph Lewis (The Hon. Austin Stoneman); Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman); Robert Harron (Ted Stoneman); Mary Alden (Lydia Brown, Stoneman's housekeeper); Tom Wilson (Stoneman's Negro servant); Sam De Grasse (Senator Sumner); George Siegman (Silas Lynch); Walter Long (Gus); Elmo Lincoln (White Arm Joe); Wallace Reid (Jeff, the blacksmith); Joseph Henaberry (Abraham Lincoln); Alberta Lee (Mrs. Lincoln); Donald Crisp (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant); Howard Gaye (Gen. Robert E. Lee); William Freeman (Sentry); Olga Grey (Laura Keene); Raoul Walsh (John Wilkes Booth); Eugene Palette (Union Soldier); Bessie Love (Piedmont Girl); Charles Stevens (Volunteer); Erich von Stroheim (Man who falls off roof).


Publications


Scripts:

Huff, Theodore, A Shot Analysis of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, New York, 1961.

Cunibert, John, The Birth of a Nation, a shot by shot analysis, Woodbridge, Connecticut, 1979.

Books:

Lindsay, Vachel, The Art of the Moving Picture, New York, 1915; revised edition, 1922.

Paine, Albert Bigelow, Life and Lillian Gish, New York, 1932.

Jacobs, Lewis, The Rise of the American Film, New York, 1939.

Agee, James, Agee on Film I, New York, 1948.

Noble, Peter, The Negro in Films, London, 1948.

Wagenknecht, Edward, The Movies in the Age of Innocence, Norman, Oklahoma, 1962.

Aitken, Roy, The Birth of a Nation Story, as told to Al P. Nelson, Middleburg, Virginia, 1965.

Barry, Iris, D. W. Griffith: American Film Master, New York, 1965.

Pratt, George C., Spellbound in Darkness, Connecticut, 1966.

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By . . . , London and New York, 1969.

Cook, Raymond Allen, Fire from the Flint, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1968.

Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr.Griffith, and Me, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1969.

Silva, Fred, editor, Focus on Birth of a Nation, New York, 1971.

Henderson, Robert M., D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work, New York, 1972.

Brown, Karl, Adventures with D. W. Griffith, edited by Kevin Brownlow, New York and London, 1973; revised edition, 1988.

Cripps, Thomas J., Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film,1900–1942, New York, 1977.

Campbell, Edward D. C., Jr., The Celluloid South, Knoxville, 1981.

Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.

Brion, Patrick, editor, D. W. Griffith, Paris, 1982.

Mottet, Jean, editor, D. W. Griffith, Paris, 1984.

Schickel, Richard, D. W. Griffith and the Birth of Film, London, 1984.

Graham, Cooper C., and others, D.W. Griffith and the BiographCompany, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1985.

Jesionowski, Joyce E., Thinking in Pictures: Dramatic Structures inD. W. Griffith's Biograph Films, Berkeley, 1987.

Lang, Robert, editor, The Birth of a Nation: D. W. Griffith, Director, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1994.


Articles:

New York Times, 4 March 1915.

New York Tribune, 4 March 1915.

Variety (New York), 12 March 1915.

"The Civil War in Film," in Literary Digest (New York), 20 March 1915.

New Republic (New York), 4 December 1915.

Griffith, D. W., "The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America," (a pamphlet written in answer to the reaction against The Birth ofa Nation), Los Angeles, 1916.

Gordon, Henry Stephen, "D. W. Griffith Recalls the Making of TheBirth of a Nation," in The Photoplay Magazine (Hollywood), October 1916.

Platt, David D., "The Negro in Hollywood," in Daily Worker (New York), 19–28 February 1940.

Carter, Everett, "Cultural History Written with Lightning: The Significance of The Birth of a Nation," in American Quarterly (University of Pennsylvania), Fall 1960.

Fulton, A. R., "Editing in The Birth of a Nation," in Motion Pictures:The Development of an Art from Silent Pictures to the Age ofTelevision, Norman, Oklahoma, 1960.

