It was 100 years ago this past March — 1915 — that “The Birth Of A Nation” was released to American theaters. It was a landmark film on the American Civil War — or the War Between the States; and the Reconstruction era which followed. It was the first “epic” movie, three hours long; a film that pioneered in a number of filming techniques that are taken for granted today — close-ups, sweeping panoramic shots, stunningly realistic and bloody battle scenes, “cross-cutting,” imaginative use of light sources, and others. It is the best-remembered film that the great director David Wark Griffith — a native of Crestwood, Ky. — ever produced. It has always been ranked among the Top 100 Films of all time — sometimes as high as 15th.
And yet, protests by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People greeted this Civil War epoch even before it reached the theaters. The NAACP — only six years old at that time — tried to have the movie banned in numerous cities. In some, they succeeded. But millions of Americans DID see this epic film.
According to the history books, riots erupted in some of the cities as a result of “The Birth Of A Nation’s” being shown there. I’ve never found a history account that gives the race of the rioters, but we can all guess, can’t we?
“The Birth Of A Nation” drew crowds of viewers like no other movie had up to that time. They paid $2 admission per person — an enormously high ticket price for 1915 — to see this masterpiece. And ever since, it has also drawn unbridled criticism, often on a hysterical level, concerning the alleged “racism” and “distorting of history” of its final hour. I remember reading one commentary about it that claimed that Griffith’s version of the Reconstruction era in the South, following the Civil War, had been “thoroughly debunked” in the years since the epic was filmed.
Thoroughly debunked? So the seizure of power in the South by Northern “Carpetbaggers,” as White Southerners dubbed them, aided by newly freed blacks, never happened? The takeovers of state legislatures by blacks, are “just a myth”? The outrages committed by blacks against the newly disenfranchised White population (and not ALL blacks, by any means) were all just made up out of whole cloth by White Southerners as an excuse to create the Ku Klux Klan?
I rather doubt it. In 1915, which was only 50 years after the end of the Civil War, many veterans, Blue and Gray, were still alive. So were many other people who were around in the 1865-1877 period, when Reconstruction was going on. They knew what happened in that era — especially the Southerners. If all the things depicted in the Reconstruction in “The Birth Of A Nation” were just stuff and nonsense, to use an old phrase, why did literally millions of Americans flock to the moviehouses to watch, and applaud, that historic film?
The families, the War Between the States
The epic film starts in 1860, with the Cameron family, Southern planters from Virginia, hosting their good friends the Stonemans, who hail from the North. Besides the warm fellowship, including some good-natured rough-housing between the teenaged boys from each family, both the Stonemans and Camerons are worried about the war clouds approaching. The North and South are at loggerheads, due to the issues of slavery, increasing industrialization in the North while the South continues to be mostly agricultural, a feeling among Southerners that they are upholding the type of America that the Founders wanted while the North is straying from that ideal; and other things.
Of course, the war comes, and the young men of each side enlist, Union and Confederate. Griffith’s camera carries us to the scenes of several major battles, showing them in master shots that are as sweeping as landscapes from the Hudson River School, and in close shots that depict all the horror of hand-to-hand combat. Two of the Cameron young men are killed during the war — one dying in the arms of one of the Stoneman brothers who served in the Union Army. Later, two of the surviving young soldiers, one on each side, each fall in love with two of the sisters, from the opposite family.
President Abraham Lincoln is featured in several scenes during the Civil War portion of the movie, portrayed as he was in life: A great president who would do what he had to do to preserve the Union, but who was kind and compassionate, and who, once the war was won, wanted to welcome the South back into the Union with as little disruption of its different lifestyle as possible — but with slavery abolished, of course.
Finally, in April 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrenders his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, ending the war. And they shake hands, with no visible resentment or hard feelings on Lee’s part — or Grant’s. History tells us that Lee told Grant his mostly-farmer soldiers would need horses to do their spring plowing when they reached their homes. Grant, understanding their predicament, gave orders to his officers that any Confederate enlisted man claiming to need a horse, was to be given one.
Then, the epic film shows that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. President and Mrs. Lincoln are seated in a stage-side box, watching a play, when John Wilkes Booth slips into their box due to the carelessness of the bodyguard, and fires a bullet from a pocket derringer into Lincoln’s head, ending his dream of a peaceful welcoming back of the South into the Union.
Many Southerners, including the Camerons, are appalled and saddened when they hear of Lincoln’s death. “We have lost our best friend!” cries Col. Cameron, the paterfamilias. They knew of Lincoln’s intentions of welcoming back the South like the Prodigal Son. And they knew that the Radical Republican-dominated Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens, has extremely different, non-forgiving plans, for Dixie.
Reconstruction — and controversy
The Stoneman family’s leader, Austin Stoneman, is a Radical Republican who is also a member of Congress. Like his fellows, he wants the White South thoroughly cowed and humbled, and the black former slaves elevated to govern the part of the country where they were once “chattel.” Stoneman and thousands of other Northerners, later dubbed “Carpetbaggers” by the South, head below the Mason-Dixon Line to re-shape Dixie to suit themselves, and to put the newly freed slaves into power on a state level, wherever possible. As Austin Stoneman says at one point in the film, “We shall crush the White South under the heel of the Black South!”
