full title The Birth of a Nation
director D. W. Griffith
leading actors/actresses Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann
type of work Motion picture
genre Revisionist historical romance
time and place produced 1914, California (Hollywood, San Fernando Valley, and Big Bear Lake)
awards 1992, National Film Registry
date of release
producers Harry Aitken, D. W. Griffith
setting (time) Antebellum America; the Civil War; and the Reconstruction period
setting (place) Primarily Piedmont, South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and rural Pennsylvania
protagonist Colonel Ben Cameron
major conflict Carpetbaggers, thieves, and muckrakers from the North descend greedily upon the South after the postwar assassination of President Lincoln to defile the honored traditions of its aristocratic gentry by raising black militias to take power over the land.
rising action The opportunism of Austin Stoneman, the lusty cruelty of Silas Lynch, and the criminal behavior of the newly freed black slaves threaten Southern whites, who seethe amid the danger and try to find a solution.
climax At the moment when Ben Cameron suffers his worst bout of agony and hopelessness over his lost land, inspiration comes to him to form the Ku Klux Klan, providing him and the rest of the South a way to fight back.
falling action As soon as the Klan forms, Ben Cameron leads the group through Piedmont, rescuing all whites in danger, violently punishing misbehaving blacks, and wresting control of the land back into the hands of the proud Southern whites.
themes The perseverance of Southern honor; proper courting; the manifold tragedies of war
motifs The street in Piedmont; the southern landscape; iris shots
symbols Quality of clothing; Abraham Lincoln; animals
foreshadowing When Tod and Duke meet in Piedmont, they lovingly taunt each other, roughhouse, and playfully fight, foreshadowing their eventual meeting on a Civil War battlefield. They also hug each other frequently, foreshadowing their eventual death in each other’s arms. The daguerreotype image of Elsie that Ben sees early in the film foreshadows the iris shot of Elsie at Ben’s bedside as he awakens from a coma. Early shots of Stoneman’s vast, empty library prefigure the days when, after Lincoln’s assassination, it will be full of sycophantic congressional leaders attached to Stoneman’s power.