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Birth of a Nation
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I am one of the rare people in my generation who loves silent movies. This ranks among my top three favorites. It is a classic story of the Civil War, told from the South's point of view (controversial at the time and still so today). "Birth of a Nation" tells the story of two families, one from the North and the other from the South, whose friendships and loves are tested by the war and its tragic aftermaths.
One of the greatest actors of all time, Henry B. Walthall, portrays Ben Cameron (The Little Colonel) with both physical and romantic grace. His character is a soldier, a son, a brother, an avenger, and a lover. He plays each of these sub-roles with dignity and skill not seen much in Hollywood these days. A beautiful and delicate Lillian Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, the woman he loved without even meeting her at first. Mae Marsh is delightful and tragic as the ill-fated Flora, Ben's little sister. Other noteworthy performances given are Joseph Henabery as an uncanny and kindhearted Abraham Lincoln; Ralph Lewis as the stubborn and powerhungry Austin Stoneman; the classic beauty Miriam Cooper as Margaret Cameron; and George Siegmann as the mulatto villain Silas Lynch.
This film has romance, action, drama, and even some bits of humor as well. If you're ever in the mood for a film which touches the heart as well as the mind and body, then please search out "Birth of a Nation". You'll be so glad you did.
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on March 29, 2004
Silent motion picture historical epic, about a Southern family’s experiences during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction, based on two novels and a play by Thomas Dixon. The movie costed 110.000 $ and was a big box-office hit, (10.000.000 $ in its time, about 1 billion $ today !!) but it also inspired race riots , protests, boycotts and eventually a move toward film censorship laws. Released in 1915, this film was directed by D. W. Griffith and is notable for its radical technical innovations. The Birth of a Nation is considered among the most important and influential films ever made, for its success established not only the feature-length film but also the Hollywood star system ,Griffith as the leading motion-picture producer of the time and motion pictures as an art form for cultured spectators, stunning audiences with its dazzling spectacle of a still-recent event. Until Griffith's time, motion pictures had been short, rarely exceeding one reel; episodic rather than dramatic; and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Griffith's films were frequently several hours in length, contained powerful dramatic situations and vivid characters, and were produced with technical virtuosity. Besides that’s why he is often called The Father of the Motion Picture.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Griffith used in Birth a variety of camera angles and close-ups, for dramatic emphasis and moved the camera close to the action, using many separate shots with flashbacks, which for purposes of clarification of plot or characterization, introduce scenes antedating those already shown. He was one of the first to use a technique called crosscutting( parallel editing), which involves switching back and forth between different story lines to achieve suspense, and an other called fade-out, a transition from one scene to another by the gradual disappearance of the first scene from the screen. Griffith’s extensively collaborator and legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer did a great work, so did Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Henry B. Walthall and other great actors under Griffith’s direction that emphasized an intimate, restrained style of acting suitable for camera close-ups.
The film is also notable for the enormous controversy it aroused because of its “racist” portrayal of African Americans, except the faithful servants, and its very pro southern view of Civil War and Reconstruction era. Griffith traces the disastrous effects of Civil War through the lives of two friendly associated families, Camerons from South and Stonemans from North, divided now by war’s storm. When Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) returns to the South after the Civil War, he feels that the region is being torn apart by carpetbaggers and black people in positions of power, like Silas Lynch the mullato lieut. Governor of S. Carolina, backed from Radicals (Congress’s main political force) and their leader Austin Stoneman (a character merely inspired from radical Edwin Stanton), head of Stonemans’s House, who promote complete equality between blacks and whites and the crash of South’s white dominion.
After Abraham Lincoln’s assasination (truthfully depicted), who stood against the severe treatment toward Southern States, Radicals can easily carry out their plans. Meanwhile a love affair flourishes between Ben and Elsie Stoneman(Lilian Gish), Stoneman’s daughter. After a black man (Gus) attacks his little sister (Mae Marsh), Ben organizes the Ku Klux Klan, a name adapted from the Greek word kuklos (“circle”), and with his companions rise the ancient Scotland’s “flaming cross”, to restore law and order in the South, defending the white-aryan supremacy and protecting racial purity. A controversial cause in its own time and repugnant decades later in modern Hollywood. Lynch betrays Stoneman and uses his power to force his daugter Elsie to marry him and plans to turn the South in to a “Black Empire”. Elsie resists, defending her “white woman’s pride”, in a scene where Gish gives a great performance. Finally after an epic ride of Ku Klux Klan’s cavalry, and the disarmament of the black pro federal troops Ben saves his beloved Elsie from Lynch’s hands and sets an and to anarchy and oppression. President Woodrow Wilson was so impressed with this version of the Reconstruction that he said it was “like history written in lightning.”.
