Historian Kevin Brownlow has expressed doubt concerning "Fireworks Wilson", whom Karl Brown, the assistant cameraman, named as the special effects man in interviews. Brownlow's doubt is caused by the fact that there are no references to Wilson in any other accounts from any period, and he has suggested that Brown may have invented the name since he could not recall the name of the film's documented special effects supervisor, Walter Hoffman.
When it opened in New York City, ticket prices were $2.00 each, which was considered astronomical at the time. In today's currency, accounting for inflation, that would be about $17 - $20. One million people saw the film within a year after its release.
Some of the black characters are played by white actors with make-up, particularly those characters who were required to come in contact with a white actress. The person playing the Cameron's maid is not only clearly white, but is also obviously male.
The failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film's copyright resulted in it falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (and usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film.
Each major character in the film had a particular musical theme, to be played by either an orchestra or a theater organ during theatrical engagements. While D.W. Griffith was choosing musical themes for the characters, he allowed Lillian Gish to choose her own, or Elsie Stoneman's, theme. Later, that same melody was re-titled "The Perfect Song", and was used as a theme song for the radio and television versions of The Amos 'n Andy Show (1951).
The actor who played the sentry in the hospital was a bit player whose performance touched audiences all over the country in his scene where he wistfully sighs at the sight of Lillian Gish entering the hospital. In fact, audiences loved the actor's performance so much so that D.W. Griffith tried to track him down, supposedly to no avail. Some filmographies credit William Freeman in this role. Gish corroborates this credit in her autobiography, writing that she met Freeman years later when she was riding in a parade.
Due to the chaotic nature of film distribution of the time, numerous fortunes were made on this film by men who had nothing to do with the actual production. Louis B. Mayer was one such beneficiary, who obtained state's right distribution rights for the film on the east coast and the profits allowed him to launch Louis B. Mayer Productions, which soon relocated to Los Angeles.
Ironically, the release of the film inspired many African-Americans to start making their own films in an attempt to counter this film's depiction of them and to offer positive alternative images and stories of the African-American people.
Because of the huge importance of this film, it is suspected that some actors may have exaggerated claims to have worked on the film in order to bolster their resume. Among the unconfirmed cast members are John Ford, who claimed to have played a Klansman riding with one hand holding up his hood over one eye so he could see better. Such a Klansman is visible in the film and may indeed have been Ford. Despite frequently being credited as a "Piedmont Girl", actress Bessie Love denied claims that she ever appeared in this film. Erich von Stroheim for years claimed to be the stunt man who falls from a roof (breaking two ribs in the process), but assistant director Joseph Henabery strongly denied that von Stroheim was ever on a D.W. Griffith set until after Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916). Some have claimed to spot what appears to be a blackfaced von Stroheim as a voter in the election poll scene. Joseph Henabery, who was on the set of the film as an actor and assistant director, claimed that the actor who did the roof-fall stunt was in fact Indian actor Charles Eagle Eye. George Beranger was credited as "John French" in the original program notes for some reason.
D.W. Griffith put boards underneath the feet of Joseph Henabery, who played Abraham Lincoln, during the Emancipation Proclamation scene to make the chair seem too small for the 6'4" President. Doing his own research, Henabery incorporated Lincoln's habit of sitting on his tailbone as well as wearing steel-rimmed glasses. Both touches delighted Griffith.
Among the many film techniques that The Birth of a Nation (1915) pioneered were panoramic long shots, iris effects, still shots, night photography, panning shots and the careful staging of battle scenes where hundreds of extras were made to look like thousands. It also employed color tinting for dramatic purposes and creating drama through its own musical score.
Most Civil War scenes were based on actual photos of scenes they depict. However, postwar reconstruction scenes were not historically accurate, and many were in fact based on political cartoons rather than photographs (such as the legislature scenes).
