Birth of a Film Genre

         When asked to list the best Civil War movies of all time, people are likely to include Gone with the Wind, Glory, and possibly the Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War. Most people are hesitant to include the first major motion film, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, because of the controversy it brings when it is included in any list of “best movies.” Although it raises much debate, The Birth of a Nation is a film, which cannot be ignored as the Civil War movie that redefined the films that came before and after, as well as one of the few that addressed the issue of reconstruction.

         Before The Birth of a Nation, Civil War movies were short and carried pro-union themes such as in the various versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or they focused on a love story between the North and South such as in Sidney Olcott’s 1907 Days of ’61 . In 1909, D. W. Griffith produced a film from the South’s standpoint called In Old Kentucky. This movie was a step towards what Griffith was trying to achieve with The Birth of a Nation, showing the South as a land of bliss that was devastated by the North (Chadwick 41).

         Thomas H. Ince would soon come into the Civil War film genre with his most famous film Battle of Gettysburg. Ince was a stickler for authenticity, even using a colonel that had fought in the Civil War to play himself, so when his film came across as showing support that the South could have won, but they were outnumbered, the myth was created that the South was the heroic underdog of the Civil War (Chadwick 49).

         Similar to what Ince did in Battle of Gettysburg, Griffith used emotional close-ups, battle scenes and other devices in The Birth of a Nation, but he improved on them as well. He established his film as the bridge for movies, crossing over from entertainment into art, as well as bringing film criticism and movies as a propaganda device. No longer would movies be the simple theater shows, but now a form of art that was to be viewed by itself with the power to influence people and the later movies.

         The Birth of a Nation was similar to earlier Civil War movies, because it carried the pro-South view, a traditional love story and included a mix of historical figures to add a false sense of authenticity. Griffith saw the success of Ince’s films and realized they were respected because they were seen as authentic presentations of the past. Griffith then tried to imitate a sense of authenticity by meticulously building sets that were exact replicas of the famous scenes, such as Ford Theater and the South Carolina State Legislature (Chadwick 103).

         What made Griffith’s movie different was that it was one of the few to show the reconstruction. It was also the only one to portray blacks in the extreme stereotype of violent and “animalistic.” This controversy led to the formation of film criticism. Other differences were seen in the technique and style of the film; it was the first movie over 100 minutes, using twelve reels instead of one. It was also the first film to be shown in the White House, which shows that it was a breakthrough film to deserve this kind of respect.

         Later Civil War films were influenced by The Birth of a Nation because they used the same style of film (longer feature films), and they also used stereotypes but not to the extreme as Griffith had. Victor Fleming’s 1939 Gone with the Wind was the next major Civil War film. It contained many of the same elements of The Birth of a Nation including scrolled wording, adaptation from a popular novel, the idea of Northern aggressors and focus on two families, and the theme of “lost cause” for the South. The treatment of slaves was the same as in Griffith’s because they were seen as kind and devoted to their masters, yet they acted like idiots or fools.

         The main difference between Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation was that Gone with the Wind did not romanticize the Clan. Although the novel included the clan as being saviors, similar to The Birth of a Nation, the clan was entirely left out in order to prevent the controversy that Griffith’s film had caused. This was a wise a cautious move because it gave more respectability to the movie.

         Other differences were the shift in villains. The Birth of a Nation used northern blacks as the villains of the reconstruction, while Gone with the Wind used the carpetbaggers as villains. Another major difference was the treatment of black characters and actors. Gone with the Wind gave blacks more presence and character than any movie had before. Even though it still used stereotypes of blacks as mammies and sambos, it did invite them to participate and be respected in films rather than let whites perform in blackface. Hattie McDaniel even won an Oscar for her role as the maid, becoming the first black to win as well as being the first black to go to the Oscars as a guest and not a servant.

         The 1950’s Civil War movies showed both North and South views. They retained the Griffith idea of big-budget films, but focused more on human emotions rather than the war itself. John Huston’s 1951 The Red Badge of Courage was the most prominent Civil War film of the 50’s; and, unlike The Birth of a Nation, it was hated by the audience. It portrayed an American soldier as a coward, which was a deep contrast to the heroic men in Griffith’s film.

         Westerns began to emerge in the late 50’s and 60’s. This was the first Hollywood approach, since The Birth of a Nation, to conceive the history of reconstruction. It was an inaccurate description portraying the west as the haven for Civil War veterans to come together to fight the common foe, the Indians. Again, reconstruction was given an inaccurate description, and paraded itself under the new American myth of cowboys and Indians.

         The 1970’s ushered in a new wave of films, focusing on blacks. The Civil War film of the time was Roots, a saga about the lives of slaves during the Civil War. Like The Birth of a Nation, Roots was based on a book, had tremendous popularity, and showed the division between North and South. But Roots was different in the aspect that it focused not only on the North and South division, but the white and black division as well.

         Roots paved the way for the issue of slavery to become focused on more in Civil War movies than before when it was considered a side note. The 1980’s and 1990’s went off the step that Roots took by focusing on the trials of blacks and slavery during the Civil War. This is evident in the most authentic Civil War movie, Edward Zwick’s 1989 Glory. The strong feel of authenticity was achieved by careful research and the use of reenactors. Unlike movies before, it showed the struggle of blacks in the union army, and completely opposite of The Birth of the Nation, it reinvented the black person as a hero not a villain. It corrected the view of history that had been set by The Birth of a Nation and redefined the villain as neither union nor confederate (which was never even seen throughout the movie), but as racism.

         Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War, was a modern-day counter to The Birth of a Nation. It was similar in that it met with huge popularity and employed similar technology of extending the idea of the film (it was eleven hours long), and using new techniques to establish the genre of documentary film making. The difference between the two was that The Civil War set out to make what details were unknown about the Civil War, known. Burns also tried to dispel the myths created by Hollywood movies, and go in depth to determine the cause and effect of the war.

         The major similarity between Burns’s and Griffith’s movies was that they both took a similar approach to reconstruction. Griffith ignored the facts, while Burns ignored reconstruction all together. Whether or not Burns meant to leave the reconstruction out for time or if he just wanted to focus on the Civil War, is debatable and brings up much of the controversy Griffith’s film did, which was ignoring the reconstruction was like ignoring the true fight for freedom of the blacks.

         The Birth of a Nation is considered to be controversial even to this day but is considered one of the greatest movies because it reinvented the past Civil War movies and influenced the later Civil War movies. By improving the techniques of past film makers like Ince, Griffith led the way for feature films of all kinds. He influenced the way Gone with the Wind was created by having Victor Fleming make cautious decisions on what to include and what to improve on. The Birth of a Nation was a step in the direction towards later Civil War movies, whose film makers would use it as a film recipe and improve on what worked, like human emotions, story-lines, and battle scenes, and what should be left out, like controversial topics (KKK) and stereotypes. The Birth of a Nation can be seen as the father of movies, because of its improvements on the past and the influence on the later Civil War movies.

Work Cited

Chadwick, Bruce. The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Susie Shircliff

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