Cripps, Thomas R., "The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture, The Birth of a Nation," in The Historian, May 1963.

"Griffith Issue" of Film Culture (New York), Spring-Summer 1965.

Sarris, Andrew, "Birth of a Nation of White Power Back When," in Village Voice (New York), 17 and 24 July 1969.

Beylie, Claude, "Naissance d'une Nation: La Piste du Geant," in Cinéma (Paris), March 1971.

Casty, Alan, "The Films of D. W. Griffith: A Style for the Times," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), Spring 1972.

Merritt, Russell, "Dixon, Griffith, and the Southern Legend," in Cinema Journal (Austin, Texas), Fall 1972.

Simcovitch, Maxim, "The Impact of Griffith's Birth of a Nation on Modern Ku Klux Klan," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1972.

Yacowar, Maurice, "In Defense of Minority Group Stereotyping in the Popular Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Spring 1974.

"Birth of a Nation Issue" of Kosmorama (Copenhagen), Summer 1975.

Turconi, D., "G. P. and D. W. G . . . in dare e l'avere," in Biancoe nero (Rome), Summer 1975.

Oms, Marcel, "Naissance d'une nation: Opera maconnique," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), Christmas 1975.

"Griffithiana: Material della e per la storia del cinema . . . ," in Filmcritica (Rome), January-February 1976.

"Birth of a Nation Case," in Classic Film Collection (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Fall 1976.

"Birth of a Nation Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), 15 October 1977.

Petric, Vlada, "Two Lincoln Assassinations by D. W. Griffith," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Summer 1978.

"In Defence of the KKK," reprinted in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1979.

Combs, R., in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1979.

Fleener, N., "Answering Film with Film . . . ," in Journal of PopularFilm and Television (Washington, D.C.), no. 4, 1980.

Stern, Seymour, in American Classic Screen (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), November-December 1980.

Merritt, Russell, "Dixon, Griffith and the Southern Legend: A Cultural Analysis of The Birth of a Nation," in Cinema Examined, New York, 1982.

Pinsky, Mark, "Racism, History, and Mass Media," in Jump Cut (Berkeley) no. 28, 1983.

Martin, J. B., "Film Out of Theatre: D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation and the Melodrama The Clansmen," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 2, 1990.

Leblanc, G., "L'art de raconter et de persuader: La naissance d'unenation," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau, France), January 1990.

Taylor, C., "The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 3–4, 1991.

Vanoye, Francis, "Rhétorique de la douleur," in Vertigo (Paris), no. 6–7, 1991.

Heine, Isabelle, "L'analyse videographique: conceptualisation et formalisation," in Revue Belge du Cinéma (Brussels), September 1992.

Hoberman, J., "Our Troubling Birth Rite," in Village Voice (New York), 30 November 1993.

Couvares, F.G., "The Good Censor: Race, Sex, and Censorship in the Early Cinema," in Yale Journal of Criticism (New Haven), vol. 7, no. 2, 1994.

Cripps, Thomas, "The Absent Presence in America Civil War Films," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television (Hants, United Kingdom), vol. 14, no. 4, October 1994.

Grimes, William, "An Effort to Classify a Racist Classic," in NewYork Times, 27 April 1994.

Moore, D.C., "Regarding 'Racism' of D. W. Griffith," in Films ofthe Golden Age (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 5, Summer 1996.

Rogin, M. "The Two Declarations of American Independence," Representations (Berkeley), no. 55, Summer 1996.

Green, J.R., "Micheaux v. Griffith," in Griffithiana (Temple, Arizona), no. 60, October 1997.

Gill, D., "The Birth of a Nation Orphan or Pariah?" in Griffithiana (Temple, Arizona), no. 60, October 1997.