IMHO Birth’s portrayal of African Americans is no more racist or stereotypical than this of other national groups often harshly humiliated by US Motion Picture Industry’s products, such as the Germans, the Indians, the Japanese, the Russians, the Romans etc., yet none received so much criticism. Before condemning D. W. Griffith that offered a biased view of black people and glorified Ku Klux Klan, we should consider that he was the son of a ex-Confederate Colonel and he grew up attending stories about the Civil War, the South’s humiliation during Reconstruction’s era, and Klan’s rebelion. Therefore, he saw these historical facts through a southern perspective and put all his ideological passion in his work. So, what? As an artist, he had any right to express his beliefs, controversial or not, and anybody can disagree with him using arguments . Intolerance (1916) was Griffith’s statement of feeling persecuted for his beliefs.
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on March 29, 2004
Silent motion picture historical epic, about a Southern family's experiences during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction, based on two novels and a play by Thomas Dixon. The movie costed 110.000 $ and was a big box-office hit, (10.000.000 $ in its time, about 1 billion $ today !!) but it also inspired race riots , protests, boycotts and eventually a move toward film censorship laws. Released in 1915, this film was directed by D. W. Griffith and is notable for its radical technical innovations. The Birth of a Nation is considered among the most important and influential films ever made, for its success established not only the feature-length film but also the Hollywood star system ,Griffith as the leading motion-picture producer of the time and motion pictures as an art form for cultured spectators, stunning audiences with its dazzling spectacle of a still-recent event. Until Griffith's time, motion pictures had been short, rarely exceeding one reel; episodic rather than dramatic; and poorly produced, acted, and edited. Griffith's films were frequently several hours in length, contained powerful dramatic situations and vivid characters, and were produced with technical virtuosity. Besides that's why he is often called The Father of the Motion Picture.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Griffith used in Birth a variety of camera angles and close-ups, for dramatic emphasis and moved the camera close to the action, using many separate shots with flashbacks, which for purposes of clarification of plot or characterization, introduce scenes antedating those already shown. He was one of the first to use a technique called crosscutting( parallel editing), which involves switching back and forth between different story lines to achieve suspense, and an other called fade-out, a transition from one scene to another by the gradual disappearance of the first scene from the screen. Griffith's extensively collaborator and legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer did a great work, so did Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Henry B. Walthall and other great actors under Griffith's direction that emphasized an intimate, restrained style of acting suitable for camera close-ups.

The film is also notable for the enormous controversy it aroused because of its "racist" portrayal of African Americans, except the faithful servants, and its very pro southern view of Civil War and Reconstruction era. Griffith traces the disastrous effects of Civil War through the lives of two friendly associated families, Camerons from South and Stonemans from North, divided now by war's storm. When Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) returns to the South after the Civil War, he feels that the region is being torn apart by carpetbaggers and black people in positions of power, like Silas Lynch the mullato lieut. Governor of S. Carolina, backed from Radicals (Congress's main political force) and their leader Austin Stoneman (a character merely inspired from radical Edwin Stanton), head of Stonemans's House, who promote complete equality between blacks and whites and the crash of South's white dominion.

After Abraham Lincoln's assasination (truthfully depicted), who stood against the severe treatment toward Southern States, Radicals can easily carry out their plans. Meanwhile a love affair flourishes between Ben and Elsie Stoneman(Lilian Gish), Stoneman's daughter. After a black man (Gus) attacks his little sister (Mae Marsh), Ben organizes the Ku Klux Klan, a name adapted from the Greek word kuklos ("circle"), and with his companions rise the ancient Scotland's "flaming cross", to restore law and order in the South, (...) protecting racial purity. A controversial cause in its own time and repugnant decades later in modern Hollywood. Lynch betrays Stoneman and uses his power to force his daugter Elsie to marry him and plans to turn the South in to a "Black Empire". Elsie resists, defending her "white woman's pride", in a scene where Gish gives a great performance. Finally after an epic ride of Ku Klux Klan's cavalry, and the disarmament of the black federal troops Ben saves his beloved Elsie from Lynch's hands and sets an and to anarchy and oppression. President Woodrow Wilson was so impressed with this version of the Reconstruction that he said it was "like history written in lightning.".
IMHO Birth's portrayal of African Americans is no more racist or stereotypical than this of other national groups often harshly humiliated from the US Motion Picture Industry's products, such as the Germans, the Indians, the Japanese, the Russians, the Romans etc., yet none received so much criticism. Before condemning D. W. Griffith that offered a biased view of black people and glorified Ku Klux Klan, we should consider that he was the son of a ex-Confederate Colonel and he grew up attending stories about the Civil War, the South's humiliation during Reconstruction's era, and Klan's rebelion. Therefore, he saw these historical facts through a southern perspective and put all his ideological passion in his work. So, what? As an artist, he had any right to express his beliefs, controversial or not, and anybody can disagree with him using arguments . Intolerance (1916) was Griffith's statement of feeling persecuted for his beliefs.
