Movie Reviews - Featured Films » Epic Films - Silent

The Birth of a Nation Movie Review

griffith cameron film stoneman

1915 – D.W. Griffith –

In Speed, as Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves wheel a bus at high speed through the streets of Los Angeles, there is a cutaway to a woman pushing a baby carriage toward a street corner. The film then returns to Bullock and Reeves racing along. A few seconds later, another shot appears of the woman on the corner, easing her baby carriage onto the street and starting across. Movie audiences, of course, understand that the woman crossing the street is a few blocks ahead of the runaway bus and that in the editing of this scene director Jan de Bont is establishing a visual relationship of dramatic anticipation between the woman and the bus. Such classical cutting is just one of the legacies of D.W. Griffith. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation shows the same expert orchestration of suspense. Griffith arranges shots of different durations of Lincoln in the presidential box, of the Stoneman family in the audience, of John Wilkes Booth, of Lincoln's inattentive guard. He even uses the reflected light of a mirror to direct the audience's eye. The strategy is not simply to tell what happened on that fateful night but to make the visual climax of the scene coincide with the dramatic climax, a strategy that movies have been using ever since, thanks to Griffith.

The movie's blatant and unapologetic racism marks it as more of a representative of an earlier world than the logic of its cinematic style. The story follows the fortunes of two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. The second half of the film depicts the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which is presented in a favorable light (the film was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK; riots in some northern cities accompanied the release of the film). Griffith meticulously worked on the historical details, conferring with veterans of the war and examining the photographs of Matthew Brady. The scene at Ford's Theater, like the previous one set at Appomattox, is preceded by a title card that announces its accuracy.

The film is equally effective, however, at capturing personal moments. Film scholar Louis Giannetti identifies one of Griffith's “most astonishing gifts [as] his ability to make intimate epics.” The return of Henry Walthall after the war and his reunion with his sister (Mae Marsh) is often cited as one of Griffith's most understated moments of poetry: as the tired soldier walks up to the front door two feminine arms emerge from the house to welcome him home in a loving embrace. Griffith has been credited with creating or perfecting nearly all the elements of film grammar. He seemed always ahead of his time in his technique, always behind his time in his attitudes.

Cast: Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Henry B. Walthall (Ben Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden (Lydia Brown), Ralph Lewis (Austin Stoneman), George Siegmann (Silas Lynch), Robert Harron (Ted Stonemann), Wallace Reid (Jeff), Joseph Henabery (Abraham Lincoln), Elmer Clifton (Phil Stoneman), Josephine Crowell (Mrs. Cameron), Spottiswoode Aitken (Dr. Cameron), George Andre Beranger (Wade Cameron), Maxfield Stanley (Duke Cameron), Jennie Lee (Cindy), Donald Crisp (Gen. Ulysses S. Grant), Howard Gaye (Gen. Robert E. Lee), Sam De Grasse (Sen. Charles Sumner), Raoul Walsh (John Wilkes Booth) Screenwriter: D.W. Griffith, Frank E. Woods, Jr. Cinematographer: Billy Bitzer Composer: Joseph Carl Breil Producer: D.W. Griffith Running Time: 174 minutes Format: VHS, LV Budget: Reports vary from $90,000 to $300,000 Box Office: Reports vary from $5 to $18 to $50M.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Movie Review [next] [back] The Big Parade Movie Review

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or