AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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The Birth of a Nation
Director: D. W. Griffith (Prod under the personal direction of)
Release Date:   8 Feb 1915
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Cast: Lillian Gish  (Elsie, Stoneman's daughter)
  Mae Marsh  (Flora Cameron, the pet sister)
  Henry Walthall  (Col. Ben Cameron)
 

Summary: Many years after Africans are brought in chains to America, the nineteenth century abolitionists demand that the Africans' descendants be freed. Phil and Tod Stoneman, sons of abolitionist leader and congressman Austin Stoneman, visit Phil's school friend, Ben Cameron, and his family in Piedmont, South Carolina. Phil courts Ben's sister Margaret, while Tod and Ben's young brother Duke become friends. When President Abraham Lincoln calls for volunteers, Phil and Tod return, but first, Ben playfully steals Phil's locket which contains a portrait of Phil's sister Elsie. During the war, Duke and Tod die in each others' arms. Northern guerrillas raid Piedmont and devastate the Cameron home. After Atlanta is burned and General Sherman marches to the sea, Ben, leading an heroic, but unsuccessful counterattack against General Grant's campaign on Petersburg, is wounded and rescued by Phil. At a Washington hospital, Ben meets Elsie, now a nurse. Ben's mother visits and successfully pleads to Lincoln for Ben's pardon from an unfounded charge. After Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination, Stoneman assumes great power in Congress. He sends his protégé, the mulatto Silas Lynch, to Piedmont, where the whites are disenfranchised. Lynch is elected lieutenant governor, and illiterate blacks gain control of the legislature and courts. To oversee Lynch's progress, Stoneman travels to Piedmont with Phil and Elsie. Ben and Elsie become engaged, but Margaret, prideful over the South's loss, is cold to Phil. To respond to the injustice which he feels, Ben forms the Ku Klux Klan. When Elsie learns that Ben is a clansman, she breaks their engagement. After Gus, a black soldier who becomes one of Lynch's followers, finds Flora, Ben's youngest sister, alone in the woods, he asks her to marry him. She runs in fright, and jumps off a cliff because she thinks that Gus will rape her. After she dies in Ben's arms, Gus is captured and hanged by the Klan. Dr. Cameron is arrested for having Klan costumes in his house, and although Phil and the Cameron's black servants rescue him, they become entrapped, with Margaret and Mrs. Cameron, in a country cabin. As black militia troops invade the streets of Piedmont, Lynch asks Elsie to be the queen of his black empire. Repelled, Elsie barely fends off Lynch. Her father arrives and is also horrified by Lynch's proposal, but he is powerless to prevent a forced marriage. After Ben leads the Klan's ride to rescue Elsie and Stoneman--and afterward, the Camerons--the blacks are disenfranchised. Margaret and Phil honeymoon with Ben and Elsie. In an allegorical epilogue the millenium is depicted wherein Christ's resurrection binds nations with brotherhood and love. 

Distribution Company: Epoch Producing Corp.
Production Company: David W. Griffith Corp.
Director: D. W. Griffith (Prod under the personal direction of)
  Thomas E. O'Brien (Asst dir)
  George Andre Beranger (Asst dir)
Producer: D. W. Griffith (Prod)
Writer: D. W. Griffith (Story arr by)
  Frank E. Woods (Scen)

Subject Major: Abolitionists
  African Americans
  African Americans--Mixed blood
  Carpetbaggers
  Friendship
  Ku Klux Klan
  Lynching
  Miscegenation
  Piedmont (SC)
  Rape
  Rescues
  Southerners
  United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
  United States--History--Reconstruction, 1865-1898
 
Subject Minor: Assassination
  Atlanta (GA)
  Brothers and sisters
  Brothers
  Combat
  Falls from heights
  Fathers and daughters
  Ulysses S. Grant
  Honeymoons
  Hospitals
  Jesus Christ
  Jewelry
  Literacy
  Robert E. Lee
  Abraham Lincoln
  Marriage--Forced
  Military service, Voluntary
  Mothers and sons
  Nurses
  Pardons
  Petersburg (VA)
  Physicians
  Servants
  William Tecumseh Sherman
  Slavery
  Soldiers
  Suicide
  United States. Congress
  United States. National Guard
  War injuries
  Washington (D.C.)

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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