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The Birth of a Nation (1915) Poster

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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.
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First film to be shown in the White House (to President Woodrow Wilson).
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.
Because of the racist overtones of the movie, it was banned in several major cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
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.
Director D.W. Griffith visualized the whole film in his mind and did not write out a script or keep written notes.
The original budget for the film was $40,000, but D.W. Griffith spent $110,000, the largest amount ever spent on a film up to that time.
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).
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Generally considered to mark the birth of modern American cinema.
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D.W. Griffith's father served as an officer in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
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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.
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After this film was released and criticized as being racist, D.W. Griffith was very hurt. He decided to make Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) as a follow-up, to show how damaging and dangerous people's intolerance can be.
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This film is widely credited for reviving the long-dead Ku Klux Klan. The organization staged its "rebirth" in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the same year that this movie was released.
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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.
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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.
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The excessive use of smoke-bombs in the battle scenes were to obscure the mostly empty battlefield.
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Lillian Gish went to her grave denying that this film was racist, despite ongoing protests that it glorified the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed black people as unintelligent, ignorant brutes.
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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.
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Klansmen in full robes were used to publicize the opening in Los Angeles, where the film's premiered with the title "The Clansman", after the novel on which it was based.
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The film was 12 reels long.
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Rated #7 of the 25 most controversial movies of all time. Entertainment Weekly, 16 June 2006.
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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.
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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.
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D.W. Griffith directed 13 Civil War-based one-reelers before undertaking this film.
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Joseph Henabery, who was one of D.W. Griffith's chief assistant directors as well as contributing research, played 13 roles in the film in addition to his main role as Abraham Lincoln.
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The battlefield sequences were shot on the property on which now stands Universal Studios.
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The film was made with only a single retake of a single scene, due to a continuity error involving Mae Marsh and the piece of cotton pinned to her shirt during the homecoming sequence.
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The Ford's Theatre scene was filmed on an outdoor set.
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A huge demand for film prints quickly wore out the one and only negative. All later copies of the film had to be made from prints, causing reduced quality.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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D.W. Griffith, the son of a Confederate fighter, was very surprised by some of the vitriolic reaction to the film as he genuinely didn't understand why anyone would take offense to it.
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The NAACP attempted to have this film banned. After that effort failed, it then attempted to have some of the film's more extreme scenes censored.
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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.
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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".
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Elmo Lincoln, who plays "White-Arm Joe" in the film, also played eight additional bit parts.
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The original title "The Clansman" was jettisoned for being too tame given the breadth and scope of the subject matter.
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The earliest feature-length film listed in "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Jay Schneider.
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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".
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In proportion to its costs, this is one of the most profitable films in history.
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Riots broke out in Boston and Philadelphia when the film was shown, while Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Missouri, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and St Louis all refused to show it.
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Released in 1915, the 50th anniversary of the cessation of the American Civil War.
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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."
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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.
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Milton Berle has claimed that as an infant he was in this film, though there are no official records to prove it.
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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."
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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.
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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.
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The character of Austin Stoneman is based on Thaddeus Stevens, a representative from Pennsylvania, including the details of his wig and clubfoot.
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Future directors John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Elmer Clifton, Joseph Henabery, Karl Brown and Donald Crisp worked on this film as actors and/or crew members. Erich von Stroheim is also credited by some sources - including von Stroheim himself - with being an actor and/or assistant director on this film, but records show that the first time von Stroheim worked for D.W. Griffith was on Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), which wasn't shot until more than a year after this film.
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By 1946, the film had been seen by 200,000,000 people worldwide.
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The film was used as a recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan for many years after its initial release.
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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.
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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.
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Originally presented in two parts, with an intermission.
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Hollywood's biggest grossing film until the release of Gone with the Wind (1939).
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Film debut of Monte Blue.
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This film made a star out of Lillian Gish.
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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.
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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".
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Film debut of Charles King.
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Film debut of Charles Stevens.
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A shortened version was reissued in 1931 featuring a prologue in which Griffith was interviewed by Walter Huston. The two had collaborated previously in "Abrahan Lincoln" in 1931.
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Goofs | Crazy Credits | Quotes | Alternate Versions | Connections | Soundtracks

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