Review: ‘The Birth of a Nation’

"The Birth of a Nation" is the main title David Wark Griffith, the director-in-chief of the Mutual Film Corporation, gave to his picturized version of Thomas Dixon's story of the South, "The Clansman." It received its first New York public presentation in the Liberty theatre, New York, March 3. The daily newspaper reviewers pronounced it as the last word in picture making. That its enormity and elaborateness made such an impression naturally resulted in the press comparing it with that Italian massive film production "Cabiria" and saying without hesitancy that "The Birth of a Nation" overshadowed the foreign film spectacle.

“The Birth of a Nation” is the main title David Wark Griffith, the director-in-chief of the Mutual Film Corporation, gave to his picturized version of Thomas Dixon’s story of the South, “The Clansman.” It received its first New York public presentation in the Liberty theatre, New York, March 3. The daily newspaper reviewers pronounced it as the last word in picture making. That its enormity and elaborateness made such an impression naturally resulted in the press comparing it with that Italian massive film production “Cabiria” and saying without hesitancy that “The Birth of a Nation” overshadowed the foreign film spectacle.

In the picturization of “The Clansman” Mr. Griffith has set such a pace it will take a long time before one will come along that can top it in point of production, acting, photography and direction. Every bit of the film was laid, played and made in America. One may find some flaws in the general running of the picture, but they are so small and insignificant that the bigness and greatness of the entire film production itself completely crowds out any little defects that might be singled out.

The story of the Dixon novel, “The Clansman,” is pretty well known. The Camerons of the south and the Stonemans of the north and Silas Lynch, the mulatto Lieutenant-Governor, the Civil War, the opening and finish of the Civil War, the scenes attendant upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the period of carpet-bagging days and union reconstruction following Lee’s surrender, the terrorizing of the southern whites by the newly freed blacks and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan that later overpowers the negroes and gives the white men the authority rightfully theirs, all these including some wonderfully well staged battle scenes taken at night are realistically, graphically and most superbly depicted by the camera.

Griffith knows the value of striking, gripping and melodramatic anti-climaxes and also is fully cognizant of the importance of having several big “punches” instead of one for camera visualization. Building up photoplay action and “posing” a picture which would look well re-produced in colors is a natural instinct with Griffith and he’s one director who knows how to get action typified intensely.

In “The Birth of a Nation” Griffith took his time and therby builded well. Thousands of feet of celluloid were used and for some six months or so he and his co-directors worked day and night to shape the story into a thrilling, dramatic wordless play that would not pass out overnight in the minds of the millions who are bound to see this picture before it has been laid away to rest. The battle scenes are wonderfully conceived and show two armies in such natural fighting array it is almost unbelievable that one is looking at a picture, staged by one whose only purpose was to make it get away from the usual stagey phoniness so apparent in numerous picture battle plays. And the departure of the soldiers splendidly arranged. Then the death of the famous martyred president was so deftly and ably handled no one can find any fault.

Of course there are many who will aver that Griffith should have shown the subsequent death of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, but as he had an arch-villain in the shape of the renegade, Gus, later to deal with severely it was best he stick closer to the story at hand. This same Gus, fiendish and with the lust of the beast in his eye, gives mad chase to the pet sister of “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron and she jumps to her death from a high cliff rather than permit herself to be torched alive by that brute in human form. This was also nicely cameraed.

Then comes the reconstruction period following a camera scene of Grant and Lee ending the war at Appomatox. Harassing scenes showing the persecution of the whites with the Camerons more than getting their share and with Ben Cameron organizing the white-robed Ku Klux Klan which late gives the picture one of the biggest moments of its entire version when it rides down the blacks and later saves a small band of whites about to be massacred alive. Here the renegade Gus is killed.

Griffith picturized an allegorical conception at the end showing what universal peace meant to the nation. Some may not care for it, but in the church neighborhoods and where the staunchest of the peace advocates live it will go with a hurrah. There are something like 12,000 feet of film, but the program says it’s all there in two acts. There is an intermission just preceding the stirring days of the carpet-baggery action. Griffith struck it right when he adapted the Dixon story for the film. He knew the south and he knew just what kind of picture would please all white classes. Some places the censors are going to find fault. That’s a persistent way some censors have. That scene of the lashing on the back of the old negro will undoubtedly come in for a full share of criticism. The scene of the “black congress” and the negro removing his shoe may be censured but it’s drawn from reported facts. But no matter what the censors censor there will be plenty of film action and interest left to make it the biggest demanded film production of the present century. It’s worth seeing anywhere. Many will see it twice, yea thrice and still obtain much satisfaction and entertainment. It’s there with a multiple of thrills.

