The Birth of a Nation

1915

The Birth of a Nation

Critics Consensus

Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today.

98%

TOMATOMETER

Total Count: 41

56%

Audience Score

User Ratings: 4,760
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Movie Info

The most successful and artistically advanced film of its time, The Birth of a Nation has also sparked protests, riots, and divisiveness since its first release. The film tells the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of two families. The Stonemans hail from the North, the Camerons from the South. When war breaks out, the Stonemans cast their lot with the Union, while the Camerons are loyal to Dixie. After the war, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall), distressed that his beloved south is now under the rule of blacks and carpetbaggers, organizes several like-minded Southerners into a secret vigilante group called the Ku Klux Klan. When Cameron's beloved younger sister Flora (Mae Marsh) leaps to her death rather than surrender to the lustful advances of renegade slave Gus (Walter Long), the Klan wages war on the new Northern-inspired government and ultimately restores "order" to the South. In the original prints, Griffith suggested that the black population be shipped to Liberia, citing Abraham Lincoln as the inspiration for this ethnic cleansing. Showings of Birth of a Nation were picketed and boycotted from the start, and as recently as 1995, Turner Classic Movies cancelled a showing of a restored print in the wake of the racial tensions around the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Cast

Henry B. Walthall
as Col. Ben Cameron
Mae Marsh
as Flora Cameron
Miriam Cooper
as Margaret Cameron
Ralph Lewis
as Hon. Austin Stoneman
George Seigmann
as Silas Lynch
Wallace Reid
as Jeff the blacksmith
Joseph Henabery
as Abraham Lincoln
Joseph Henaberry
as Abraham Lincoln
Josephine Crowell
as Mrs. Cameron
Jennifer Lee
as Cindy, The Faithful Mummy
Andre Beringer
as Wade Cameron
Alberta Lee
as Mrs. Lincoln
George Siegmann
as Silas Lynch
Maxfield Stanley
as Duke Cameron
Donald Crisp
as Gen. U.S. Grant
Howard Gaye
as Gen. Robert E. Lee
Sam De Grasse
as Sen. Charles Sumner
Raoul Walsh
as John Wilkes Booth
Charles Stevens
as Volunteer
Elmo Lincoln
as Blacksmith
Erich von Stroheim
as Man who falls from Roof
Olga Grey
as Laura Keene
Eugene Pallette
as Union Soldier
Violet Wilkey
as Flora as a child
Bessie Love
as Piedmont girl
Tom Wilson
as Stoneman's Servant
Spottiswood Aitken
as Dr. Cameron
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News & Interviews for The Birth of a Nation

Critic Reviews for The Birth of a Nation

All Critics (41) | Top Critics (7) | Fresh (40) | Rotten (1)

  • Problematically, Birth of a Nation wasn't just a seminal commercial spectacle but also a decisively original work of art -- in effect, the founding work of cinematic realism, albeit a work that was developed to pass lies off as reality.

    Aug 19, 2013 | Full Review…
  • The quasi-Victorian Griffith was in so many respects way ahead of his time even if his philosophy and mind-set could often be said to be behind it.

    Aug 19, 2013 | Full Review…

    Derek Malcolm

    Guardian
    Top Critic
  • Birth of a Nation is a great epoch in picture making; it's great for pictures and it's great for the name and fame of David Wark Griffith. When a man like Griffith in a new field can do what he has done, he may as well be hailed while he is living.

    Feb 6, 2008 | Full Review…

    Variety Staff

    Variety
    Top Critic
  • Griffith's later films are unquestionably superior. But here, in a very real sense, is where the movies began, both as an art and as a business.

    Feb 6, 2008 | Full Review…
  • The civil war battle pictures, taken in panorama, represent enormous effort and achieve a striking degree of success.

    Mar 25, 2006 | Full Review…
    New York Times
    Top Critic
  • The biggest challenge the film provided for its audiences is perhaps to decide when 'ground-breaking, dedicated, serious cinematic art' must be reviled as politically reprehensible.