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on December 27, 2003
Okay, as an European citizen I may not be in the position to make any comments about political rights or wrongs in America.
But I recommend this movie to all people, who don't only ask WHAT, but do ask HOW and WHY, too.
Simplified: In Europe we are used to look at both sides of a horse, before we buy it... (history taught us so.)
The movie gives an insight of what events lead to the foundation of the KKK. I am not to decide if these shown events ARE history (I'm European and - you may have guessed it - in school we didn't learn anything about South Carolina's history), but they are the historical events, as a Southerner may have seen them in the first years of the last century when the movie was made. (History for sure isn't always an exact science - it depends on the side, from which you are looking). So, when I bought this dvd, I didn't search for historical facts - I wanted to understand. And the dvd satisfied this need fully...
And now I understand the discussions around this movie, too - it's because it must be a dilemma for today's Americans:
-If the shown events were true, it would be (- if that is possible in these days) a shock for the selfunderstanding of today's modern America.
-If the shown events were not true, then it wasn't the German nazis or the Russian communists of the 1930s, who invented the "Propagandafilm" to manipulate their own people. And then someone may ask the question 'which pictures we have seen up until today are true, which are not?'
So all in all: This movie may not be a historical documentation - but a historical document it is for sure!
At least it is for people, who are trying to understand different points of view, too. To prevent the return of bloody events, history mustn't only teach us what happend - history must teach us why it happened!!! "Birth Of A Nation" gives this insight, I think. Not only with it's content, but with it's sheer existence. And with showing us, how different historical facts can be seen with different eyes...
And before I forget it: The war scenes are very good and the scenes with the hundreds of riding clansmen, with their white robes flying in the wind, are simply beautiful.
Hey, from the technical and cineastic point of view - for sure!!!
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on September 6, 2003
I am totally impressed by this movie, as I am a huge fan of D.W. Griffith's work. He was a consummate professional and perfectionist in getting the detail in the films he made. This is among his best and also most controversial. The film, based on the Civil war and the assisanation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan is powerful. I find it wonderful to see that D.W. recreated faithfully the details surrounding this "dark age" of American history. Lillian Gish, as always, is as brilliant as her director and her character is magnificent. Henry Walthall is just as brilliant as the brother who goes to war and also revenges against the black man who caused his baby sister (Mae Marsh) death, Miriam Cooper is a wonderful figure, and of course the actors themselves are brilliant. America is ashamed to see this movie as it reminds them of its past, but indeed it is a powerful film and any portrayal of the film, though directed by a man who was a bit bigoted (not his fault I must say though), since has failed to match it in artistry. I recommend this film for historians and for fans alike. It is truly a masterpiece!! Bravo D.W.!
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on March 8, 2003
Birth of a Nation is one of those rare brilliant films that comes along just a few times in a great long while. It was so magnificently done that even in the 21st century, film-makers are still awed by its' breath-taking style and grand epic inspired perspective.
Along with the incredibly well made production comes a history lesson in the Civil War and its' subsequent Reconstruction Period that has been long since banned from public school books and forbidden from rational discussion in historical dialogue.
The realities of the barbarism of the Union armies committed against Confederate civilians and the period that followed where White Southerns were denied their civil rights are displayed in the brutality of the era.
Griffith's artistic bravery in accurately depicting the KKK as heroes (unlike the degenerates that occupy those roles today) in that time should be applauded.
Although I dislike silent films, this film stands as a marvelous achievement and a must viewing for students of film-making and of anyone interested in an accurate perspective of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period.
I highly recommend it.
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on September 3, 2002
This movie is a must see, for many reasons.
As historical cinema, Griffith boldly used film in a manner that seems decades ahead of the rest of the film industry, not until Gone With the Wind do you see another movie that attempts to take on history as subject matter so grandly and powerfully as this one.
And, even more than Gone With the Wind, it was a movie about history that shaped history and made history. It was a movie that caused lynching and rioting around the country, and its glorification of the Klan propelled the resurgence of the KKK in the late teens and 20s of the last century.
Through the spectrum of 80 plus years, we can see the racism and fiction and the lies that are twisted into this story. But the visuals are powerful and well done, even by today's technical standards - one can imagine the stir they were in the 19teens, sort of like a Stars Wars, Godfather 1&2, Patton and Dirty Dozen rolled into one grand flick of the times.
It is Amerikkka's "Triumph of the Will", unintentional propaganda, but powerful propaganda nonetheless.
Like "Triumph", beautiful. And horrible.