* * *

"More than any picture before it, it made moviegoing a middle class activity," writes Joan L. Silverman of The Birth of a Nation (French, ed., The South in Film). "Soon movie palaces were built in fashionable neighborhoods all over the United States." More than that, the film remains one of the most controversial of the medium's first century. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branded it racist; riots followed in cities such as Boston; widespread picketing and lawsuits continued for years in many cities and states. Although Griffith found it difficult to raise the $110,000 that the film cost, and production was halted at times for fund-raising drives, by the end of the silent film period, it had made $18,000,000.

Griffith's much-hailed narrative techniques are relatively simple but enormously influential adaptations and expansions of the "villain still pursued her" formulaic storytelling of 19th-century theatrical melodramas. Griffith was an unknown actor when he was hired by Biograph Studios of New York to make the one-reel, 12-minute fictional films that were changed weekly at storefront nickelodeons. By the end of 1910 he had made 250, but was losing patience with the length limitation. An experimental two-reeler, however, was split by producers into two weeks' shows. Not until the summer of 1913, after he had completed another 175 or so films, was he allowed finally to expand to four reels with Judith of Bethulia. Dissatisfied, he left Biograph to join Harry E. Aitken's new company to make five fiveto-seven reel films during the first six months of 1914. Meanwhile he was plotting—in a double sense—to match the competition from abroad, especially Italy, where since 1911, the flamboyant poet Gabrielle D'Annunzio, had developed a series of spectacular but static films based on classical motifs into the ten-reel Cabiria. Critics predicted this would "convince many doubtful people that high art and the motion picture are not incompatible" (Pratt, ed., Spellbound in Darkness, 1966).

Griffith was determined, after moving his operations from overcrowded New York City to Los Angeles, to push American films to the forefront just at the time that European production was curtailed by World War I. He opted, however, for action over art. In 1908 he had worked briefly for the self-proclaimed bigot Thomas Dixon, Jr., who had cobbled together two of his rabble-rousing novels about the South during Reconstruction into a play called The Clansman. The Reverend Dixon was willing to sell the rights for the then huge sum of $10,000 (£2,000).

The opening portion of the film was apparently created on the spot by Griffith, as no script exists. The scene opens in pre-Civil War Piedmont, the gracious pastoral capital of a deep Southern state, in which the Cameron family and those "faithful souls," their household slaves, are entertaining affectionately the sons of northern Congressman Austin Stoneman (based somewhat fancifully on Pennsylvania's radical Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens). The outbreak of war disrupts this relationship—and when the boys face each other on the battlefield, the younger son of each family is killed. Griffith proclaimed in an opening subtitle that this message was that "war must be held in abhorrence."

Ben Cameron is falsely accused of spying and sentenced to death; his mother makes a precarious trip to Washington to plead for him, and the Great Heart, President Lincoln, grants a pardon. Mrs. Cameron's cause is abetted by Elsie Stoneman, who had not visited Piedmont with her brothers, but who has come to know and love Ben while nursing him back to health. Through this episodic section of the film, Griffith interrupts the heart-rending saga of the families with what he insisted were authentic reconstructions of some of the great moments of the war and its aftermath, including the assassination of President Lincoln, whom Griffith believed could have ameliorated the situation after the war.

With the assassination, Dixon takes over; and public history gives way to private myth. Congressman Stoneman becomes the fiery apostle of Reconstruction, determined to replace traitorous Southern leaders with freed slaves whom his cabal can manipulate. He appoints Silas Lynch, his mulatto cohort, the new lieutenant-governor in Piedmont to organize this. When a renegade black soldier, inflamed by Lynch's proddings and free liquor, threatens to rape Ben Cameron's "pet sister," she jumps from a cliff to her death rather than suffer dishonour. Outraged, Ben, after watching children donning sheets and playing ghosts, is portrayed by Griffith as founding the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to restore proper law and order to the South and keep the blacks in their place. Enraged, Silas Lynch sets out to destroy the Klan and the Camerons, and also to marry Elsie Stoneman, by force if necessary. When the Congressman learns of his henchman's audacity, he sees the error of his ways. In the most famous sequence of the film, Griffith uses the stunning effect of alternating closeups and long-shots, enhanced by printing the black images on stock tinted in a variety of colours that it was theorized influenced viewers' reactions (red for battle scenes, green for pastoral romance, etc.).