Of the acting company, Henry Walthal made a manly straightforward character of the “Little Colonel” and handled his big scenes most effectively. Mae Marsh as the pet sister does some remarkable work as the little girl who loves the south and loves her brother. Ralph Lewis is splendid as the leader of the House who helps Silas Lynch rise to power. George Siegmann gets all there can be gotten out of the despicable character of Lynch. Walter Long makes Gus, the renegade negro, a hated, much despised type, his acting and makeup being complete. Mary Alden, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Jennie and Miriam Cooper deserve mention for their excellent work. The other minor characters were satisfactorily portrayed. Donald Crisp had a good makeup as Grant while Joseph Henabery “posed” most acceptably as Lincoln.

It may not be amiss to pass away from critical comment for the moment to say that as D. W. Griffith, the world’s best film director, is and has been responsible for so many of the innovations in picture making, doing more to make filming an art than any one person, so D. W. Griffith has been the first to bring a “$2 picture” to the box office of a “$2 theatre.” When it was first reported about this “Griffith feature” would retail to the public at a $2 scale, the picture people shrugged their shoulders, said “50 cents at the most” and let it go at that. But as so many options of pictures and their possibilities have gone wrong, so, it appears, is the belief that there can not be a $2 picture as erroneous as many of the others. But it is fitting that Mr. Griffith should have so far progressed and advanced in the art he did so much to foster and improve until he became the first director of a successful film that can compete in $2 theatres with $2 stage productions. That is the concise picture record of a few years, within ten at the most, and for feature pictures, even less.

“Cabiria” was an admitedly big film production, a spectacle or series of spectacles that held no general interest through the fault of the make or director. It drew in certain territory and even then in a desultory manner. But “A Birth of a Nation” has universal appeal to America at least, and the superbness of this production will gain recognition anywhere, with the story carrying, through perhaps to lesser human interest extent in foreign lands than at home, where the subject is more thoroughly understood.

“A Birth of a Nation” is said to have cost $300,000. This is rather a high estimate, but other than the money the film represents, its returns are going to be certain. Not alone is this film playing at a $2 scale in a theatre where the orchestra and operator besides the house staff are the principal necessary force, as against a stage production that might have a salary list of from $4,000 to $8,500 weekly, according to the piece, but “A Birth of a Nation” can give as many performances a week as the house wishes it to, and in this particular instance will not give less than 14, two shows daily. The stage production in a $2 theatre would give eight performances as a rule, perhaps nine and with a holiday intervening, ten. While the Liberty is advertising the Griffith film up to one dollar “with loge seats $2,” the scale is practically a two-dollar one, made so by the demand for seats. “A Birth of a Nation” is a great epoch in picture making; it’s great for pictures and it’s great for the name and fame of David Wark Griffith. When a man like Griffith in a new field can do what he has done, he may as well be hailed while he is living.


The Birth of a Nation


Griffith/Epoch/Dixon. Director D.W. Griffith; Producer D.W. Griffith, [Harry E. Aitken]; Screenplay D.W.Griffith, Frank E. Woods; Camera Billy Bitzer; Editor [James E. Smith]; Music Joseph Carl Breil


Silent. (B&W) Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1915. Running time: 187 MIN.


Col. Ben Cameron - Henry B. Walthall Margaret Cameron, elder sister - Miriam Cooper Flora, pet sister - Mae Marsh Mrs. Cameron - Josephine Crowell Dr. Cameron - Spottiswoode Aiken Wade Cameron, second son - J. A. Beringer Duke Cameron, youngest son - John French Mammy, old servant - Jennie Lee Ron, Austin Stoneman, Leader of House - Ralph Lewis Elsie, his daughter - Lillian Gish Phil, his elder son - Elmer Clifton Tod, younger son - Robert Harron Jeff, blacksmith - Wallace Reed Lydia Brown, Stoneman's mulatto housekeeper - Mary Alden Silas Lynch, mulatto Lieutenant-Governor - George Seigmann Gus, renegade negro - Walter Long Abraham Lincoln - Joseph Henabery John Wilkes Booth - Raoul Walsh Gen. U. S. Grant - Donald Crisp Gen. Robert E. Lee - Howard Gaye

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