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on August 8, 2002
How many people criticize "The Godfather" for showing members of the Mafia as family men? So why such the controversy? Both of these films are masterpieces, and both at least partly due to their ability to show the viewer a different perspective of things. I would argue that "Birth of a Nation" does so more strongly and realistically, which is perhaps why so many people despise it. "Godftaher" shows killing as a business, "Birth of a Nation" shows killing for a purpose, even if we do not agree with their cause. To me the climax with the Ku Klux Klan is just as powerful as the baptism sequence in "Godfather"--"Godfather" is powerful on a more emotional level, whereas here it is more on intellectual. in the "Godfather" climax we no longer see Michael as the hero, or even as a likeable presence. He is evil. In "Birth of a Nation" it is different. The ending is equally as horrifying as it is triumphant. The members Ku Klux Klan are heroes to the very end, and we are celebrating with them and their victory even as we are shocked at our own emotions.
Most people well-educated in cinema will agree that the film was a technical wonder of its day and still holds up as an incredibly well-made film. It is interesting to me how little sound does for the medium of film in most cases. Take almost any movie made in the past decade and it will be crammed with senselessly dull dialogue, over-the-top sound effects, and an emotionally manipulative musical score. Here, most of the scenes contain very few title cards, but we still somehow know just what the characters are talking about. The acting is certainly melodramatic--almost all silent acting is, has to be--but that doesn't detract from it a bit. Contrary to what most actors today seem to think, melodrama isn't nearly as bad (when properly handled, anyway) as cardboard acting. However, the film probably shouldn't be the viewers' first silent film (silent comedy would be a much more suitable introduction--"The General" or "The Gold Rush").
The film is not only technically or historically important, it is an example of epic storytelling and a surprisingly intellectually stimulating one.
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I finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
I do enjoy the silent film genre. Costumes, setting, acting, subtitles...all enjoyable, even over the length of this long movie.
Lillian Gish...like her in this movie too. Beautiful with backlit hair, and emotes well in silent films with expressive eyes.
The music I enjoyed too, and it supports the plot pretty well. Since watching Ken Burns' Civil War, which had good music too, I've been working on some Civil War era pieces on the piano and harmonica, and it was interesting to hear old and lively renditions of the same period songs. Even heard in one battle sequence 'Flight of the Valkyre' which is used to this day in movies (one of the Star Wars movies?)
I also liked Griffith's on-screen footnoting of scenes, like where he says such and such a scene is based on so and so's book. One of these book's, 'Campaigning With Grant', was already on my civil war reading list.

Griffith tells the long story well. It's a long plot. Lots of actors. Battle sequences pretty exciting, even by today's standards. The first half of the movie which covered the Civil War was all I expected from this 4th D.W. Griffith silent film on the civil war. And I remained engaged throughout.
The 2nd half of the movie covering reconstruction certainly suprised me and I began to raise an eyebrow or two. In the intro he asks the viewer for some latitude and freedom to show the dark side of evil in order to show the bright side of virtue, and I was willing to give him this latitude. And I was willing to grant him additional lattitude for outdated sensibilities. Still, the 2nd half of this movie tests the limits of this latitude and is a little disturbing. I'm not sure if I intrepreted this all as he intended, and am unsure if his apparent glorification of the klan represents for him the bright or the dark. I tend to think for Griffith, or at least the book on which the movie is based, the tumultous reconstruction is the dark and the klan was the bright savior of the post-civil war reconstruction south, at least that's what seems to be portrayed. Thus the controversey and discussion that surrounds this movie.

I think I liked his drama-based controversey-less films better. This seems to be a case of good movie-making, but bad message. But I can see I will have to now watch 'Intolerance' and read some critical analysis of Griffith and these movies to understand more of what is going on.
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on May 6, 2002
In all fairness to this highly controversial film, there are representations that are typically not mentioned that show both sides of the coin. I think the reason this film gets such violent reactions from American viewers is that it depicts an uglier side of American history that most of us are not comfortable with, especially not to see it reinacted onscreen in such a dramatic way.
Whether the actions depicted on the screen are historically accurate or not is not the point. The fact that there is probably some historical grain of truth is enough to validate this film as a period film of great importance to American history. By comparison, I sincerely doubt that other civil war era epics such as "Gettysburg", "Glory", and "Gone with the Wind" are entirely accurate in every detail either, yet we use them as educational tools and not just pure entertainment.
Americans typically prefer their history to be romanticized to a large degree and I feel that this will always be the case. Would the average American movie-goer feel comfortable with films that depict Spanish conquerors chopping-off the hands of native tribes, or a film that accurately depicts the Trail of Tears, or a film about greedy robber-barons gate crashing desperate strikers? I doubt it. Such is the case here. If you believe our educational system is an institution of brain-washing, and you enjoy controversy for it's own sake, and despise the very thought of censorship, then this film is for you!
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