Griffith shows us the Southern blacks shoving White people out of the way on the streets. They dominate the state legislatures (101 black members to just 23 Whites in Virginia’s), attack White women and rape them (no, it doesn’t actually SHOW any rapes, but they are strongly implied), and generally get extremely “uppity” (to use a phrase once popular among White Southerners) toward their “betters.”
Austin Stoneman’s “Man Friday” is a big mulatto (that means mixed-race person, to you young people of the politically correct era) named Silas Lynch, who carries out Stoneman’s orders in their dealings with the freed blacks and the Carpetbaggers, and who has an evil smile on his face every time he sees an attractive White women.
Virtually the only moment of humor in the film comes when Lynch announces one day to Stoneman, “I want to marry a White woman!” Stoneman, being a Radical Republican, voices enthusiastic approval, patting Lynch on the shoulder. But then comes the joker: “I want to marry your daughter!”, Lynch beams. Even in a 100-year-old movie, one can almost see Stoneman’s face turn white with rage, and he immediately withdraws his approval of Lynch’s plans, voicing his fury at the mulatto’s presumptiousness.
Eventually, some of the Southern Whites organize the Ku Klux Klan, a secret organization wearing white sheets with pointed caps, and masks, to try to take control of the South back from the blacks and their White allies. The Klan begins to fight back against what the Whites see as Negroes getting above their “place,” destroying the South they had known and loved.
The racial tension accelerates. Whites watch, outraged, from the gallery as black legislators guzzle whiskey at their desks, some even removing their shoes while discussion and voting is going on. More attacks of blacks on Whites occur. Finally, members of the Stoneman and Cameron families, and other Whites, are trapped in a cabin, with black marauders bearing down upon them, some even attempting to climb in a window before being whacked with a club by one of the men inside.
Ku Klux Klan to the rescue! Someone rides out, locates the Klan, which is apparently out somewhere else in the neighborhood, and tells them that some White people are in peril of death, trapped in the cabin that is being attacked by the black renegades. The Klan rides pell-mell to the scene, kills or drives off the attackers, and saves their fellow Whites.
And, in late 1876, the U.S. troops who had been propping up the Carpetbagger-black rule in the South, had to be withdrawn by the government because of being sorely needed elsewhere. It didn’t take the White majority, and the Ku Klux Klan, long to regain control of the whole region.
“The Birth Of A Nation” ends with the two young couples — two Camerons, two Stonemans — married, and on their honeymoons, sitting happily opposite each other on the shores of a beautiful lake.
Truth? Or fiction?
Most reviewers have praised the first two hours of the movie, depicting the period just before the war, during the war, and up to the Surrender at Appomattox which ended it. It’s the final hour which gives many of them heartburn. Rioting, violent blacks? Black legislators irresponsibly passing state laws harmful to Whites? The Ku Klux Klan having been formed to defend said Whites from the newly enfranchised blacks? Wash your mouth out with soap, you racist, hateful filmmakers! Those things never, EVER happened! You made them all up because you hate black people!
Sorry, but I don’t buy any of that. Of course the Negroes, newly freed after nearly 250 years of slavery, rioted and assaulted White people, and used their newly enfranchised status to change Southern laws to benefit themselves. Their sense of grievance, their desire to “get even,” are certainly understandable to any fair-minded person. And, on the other side of the coin, who can blame Southern Whites for trying to defend themselves? Who should be surprised that a secret, armed society was formed to provide that defense? And who can blame the Southern Whites for resenting deeply the presence of the Carpetbaggers, and the federal troops who stayed in the South for 12 years to keep them, and the black radicals, in power?
As far as I’m concerned, the epic film is basically true. The Stonemans and the Camerons are fictitious characters, but I believe that the things depicted in “The Birth Of A Nation” actually happened that way. Like that or lump it, those are my beliefs. And I believe that the fuss and the attempts to downgrade the film as “racist” and “not true,” which began shortly after it was released 100 years ago, were based on this: The last hour is extremely unpleasant — but true. “And we can’t allow that to go unchallenged, because it makes the black people look bad!”
No. They made THEMSELVES look bad.
And a final note: Lillian Gish received top billing among the actors in “The Birth Of A Nation.” She was a renowned actress who lived to be 99 years old, and whose film career spanned 75 years. Yesterday (Oct. 14) I was browsing in the Hanover College Library, and chanced to come across her autobiography. As I had nearly finished the above essay, and was getting ready to post it, I thought, “I want to read this.” So I checked it out. Later, when I got home and turned on the TCM Channel, there was a silent film starring Lillian Gish being shown. Several more were on schedule for that day. I thought, “Wow! What a coincidence!” Then today I was telling a friend about the “coincidence,” and when she went on line and brought up Gish’s biography, she gasped and said, “Her birthday was yesterday! You were MEANT to find that book!”
Yes, I think I was. Some people believe that there are no such things as “coincidences.” Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Writing a day later, I can tell you that Lillian Gish paints a fascinating picture of the great director, who she worked for for a number of years. Among the things that she mentioned: That when preparing “The Birth Of A Nation,” Griffith made a point of doing a long and deep study of the history of the Civil War, to make sure that the movie was accurate. And he never accepted any “blame” for supposedly defaming black people in the final hour of the film. He defended the film for the rest of his life, saying, in effect, “It was the truth.”