Griffith Releases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a huge commercial success, was hailed as a great achievement of art but assaulted as a vicious distortion of history. It remained famous for its technical advances and notorious for its racist depiction of American society.

Summary of Event

It took just a little more than two months in late 1914 for D. W. Griffith Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];D. W. Griffith[Griffith] to shoot scenes for The Birth of a Nation, at first called The Clansman (the title of the novel from which the story was taken). After spending about three months on editing more than fifteen hundred shots, he had twelve reels of film, and he gave a private showing in February, 1915, after which he issued the film for the general public as The Birth of a Nation on March 3 at the Liberty Theater in New York City. It ran twice daily for almost a year and was distributed throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Motion pictures;The Birth of a Nation[Birth of a Nation] Birth of a Nation, The (film) [kw]Griffith Releases The Birth of a Nation (Mar. 3, 1915) [kw]Birth of a Nation, Griffith Releases The (Mar. 3, 1915) Motion pictures;The Birth of a Nation[Birth of a Nation] Birth of a Nation, The (film) [g]United States;Mar. 3, 1915: Griffith Releases The Birth of a Nation[03740] [c]Motion pictures;Mar. 3, 1915: Griffith Releases The Birth of a Nation[03740] Griffith, D. W. Dixon, Thomas, Jr. Bitzer, Billy Gish, Lillian Marsh, Mae Walthall, Henry B. Lewis, Ralph Long, Walter Walsh, Raoul

The film’s story is about courtship, love, and marriage for two couples: southerner Ben Cameron and northerner Elsie Stoneman, and Margaret Cameron and Phil Stoneman. Their trials of love are offered as parallels to the events of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The Cameron family suffers terribly from the devastations of these events. Two sons are killed in battles, a third son is wounded and nearly executed by his Union captors, and one daughter (the youngest, Flora) leaps to her death rather than submit to the embrace of a black Union soldier known as Gus.

Flora’s suicide is symbolic of the effect of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth on family values and the social integrity of the South. In the film, the era of Reconstruction is depicted as one of social disintegration, terrorism, and black reprisals against southern whites that is encouraged by white and mulatto carpetbaggers from the North. Political power is transferred to African Americans in the South under the leadership of a northern abolitionist, Austin Stoneman, and his mulatto henchman, Silas Lynch. When Lynch lusts after Stoneman’s daughter, Elsie, and plans to force her into marriage, the plot lines merge in a climactic ride to the rescue, conceived and organized by Ben Cameron and the heroic Ku Klux Klan.

Flora’s death sets the Klan into action, and they pursue, capture, try, and execute Gus. Silas Lynch responds with orders for his black followers to attack whites everywhere. When black soldiers arrest Ben Cameron, his family rescues him, and they all escape to a lonely cabin where they are besieged by black Union soldiers. Meanwhile, the Klan gathers, and Lynch assaults Elsie after she refuses his marriage proposal. After the Cameron family is nearly captured by soldiers and Elsie is nearly raped by Lynch, the Klan arrives to rescue all and then parades in victory through the streets of Piedmont, South Carolina.

The multiple scenes of siege and assault, with simultaneous rides to the rescue, are narrative achievements of Griffith’s masterful editing. They highlight his ability to create excitement through intercutting of shots of varying length, gradually diminishing as the climax of each sequence is approached. The film is marked throughout by this technique and others, such as close-ups for symbolic purposes (plates of parched corn, the portrait of Elsie), night photography (of the burning of Atlanta), dissolves (of the black-dominated South Carolina legislature), split screens, and iris shots (as in the juxtaposition of the desolate mother and children with a scene of General William Sherman’s army marching through Georgia).

To compose his battlefield shots, Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, studied the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady. The most impressive features of Griffith’s battle scenes are the movement of the camera in panning shots and moving shots and the arrangement of objects in the scenes to include distant, middle, and close details. Griffith showed himself to be a master of composition of elements in the scenes he photographed, and he was careful with details of both setting and acting. One of the most highly acclaimed scenes is that of the assassination of President Lincoln. The set was built and designed according to minute specifications of the scene in Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was shot, and the movements of the actors were directed in accordance with witnesses’ accounts. These actions include the way Booth caught his spur in a balcony scarf as he leaped to the stage after shooting the president.

These technical and stylistic achievements were testimony to Griffith’s artistry. They made the narrative powerful and instilled imaginative energy in the film’s audiences. The director controlled spectators’ vision, manipulated emotions, and drew viewers into the action of the film, practically eliminating the critical distance that ordinarily separated audience from art object. Precisely because the film was so powerful, however, it was condemned by many as a manipulation of minds for political purposes and according to racist ideas. The event of the film’s showing, repeated many times, was sometimes a riotous political event as well as an aesthetic triumph.


As The Clansman the film was impressive, but as The Birth of a Nation it was wildly controversial. The new title captured the political point of the film’s interpretation of its historical events. The nation of the United States could come into being only after the Civil War, but a more important point in the film was that the country could become one nation only after it reduced the threat of political power from its black citizens, who were as dangerous to morals as they were to political justice. The newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many other groups and individuals attacked Griffith’s film as a cruelly racist misrepresentation of the truth about national historical events. Some have argued, moreover, that the film also was directly responsible for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the years that followed its premiere showing.

Because of this criticism, Griffith removed some scenes, so that the original showing of fifteen hundred shots was reduced to thirteen hundred. Although those shots became unavailable for viewing, reports indicate that they included scenes of black assaults on whites as well as close-up views of Gus being tortured by the Klan. The removal of scenes in response to political criticism indicated the film’s impact on the public, showing censorship driven by moral and political interests. Griffith published a spirited written defense of his work and produced another film, Intolerance (1916), Intolerance (film) as an aesthetic answer by the artist. Other films were made to correct Griffith, such as the all-black The Birth of a Race in 1918.