Elsie is rescued from Lynch's townhouse to join the frenzied dash to the lonely cabin where the Camerons are preparing to join their dead daughter. The Klan comes to the rescue at the last moment, paving the way for a double wedding between the Camerons and the Stonemans which restores peace to the community. However, it leaves open the question of whether the "nation" whose "birth" Griffith had in mind was that of the "Invisible Empire" of the KKK or of the disunited states, at last peacefully amalgamated by this symbolic marriage.

The first audiences saw the long runs of the big city "road shows"; a live orchestra accompanied the film, playing a rousing score by Joseph Carl Breil. Griffith travelled around the country constantly editing the film; the censors insisted upon other cuts. The results of this editing toned down the racist elements that Lillian Gish had feared might make people object to the film; however, protests to the film continued.

Griffith tried to remedy the situation by making his first talking picture Abraham Lincoln and by releasing a cut version of The Birth of a Nation, which was almost an hour shorter than the original; all references to the KKK were eliminated.

The film remains a landmark in the development of motion pictures. Its length (rarely equalled since), its exploitation of technical devices (producing startlingly new effects), and its establishment of the pattern of the horse opera that dominated American film melodrama, accord it a unique place in the evolution of American and international filmmaking.

It retains its sentimental and provocative power, but its circulation is restricted to groups studying both Griffith's reasons for making the film and the damage inflicted on a new medium by a great innovator's propagandistic vision. Perhaps the most perceptive judgement was written by a reviewer for the New York Times in 1921: "Sometimes it is almost epic in quality. But in many scenes it is falsely romantic and as blindly partisan as the most violent sectional tradition. It may be said that, as a rule, it comes closest to historical truth when it is furthest from Thomas Dixon."

—Warren French

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"The Birth of a Nation." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"The Birth of a Nation." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved June 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/birth-nation

Birth of a Nation, The

BIRTH OF A NATION, THE

BIRTH OF A NATION, THE. The first feature-length film, The Birth of a Nation was made in 1915 and concerns the struggles of a southern family during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Directed by David Wark Griffith, Birth is as renowned for its technical innovations as it is notorious for its racial stereotypes and violence. Griffith and cameraman G. W. "Billy" Bitzer innovated


close-ups, fade-outs, and cross-cutting techniques that revolutionized motion picture production. Griffith based his screenplay on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s best-selling novels The Leopard's Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905) and their subsequent adaptation as a touring stage production. After the Civil War, the former Confederate colonel Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) watches as the radical policies of politician Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) allow carpetbaggers and black freedmen to overrun his South Carolina town. A black soldier (Walter Long) assaults Ben's little sister (Mae Marsh), and a mulatto politician (George Seigmann) demands to marry Ben's love interest (Lillian Gish). In response, Ben organizes the Ku Klux Klan, restoring control of the South to southern white men. While Birth is remarkably accurate in many historical details, its portrayal of race relations is obscured and exaggerated to justify whites' violent repression of blacks. The film was nevertheless a box-office hit and played in theaters for nearly fifty years, despite persistent controversy and protest.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aitken, Roy E. The Birth of a Nation Story. As told to Al P. Nelson. Middleburg, Va.: William W. Denlinger, 1965.

Rogin, Michael. "'The Sword Became a Flashing Vision': D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation." In The New American Studies: Essays from Representations, edited by Philip Fisher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Silva, Fred, ed. Focus on The Birth of a Nation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Kristen L.Rouse

See alsoFilm Industry .

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"Birth of a Nation, The." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Birth of a Nation, The." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/birth-nation

"Birth of a Nation, The." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved June 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/birth-nation