America’s Best Films – The Birth of a Nation

The significance of D.W. Griffith’s controversial film The Birth of A Nation (1915) can hardly be overstated. Even for eyes and minds numbed by the extravagant special effects of today’s movie industry, the scope and sheer artistry of this film is undeniable. Although lacking in synchronized sound, this “silent” film nevertheless speaks volumes. Griffith’s biased and slanted views of African Americans may jaundice modern audiences against The Birth of A Nation, but the scale and brilliance of this early work surely established Griffith as the father of the modern film industry. From the creatively scrolled “players” list at the film’s opening to the amazingly realistic battle scenes of the Civil War in the climax of the first half of the movie, Griffith reveals his visionary nature and the vast potential of film as a medium of communication.

Griffith’s story centers on two families-the Stonemans of the North and the Cameron’s of the South. When the story begins, the Stonemans are visiting with the Camerons in their southern home. Most of the images are long shots of the house and adjacent street and medium shots of small groups of the two families as they enjoy their time together. Griffith also includes a few effective close-ups. A fairly extended shot of the feet of the youngest Cameron daughter as she dances with excitement at the arrival of the guests adds humor and helps to build the audience’s empathy for the charming girl, her family and the Southern way of life in general. Another close-up of a tussle between a kitten and a puppy is a symbolic premonition of the coming Civil War.

Griffith’s images are an impressive variety of interior, exterior, day and night scenes. A notable detail is the large staircase in the background of the interior foyer of the Cameron’s home. The staircase recedes and then splits to the right and left. Although the interactions among the film’s characters takes place almost exclusively in the foreground of this foyer, the presence of the staircase adds to the illusion of depth.

Not only does Griffith utilize various sequences of long, medium and close-up shots throughout the film, but he also includes a number of extreme long shots of the Civil War battles. When these overviews are combined with close-ups of dead soldiers and hand-to-hand combat, the viewer gets a jarringly authentic picture of the gruesome reality of war. The full orchestral accompaniment, including repeated strains of “Dixie,” adds to the emotional impact of these remarkable scenes.

Throughout the film, Griffith repeatedly uses an iris effect as the scenes change from place to place. The iris sometimes expands so slowly that tension builds as the viewer waits impatiently to see what is happening. In addition to this use of the iris, an unusual use of the extended frame occurs when the last surviving Cameron son returns home after the war. His younger sister greets him on the porch and then precedes him into the house where his mother, older sister and father are waiting.

As the young man steps toward the threshold of the door, the camera does not shift to show the interior. The audience cannot see the family. Instead, two or three sets of disembodied hands reach out to pull him into the familiar foyer. The hands are eerie-why do the family members not show themselves? Are they ashamed at their now-ragged clothing and the home in disrepair? Or is there yet danger lurking outside of the safety of their home? Perhaps Griffith is indicating that although the war is over, the perilous battle to give birth to the nation has just begun.

Kathleen Karlsen, MA is a professional artist, a freelance writer and marketing consultant residing in Bozeman, Montana. Karlsen offers classes and workshops on symbolism, sacred art, healing art and the psychology of design. To learn more about color symbolism, visit For information about the meaning of flowers, please visit

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