During filming, camera operator Karl Brown was sure that the movie was just another typical melodrama. At the film's premiere, D.W. Griffith had hired the entire Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to play the score for the film. Brown was amazed; nothing like this had been done before. When the conductor raised his baton, and the orchestra started playing, he said it was so amazing and loud he was shaking his head, "It was like nothing I ever heard." Brown additionally remembers that Griffith hummed certain themes to the composer of the original score that he wanted.
Because of the lax accounting methods of its distributors, it was difficult to determine how much the film actually made at the box office. As a result, those connected with its making ludicrously exaggerated its box office take (Lillian Gish wrote in her autobiography that it made over $100 million). Its actual take is now estimated to be about $10 million, still a fantastic sum for its time.
Ironically, D.W. Griffith had previously produced and directed Biograph's The Rose of Kentucky (1911), which showed the Ku Klux Klan as villainous--a sharp contrast to this film, made four years later, in which the KKK was portrayed in a favorable light.
After D.W. Griffith's death, Donald Crisp claimed to have personally directed the battlefield sequences. Historians dismiss this claim as total nonsense, as Griffith did not delegate second units but directed every scene himself. Crisp may or may not have been one of the dozen or so assistant directors who were sent into the action to help maneuver the extras.
Jennie Lee's character is referred to as "Mammy" in the film's titles, but original press material called the character "Cyndy", while other sources over the years have listed the character's name as "Dixie".
While the film was the first to be shown at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson's statement that it was tantamount to "history written in lightning" has been disputed. Many suggest that original playwright Thomas Dixon Jr. coined the phrase in a shameless act of self-publicity. Indeed, Wilson sought to distance himself from the film, later calling it an "unfortunate production".
May 14, 1938, East Orange, New Jersey: While refusing to discontinue showing the reissued The Birth of a Nation (1915), as requested by the East Orange City Council, the Ormont Theater deleted sections of the film termed "objectionable" in a petition signed by 608 people. A.J.Rettig, manager, hit back at the petitioners, saying agitation had been started to "cause unnecessary harassing of an orderly and peaceful business."
At the time of this film's original premiere, it bore a title card that read something like, "This is a depiction of the events of the civil war and of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan from the point of view of the American South." This title card has since been lost.
Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday, February 28, 1940: "Judge Donald McKinley yesterday ordered the Chicago Police Department to cease interference with The Birth of a Nation (1915), which the police department stopped recently at the Admiral Theater on Lawrence Avenue. The court ruled that an injunction issued March 5, 1917 against police interference was still effective. The film will be shown at the Sonotone Theater, starting Friday."
Some of the investors were H.E. Aitken and Jesse L. Lasky, among many others in Hollywood at that time. The film's success is what helped the three to form their own film studios--Lasky started Famous Playes-Lasky, which eventually became Paramount Pictures, and Aitken was involved in the founding of several production companies, such as Triangle Film Corp., Mutual Film Corp. and Majestic Motion Pictures, among others.
Josephine Crowell (Mrs. Cameron), Jennie Lee (Mammy) and Dark Cloud (General) were the only actors who were alive during the American Civil War (1861-1865). They were born on January 11, 1859, September 4, 1848 and September 20, 1861 respectively.
D.W. Griffith agreed to pay Thomas Dixon Jr. $10,000 for the rights to his play "The Clansman". As Griffith had run out of money and could only offer $2,500, he suggested that Dixon take a 25% interest in the film. Dixon wasn't keen on the idea but reluctantly agreed. The film's unprecedented success made Dixon a very rich man.
The Western Costume Co. received one of its first tasks on this film, to provide Civil War costumes. The costumes were also supplied by Goldstein and Co. The designs were made by Robert Goldstein and celebrated early costume designer Clare West.
In original program material, George Beranger is listed as "J.A. Beringer" and the character of Duke Cameron is credited to "John French". Also, Wallace Reid's name is misspelled "Reed" in original programs.
The name of the character played by William De Vaull is listed as "Nelse", while the character played by William Freeman is officially listed as "Jake." Many cast lists omit the character of "Nelse" and credit De Vaull instead as "Jake", while changing Freeman's character to that of "Sentry".