Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Sherman's invasion of Georgia is prefaced by: "While the women and children weep, a great conqueror marches to the sea." Following the title, blackness on the screen is followed by a combination fade-in and iris opening. In a close-up shot, a mother sits anguished while she comforts three frightened children who clutch onto her. They are huddled together next to the destroyed frame or ashes of a charred home. The view slowly pans from left to right to reveal that they are sitting on a side of a forested hilltop. Down the hill is the cause of the horrible destruction - Sherman's army marches through a wide expanse of fertile, forest-lined land, burning and shooting a path through Georgia. The iris opens up on their march to the sea - the valley is in flames and strewn with corpses. The film cuts back and forth between the two contrasting images.

The South is devastated by General Sherman's bombardment and seige on "the breast of Atlanta." Sherman's army fires upon the city, setting it ablaze. The billowing smoke is tinted in flaming-red. The populace flee. The second Cameron son, Wade, is killed in action during the bombardment of Atlanta. He lies on the ground near a fence, as refugees from Atlanta stream past him. These are "the last grey days of the Confederacy." The South's food supplies are exhausted. On the battle lines before Petersburg, the retreating Confederate armies have nothing to eat - a close-up of parched corn kernels in a pan symbolizes their plight.

A sorely-needed Confederate food train is misled and cut off by Union forces. General Lee orders an attempt to break through and rescue the food train, with a bombardment and a flanking movement just before daybreak. Ben Cameron ( "The Little Colonel") receives his orders to charge at an appointed moment. The entrenchments of the opposing armies are separated by only a few hundred feet. Field artillery and mortars are fired. [Many of the military actions were recorded at night. The panoramic, wide-frame Civil War battle scenes are extraordinary, with spectacularly-staged and photographed sequences - resembling Mathew Brady Civil War photographs. In some scenes with vast scope and distance, actions takes place four miles from the camera.]

Stoneman and Cameron youth eventually meet as enemies on the battlefield. Ben, in a final desperate assault against the Union command of Capt. Phil Stoneman, charges down the road leading his troops, in a dramatic moving-camera shot, taken from a high angle. Cameron is wounded in action when he leads a final assault carrying the Confederate flag against the Union entrenchment line. He is saved when the Union commander recognizes him. A subtitle "War's peace" is illustrated with still-shots of trenches, piled with dead. War is not glorified, but viewed as futile and desperate - on both sides.

The North is victorious. News of the death of their second son Wade and of the eldest Ben near death in a Washington D.C. hospital reach the Camerons. "War, the breeder of hate." The seriously-injured "Little Colonel" is in the military hospital set up in the Patents Office where Elsie Stoneman is a nurse. Captain Phil Stoneman writes to sister Elsie, asking her to take special care of his pal in the Union hospital where she is a volunteer nurse. The letter is shown in close-up: "...use your influence in any way possible for the welfare of my old boarding school friend Col. Ben Cameron, who has been committed to your hospital. Lovingly, your brother, Phil." There, Ben finally meets Elsie, the girl of his dreams. He shows her the picture of her that he has carried around for a long, long time.

Mother Cameron (Josephine Crowell) comes from Piedmont to visit her stricken eldest boy. He faces a death warrant and possible execution - after being falsely accused and condemned to death by the North for spying: "The army surgeon tells of a secret influence that has condemned Col. Cameron to be hanged as a guerilla."

Anguished over her son's impending fate, Ben's mother journeys to Washington DC and President Lincoln (Joseph Henabery), "the Great Heart," and pleads with him to show mercy and pardon her son. She reports back to Ben that he has been spared: "Mr. Lincoln has given back your life to me." Lincoln's merciful pardon of the Southern soldier reflects his gracious attitude toward the entire South. Mrs. Cameron returns back to Piedmont to attend to the failing father of the family and tell him the good news.

The scene at Appomattox Courthouse, on the afternoon of April 9, 1865, the surrender of Gen. Robt. E. Lee, C.S.A., to Gen. U. S. Grant, USA., is recreated in another "historical facsimile." This signals "the end of state sovereignty." - "The soul of Daniel Webster calling to America: Liberty and union, one and inseparable, now and forever." [These were Webster's words of reply to Hayne in their famous debate when he defended the Union -- they also serve as the film's final subtitle.] The same day, Col. Cameron is discharged after recovery and leaves for home in Piedmont. He kisses Elsie on the hand as he departs.

The South has been ravaged by their defeat, and food and clothing are scarce. At the feast for the homecoming-brother, parched corn and sweet potato coffee are prepared. "Southern ermine," from raw cotton, is worn for the grand occasion and preparations are made in the Cameron household.

