American Literature Week 25 Birth of a Nation

Prompt:  “Why was this movie the first blockbuster?”

The Birth of a Nation is a 1915 silent epic drama directed by D W Griffith. From the atmospheric soaring music to the devastating glimpse into the horrors of war and slavery, its easy to see why this film left its mark on early 20th century cinema. The film centers around two families, the Stonemans in the North and the Camerons in the South. The two families live on either side of the Mason-Dixon line, and become friends after their sons board together in school. There’s actually a bit of Romeo and Juliet tones that develop between the two families, which tracks because at the head of the film they state they were inspired by Shakespeare. My personal favorite plot point that mirrors Romeo and Juliet is the relationship between the two youngest sons of the families, Todd and Duke. I’ll touch on them more later.

The eldest brother of the Cameron family Ben, finds himself a main character as he is called into war. His only window into the lives of his family rests in the letters that his sister occasionally sends him. Meanwhile in South Carolina guerilla fighters rampage the Camerons hometown, the sisters of the family just barely escaping into a secret cellar. The town drives them out, but as time goes on the Camerons estate begins slowly falling into disrepair and the members start selling off their best items and clothes to fund their lifestyle and the war.

The two youngest brothers of each family (Todd and Duke) heretofore have been described as “chums”. They are very affectionate with each other, teasing and play-fighting. Its a boyish charisma they have together, chasing each other around the garden and walking into the Cameron manner arm in arm. I wouldn’t think to bring this up if it wasn’t for the the scene they share later in the film, and the opening section of the film which states clearly their stance against censorship. Censorship in early film was something that effected every part of the industry. From things seen as “socially taboo”, to religious critiques censorship surely had its place. This movie was made even before The Hays Code came into play in the thirties, which outright criminally banned anything profane, suggestive, violent, or “sexually perverse”. The effect this had on queer culture of the time still leaches over into todays media. It led to something known as queer coding, which is a character that’s suggested to be queer through usually stereotypical or comical behavior. Queer folks either had to be the butt of the joke, the villain, or be somehow punished or killed off by the end of the film. We still see the remnants of these laws in films like Brokeback Mountain, one of the biggest gay romance movies. Even in this film one of the protagonists has to die in the end. It has to end in sadness and loss if its gay; this mentality is a hang up from the censorship film craze of the early 20th century.

Back to Birth of a Nation. The “chums” swear to meet each other again as soon as they’re able. The battle scenes (which were mostly filmed in the rolling hills of California) are some of the greatest and most realistic portrayals of the civil war ever put to film. I particularly like the use of smoke and fire in the film. Before the battles begin we see young people celebrating outside around bonfires. The billowing smoke rolling around their dancing feet representing youthful glee and freedom. After the war starts we see the flip side to fire. We see the battlefield scarred with flame and smoke, the visual of bonfires transforming from a symbol of joy to one of devastation.

We see the youngest Cameron boy in war, racing out from the protection of shrubbery with his troupe only to be almost immediately shot. A young man races at him, bayonet raised high and ready to stab his fallen foe. Suddenly a look of realization comes into his eyes. Todd Stoneman finds himself starring down at the bleeding out form of his good friend Duke Cameron. The man he shared such affection with, to whom he had sworn he’d meet again. Yet alas, their meeting would last but a short time. Tears in his eyes Todd mouths the deeply heavy words “I’m sorry”, before he too is shot and falls down at Dukes side. With the last of his strength he pulls himself close to Dukes face, and kisses him. Well, gives him the closest thing to kissing that the studio could get away with at the time. The only way two men can share a kiss in 1915 is if its disguised as one last mortally wounded bro hug. It’s also, as I mentioned before, very Romeo and Juliet. Only if that story took place during the civil war.

We next see the Eldest boys from either family. They’re each leading a brigade. Ben Camerons brigade is underfed, and quite obviously battered. But Ben risks his life and runs out with them anyway. We see him receive a bad head wound, yet still sprint across the battlefield to the union trench. He rams a confederate flag down the mouth of a union cannon and races back to his own trenches. Yet again we see his bravery as he risks himself in order to save a wounded union soldier. Ben is taken to a union hospital where he meets Elsie. Throughout the film Ben has been infatuated with a woman in a picture. Even though he’s never met her he fawns over her, carries her photo with him, and looks at it when he needs uplifting. Now in the hospital he finally meets her.

Ben is unfairly charged with spying on the union army, upon hearing this his mother travels to her son and pleas with president Lincoln to pardon Ben. Lincoln understands her appeal and diplomatically pardons the eldest Cameron son. Ben travels home and finds his home in disrepair, with hardly any food and all the valuables sold off. In DC the eldest Stoneman son debates with Lincoln, trying to convince him to rule ruthlessly over the defeated south. But Lincoln refuses, opting for diplomacy to preserve the union. Five days later Lincoln is shot.

The film also addresses a lot of race related issues and events that I don’t personally feel comfortable talking about. As a queer dude LGBT issues throughout history are more my can of beans. All I can say is that along with the terrors of war, the film also shows the horrors of racism and slavery. It’s hard to watch at times.

It’s clear why the film was the one of the first blockbusters, if updated and remade for a modern audience it could possibly be a blockbuster today. It was ahead of its time in many ways, and is still one of the best known movies about the civil war. There’s no speaking, but between the vibrant musical score and the often poetic subtitles the emotion is felt plain as day. It’s a look back in time, a window into a world of yesteryear. If the letters Ben received out in the field were a glimpse into his family then this film is a glimpse into a time of history which lays dusty, but not forgotten.

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