The Birth of a Nation

Released:  1915

Cast:  Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long

SUMMARY:  In the years before the American Civil War, the Stoneman family — U.S. Representative Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), his two sons and daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish) — from the North, visit the South Caroline-based Cameron family, composed of Dr. Cameron, his wife, two daughters and three sons.  During the visit, Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron (Miriam Cooper) fall in love, and Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) begins to hold a torch for Elsie Stoneman.  Things are disrupted by the Civil War, which sees the enlistment of the Stoneman sons in the Union Army, and the Cameron sons in the Confederate Army.  The Cameron house is attacked by black soldiers during the war, but the Cameron women escape with the help of Confederate soldiers.  However, not all of the family members are so lucky:  one Stoneman and two Cameron brothers are killed in the fighting.  Ben Cameron is wounded while leading a Confederate attack at Petersburg, and is taken to a Union hospital in Washington, D.C.  To his surprise, Elsie Stoneman (whom he has loved since first meeting her) is a nurse at the hospital.  Unfortunately, the Union Army decides to hang Ben as a guerilla, so Elsie, who has fallen for Ben, takes Mrs. Cameron to see President Lincoln.  Heartfelt pleas from the women prompt Lincoln to pardon Ben, exemplifying his desire to reunite the country after the end of the war.  However, when President Lincoln is killed by John Wilkes Booth, he is no longer able to push this policy on the government.  The prevailing mood of the new government is a desire to brutally punish the South through Reconstruction:  one of the largest advocates of this policy is Austin Stoneman, considered a Radical Republican.

After the end of the war, Stoneman and a man named Silas Lynch (George Siegmann) go to South Carolina to see Reconstruction in action.  The newly freed African-Americans, particularly the soldiers occupying the area, cavort through the streets and treat the white citizens as they once were.  In the next election, the black citizens cheat by stuffing the ballot boxes, while also keeping the white citizens from voting.  This results in the election of Lieutenant Governor Lynch, and a predominantly black legislature.  The new government members have little respect for their posts, to the horror of the remaining white Congressmen.  After observing most of this for himself, Ben Cameron helps to form the Ku Klux Klan.  Elsie, who is from the North and has a vehement abolitionist for a father, is unable to handle this, and breaks up with Ben.  Sometime later, Ben’s sister Flora (Mae Marsh) is alone in the woods when she is confronted by Gus, a black Army Captain who wants to marry her (mixed-race marriages having been legalized by the new legislature).  Flora is against this, but when she tries to run away, Gus chases her onto a cliff.  Flora threatens to jump off if Gus continues to come at her, and when he approaches again, she throws herself off the cliff.  Ben has been chasing the pair the whole time, and holds his sister as she dies.  Only a short time later, the Klan lynches Gus and puts his body on the Lieutenant Governor’s doorstep.  Lynch is determined to stop the Klan, and begins to execute known participants.  Dr. Cameron is arrested when agents discover Ben’s Klan robes, but is saved from death by the intervention of his servants and the surviving Stoneman son (the one in love with Margaret).  The two men and Margaret then go into the woods to wait for the storm to pass.  However, Elsie does not know this, and visits Lieutenant Governor Lynch to ask for a pardon.  Lynch sees this as an opportunity to blackmail Elsie into marrying him, but she manages to cry for help through a broken window, and is heard by Klan spies.  When Ben finds out, despite their breakup, he rounds up his Klansmen and rides to her rescue.  They manage to both save Elsie and capure Lynch, and even save the hiding Camerons and Stoneman son when Lynch’s men try to attack them.  In the next election, the Klansmen turn out in force to prevent the black citizens from voting; the film ends with the double wedding of Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron and Ben Cameron and Elsie Stoneman.

MY TAKE:  Hoo boy, where do you start with this film?  It’s based on a book, so D.W. Griffith didn’t make up the story himself, but he did co-write the screenplay.  And, I don’t think that anybody who isn’t prejudiced would direct something like this.  The issue is that it’s kind of a landmark film, because of the year it was made, the legendary director, and the inclusion of a storyline (rather than a chronicle of real events, like some early films).  It’s also got a notorious reputation, obviously.  As someone born way, way after the film’s release (and quite a bit after the Civil Rights Movement), it’s a very uncomfortable film to watch, though some parts are so ridiculous they’re almost funny.  I’m pretty sure that blacks never kept whites from voting.  It was the other way around, and remained that way for a really long time.  The idea of the Klan as heroic also makes you shake your head, because they’re basically a terrorist organization.  The film plays into every bad stereotype about race and tries to rewrite history, and to add insult to injury, some of the black characters are played by white actors in blackface.  It also helped to re-form the Klan in the 20th century, and was used by the new Klan to recruit new members.  Strangely, it was also the first movies to be screened in the White House (under Woodrow Wilson).  Not very promising, there.  Personally, I was unable to get past the horrible hate and prejudice of the film, so I really couldn’t appreciate the artistic aspects of it.

RATING:  Really, really uncomfortable.


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