The scene of the Little Colonel's return to his ruined home is touching and poignant - and one of the greatest scenes in early film history. Weary, Ben arrives at the front fence of his devastated home, pausing to notice its disrepair. As he stands there, his Little Sister and other family members expectantly await his arrival inside. Ben slowly enters the fence gate and approaches the front porch. Younger sister Flora bounces joyfully out of the front door - but then hesitates when she sees his anguished expression. They both feign happiness at first, and he notices the raw cotton wool that she is wearing to imitate ermine. Both succumb to grateful tears and the two sadly embrace on the front porch. He kisses her hair, offering a mournful look in his eyes. She guides him into the front door. From a side view (a camera angle change), the tender hand of his unseen mother reaches out from behind the door and gradually draws him inside. She enfolds her child to herself, welcoming him home.

"The Radical leader's protest against Lincoln's policy of clemency for the South." Hon. Congressman Austin Stoneman, father of Phil and Elsie, agitates for the punishment of the South, but President Lincoln refuses to take revenge. Lincoln is told:

Their leaders must be hanged and their states treated as conquered provinces.

But Lincoln has a more lenient plan: "I shall deal with them as though they had never been away." Under Lincoln's plan, the South begins to be rebuilt. But then when "a healing time of peace was at hand" came the "fated night of April 14, 1865." A gala performance to celebrate the surrender of Lee is attended by the President and his staff. The young Stonemans are also present. The play is "Our American Cousin," starring Laura Keene. Lincoln is assassinated at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh), in a meticulously-recreated sequence, another "historical facsimile." Booth leaps to the stage, crying "Sic semper tyrannis!"

The Hon. Stoneman is told of Lincoln's assassination, and informed: "You are now the greatest power in America." The news is received in the South at the Cameron household. They respond with apprehension and dismay to Lincoln's assassination: "Our best friend is gone. What is to become of us now!" Lincoln's tragic assassination marks the rapid descent of the South into disorder and chaos. The First Part of the film concludes.

The Second Part of the Film:


"The agony which the South endured that a nation might be born."

"The blight of war does not end when hostilities cease."

The film offers a preface to the second part:

This is an historical presentation of the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, and is not meant to reflect on any race or people of today.

Adventurers swarm out of the North to the South, to "cozen, beguile, and use the negroes...In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences." The policy of congressional leaders is determined to overthrow civilization in the South, punish the South for seceding, and to pursue their own agendas to promote black equality - "to put the white South under the heel of the black South." For self-preservation, the whites form a group called the Ku Klux Klan, "a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." (Quotes are taken from Woodrow Wilson's 'History of the American People.')

The "executive mansion" of the nation, the seat of power, is shifted during Reconstruction from the White House to the House of representatives on Capitol Hill. The "uncrowned king" is the powerful Austin Stoneman, the fiery champion of black equality in the South. Following the South's defeat, Stoneman calls for his protege and aide Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), mulatto (half African-American) leader of the blacks. When greeting him, Stoneman orders: "Don't scrape to me. You are the equal of any man here." Senator Charles Sumner is summoned, and forced to acknowledge mulatto Lynch's position. Sumner proposes a less dangerous policy in the extension of power to the freed race. In the next room, Lydia listens to the conversation, wide-eyed and full of sexual excitement.

"Sowing the Wind."

Stoneman's protege Lynch is sent to the South with a mission - to enforce the rule of blacks and carpetbaggers during Reconstruction, and to exploit and corrupt the former slaves. His task is to organize and wield the power of the negro vote, and to agitate once-congenial Southern blacks to rise up and oppress the traitorous Southern whites. As he leaves, Lynch shows a lustful interest in Senator Stoneman's daughter Elsie.

Lynch makes Piedmont, South Carolina his headquarters. "Starting the ferment," he induces the negroes to quit work. The blacks (freed slaves) are seen leaving their work and dancing jigs, urged on by "scalawags" from the North. The Freedman's Bureau is formed to get free supplies for negroes - "The charity of a generous North misused to delude the ignorant." The point is made that the good intentions of the northern abolitionists ultimately lead to further unrest. The black militia marches in the streets in Piedmont, having a "right" to the sidewalk as much as any of the whites - they shove whites aside. Silas Lynch, Stoneman's mulatto cohort, leads black militia in their efforts to take over the South. Stoneman leaves for South Carolina, with daughter Elsie, to see his policies carried out first hand. He is influenced by his children to select the town of Piedmont for his sojourn.

The black Cameron maid tells one of the Northern blacks in Stoneman's entourage: "Yo' northern low down black trash, don't try no airs on me." Ben is pleased to see Elsie, but refuses to shake Silas Lynch's hand. Lynch is portrayed as "a traitor to his white patron and a greater traitor to his own people, whom he plans to lead by an evil way to build himself a throne of vaulting power." Stoneman is the guest of honor at the Southern Union League rally before the election. Blacks are organized, enrolled and given the franchise.

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