    Feb 9, 2006 | Full Review…
    Time Out
    Top Critic

Audience Reviews for The Birth of a Nation

  • Apr 18, 2017
    It was definitely innovative in many ways when it came out and still delivers a timeless anti-war message, but it is nearly impossible to read "the helpless white minority" and not feel outraged by the film's odious racism as it vilifies black people and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan.
    Carlos M Super Reviewer
  • Aug 13, 2016
    People get easily offended by old films and not appreciate the scale of the film. The Birth of a Nation was an epic historical drama about the American civil war and the rise of Ku Klux Klan. It was not where near the accuracy of the real history but it was a pretty amazing film utilizing a lot of the modern film making techniques at the standard of the time. There were some really amazing scenes like the fall from the cliff, the battles and courthouse assembly. One of the best silents films in the history of cinema.
    Sylvester K Super Reviewer
  • Nov 06, 2012
    Ignore the five star rating I gave to "The Birth of a Nation" and let's not even discuss it, for ratings are wholly irrelevant in the context of this film. A culmination of all knowledge gained during the silent film era, this D. W. Griffith landmark is as much part of American history as the Civil War, and its impact on our society as well as American cinema cannot be overstated. The camera and storytelling techniques pioneered in the making of "Nation" have influenced nearly every film that came after it, and modern cinema owes a great debt to the director for his unwavering vision and talent. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed the film, as "Nation" is clearly a direct reflection of the director's deeply racist opinions, and is simply put a morally reprehensible affair. Nevertheless, it is permanent blemish in the pages of our American history, and it must be confronted; discussion and reflection are the preferred methods, not blissful ignorance.
    Kristijonas F Super Reviewer
  • May 25, 2012
    I just watched an over three-hour long 1915 silent film about the Civil War, the Lincoln assassination and a newly restored United States' subsequent Reconstruction era and the simultaneous formation of the KKK. There, that should probably tell you how much free time I have on my hands. Really, what I should be worrying about the most is whether or not this review secures my stance that Alabama is not filled to the rim with racists anymore, and really I don't think that this film is making it all that fair, because even the most ignorant hole in West Virginia is going to get uncomfortable watching this film. Well, really, come on, what did you expect? This is a 1915 film by a man from Kentucky that's about the Ku Klux Klan, so the racism in this film is anything but subtle, and the protagonistic tone over the KKK isn't making things any more comfortable. Hey say what you will about those maniacs, becuase lord knows I will, seeing as how [b][u]"Alabama is not racist"[/u][/b], but they sure make for a fairly decent watch in a movie. Still, if you're thinking that an over three-hour long 1915 silent film about the Civil War, the Lincoln assassination and a newly restored United States' subsequent Reconstruction era and the simultaneous formation of the KKK won't lose you here and there, then maybe you movie buffs should cut back a bit on Terrence Malick films and lower the standards for dullness. It's been noted that this film broke ground with its inventive narrative methods, some of which stand prominent today, and I have to say that if D. W. Griffith's the one who came up with overdrawn scenes of nothingness in a failed attempt at exposition, then racism doesn't appear to be this film's only issue. I understand that they had stuff along those lines everywhere back then, yet those pieces of nothingness were often for the sake of fluff with no subtlety. This film makes an early attempt at a manipulating the nothingness to actually supplement the subtlety, and that is a method that hardly works now, let alone back in 1915, yet it's a method that feels just as cocky no matter what time you're in. Hey, even things do get silly, due to the time (As really pretty as Lillian Gish was, if you thought that a lot of actresses were terrible from the 30s to 60s, then just wait until you see the actresses of the '10s, back when the only thing they could do was expressiveness), you'd be hard pressed to find a groundbreaking film at an unsubtle and underdeveloped time in cinematic history that's not cocky, yet that doesn't make the overbearing tone any less dated and discomforting. The same can be said about the racial overtones and glorification of radicalism, which I find problematic on a personal level for obvious reasons (*cough*Ala*cough*bama*cough*not*cough*racist*cough*) and problematic on a critical level, as the messages of the film, whether they be moral or not - and boy, are they not -, are rather forceful in their delivery, and I understand that the limitations of the time tainted subtlety, yet that doesn't keep it from being a fault in the film. That excuse certainly isn't helped by the fact that the film, even with its faults and lapses in subtlety, still has a certain subtle grace about it that was unheard of at the time, and remains engaging to this day. Sure, maybe the newfound methods of subtlety were quite faulty in their prototype stage, certainly to where the film is rendered unable to transcend to a terribly upstanding point, yet through all of its faults, the film engages through its inventive methods, some of which impress to this day. Stylistically, the film is considerably more impressive than expected, boasting production designs that stand as elaborate and convincing (The Lincoln makeup effect on Joseph Henabery is a particularly impressive production piece), while not in-your-face to the point of damaging the substance within the film. The production handsomely captures the look of the time, while G.W. Bitzer's then-hardly paralleled and now-still rather impressive cinematography captures the scope, as well as the intimacy with the story in many spots. Still, what might very well engage the most of D. W. Griffith's direction, which was limited at the time and is still problematic in a deal of both critical and personal regards, yet does what it can with a kind of subtlety that was both underlooked and faulty at the time, yet more often than not engages, particularly when Griffith plays with the filmmaking limitations of the time. The full-screen tinting gives the film character and visual dynamicity while supplementing tone, and the score breathes livliness and resonance into the film to mostly compensate for the silence and only a few commendable and ageless expressive performances. For this, credit not only goes out to the components of the production, but Griffith's structure of the film that plays with its components in a fashion that gave a glimpse into the now widely practiced technique of marrying production into substance, whether than simply putting on a show. The film's methods still stand as sadly dated to the point of rendering the film relatively workmanlike, yet there's no denying the landmarks this film set, nor its degree of effectiveness by today's standards. It's an overlong slow-mover, yet a ride worth sitting through, as the film charms and resonantes more than expected, and just enough to keep the audience going - nay - simply enjoying. At the end of the reel, it's hard to let go of the slowness and excessive padding in an attempt to supplement subtlety, only to supplement a degree of self-righteousness that dulls down the film and intensifies the sting of its likely-to-be personally discomforting bias, yet with handsome production and style played then-highly uniquely and now-still rather impressively by D. W. Griffith to touch the film with a kind of near-unprecedented level of subtlety and substance depth that may not have conquered the test of time, yet still made it through thoroughly enough to leave "The Birth of a Nation" to stand now as a generally enjoyable piece of classic revolutionary cinema. 2.5/5 - Fair
    Cameron J Super Reviewer

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