For the history of the development of film art, however, it was in aesthetic and technical accomplishments that The Birth of a Nation had its greatest and most lasting impact. Griffith later extended his method of intercutting shots in Intolerance. In that film, Griffith created parallels among four different stories of intolerance, each representing tragic, or near-tragic, consequences from intolerance in the lives of individuals throughout history: from ancient Babylon to biblical Judea to medieval France to the modern United States.

Rescue scenes were intercut according to Griffith’s principle of film lengths. In the exciting rush to rescue the hero from execution in the story line set in the modern United States, Griffith used the same moving camera technique as used to photograph the ride of the Klan in The Birth of a Nation, mounting the camera on a moving automobile with a view of the characters’ faces coming toward the audience. In addition, Griffith created links between the stories with a repeated image of a mother rocking a cradle to the words of a poem by Walt Whitman.

After Intolerance, Griffith continued to make films that showed the impact of his experience with The Birth of a Nation, although none achieved the financial and popular success of that film. Orphans of the Storm (1922) Orphans of the Storm (film) imitated the narrative scheme of telling a story about individual fates in the swirl of great national and epic events, in this case the French Revolution. Both Broken Blossoms (1919) Broken Blossoms (film) and Way Down East (1920) Way Down East (film) were limited in scope to the problems of women preyed upon by brutal men and harsh reality. The first was a successful venture into domestic violence made visually more painful by editing techniques and beautiful use of lighting; the second is famous for another of Griffith’s great rescue scenes, as the heroine is saved from death on a floating cake of ice in a raging river. The director’s repetition of skillful stylistic techniques such as this and his penchant for melodramatic stories of sentiment marked his films as distinctly his own. This has made Griffith an early example of what have been called “auteurs” in film theory.

The Birth of a Nation also encouraged big-budget, epic films of grandeur, such as James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) in the United States, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) in France, and Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925) in the Soviet Union. Both Cruze and Vidor imitated Griffith’s film, with their pictures composed along vertical lines to show a wagon train or truck convoy moving toward the audience as in the ride of the Klan. Griffith’s film was especially influential among Soviet directors, who were impressed by Griffith’s use of editing techniques. This led to exciting developments in narrative in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia (1928). These films and others developed the artistic device of montage.

Although Griffith’s editing techniques were imitated by many who saw his film, the film’s main impact as a cultural event was to raise the entertainment value of narrative films. At this new level, motion pictures could make money and also endure as aesthetic objects. They could equally well become instruments for political propaganda, as many viewers would remember after having felt the power of The Birth of a Nation. Motion pictures;The Birth of a Nation[Birth of a Nation] Birth of a Nation, The (film)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Analyzes Griffith’s crafting of detailed arrangements within film frames, including rehearsals, camera placement, and location shooting. Examines some of Griffith’s other films as preparation for filming The Birth of a Nation, which receives respectful critical attention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Jack C. “Rise of the American Film: 1914-1919.” In A History of Film. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. Focusing on The Birth of a Nation, Ellis analyzes the film as one of the masterpieces, along with Intolerance, of early film art. Griffith’s technique and style set the pattern for classic Hollywood films. While praising the director’s art, Ellis condemns the racism of his films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Presents analytic tools for understanding the narrative structure of films. Includes illustrations, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fulton, A. R. “Editing.” In Motion Pictures: The Development of an Art from Silent Films to the Age of Television. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960. From the use of crosscutting and still shots in 1909, with A Corner in Wheat, Griffith moved toward The Birth of a Nation. The film is analyzed for its parallelism, contrasts, and symbolism, achieved as effects of skillful editing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, Robert M. D. W. Griffith: His Life and Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. In fifteen balanced chapters, Griffith is presented as rising from playwright to screen actor to film director. Central chapters focus on the making of his major films. Includes a filmography, notes, index, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Lewis. “D. W. Griffith: New Discoveries.” In The Emergence of Film Art, compiled by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Griffith was innovative from the beginning of his career. He used double exposure, camera mobility, full shots, close-ups, lighting, and, most important, intercutting. Griffith’s need for innovation increased with his desire to tell longer stories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald, and Bruce Kawin. “Griffith.” In A Short History of the Movies. 9th ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 2005. Strong survey of Griffith’s career in developing film art. After sketching Griffith’s apprenticeship at Biograph, Mast and Kawin focus on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance to discuss Griffith’s mastery of technique, narration, and moral themes. A brief survey of Griffith’s career from 1916 to 1931 suggests that it had a long decline.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stern, Seymour. “The Birth of a Nation: The Technique and Its Influence.” In The Emergence of Film Art, compiled by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Technical triumphs included night photography, panoramic landscapes, thematic iris and still shots, tinting, various camera movements and angles, close-ups, vignettes, dissolves, linear composition, subtitles for a variety of functions, and intercutting for narrative climax. The film greatly influenced Soviet directors Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watts, Richard, Jr. “D. W. Griffith: Social Crusader.” In The Emergence of Film Art, compiled by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Griffith is discussed as an innovator of films for social commentary. Controversy over the racial interpretations of the Civil War in The Birth of a Nation led Griffith to make Intolerance as an answer to critics. Social concerns in Broken Blossoms were nearly overwhelmed by sadism, but the film survives because of its aesthetic power.

A Trip to the Moon Introduces Special Effects

The Great Train Robbery Introduces New Editing Techniques

Edison Shows the First Talking Pictures

Premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Ku Klux Klan Spreads Terror in the American South

The Ten Commandments Advances American Film Spectacle

Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques

Gance’s Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques

Categories: History