The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Source: Kino Video: DVD, 2002.

 

Year: 1915

 

Director: D.W. Griffith

 

Action Stars

 

Lillian Gish

 

Wallace Reid

 

Henry B. Walthall

 

Genre: Combat

 

Country: United States

 

Story Duration: 03:05:36

 

Act Duration:

 

1st Act: 00:39:20

 

2nd Act: 00:45:59

 

3rd Act: 00:51:31

 

4th Act: 00:47:11

 

Plot Turns:

 

1st: Tod Stoneman and Wade Cameron killed in battle

 

2nd: Abraham Lincoln assassinated

 

3rd: Flora Cameron dies

 

ASD Ratio: 46%

 

AAD Ratios:

 

1st Act: 37%

 

2nd Act: 37%

 

3rd Act: 27%

 

4th Act: 86%

 

Action Structure: 3124

 

Action Scenarios

 

Capture

 

Escape

 

Fall

 

Fight

 

Heist

 

Rescue

 

Pursuit

 

Speed

 

Total Action Moments: 35

 

1. Summoning the Clan forces who travel at speed.
2. 1st rescue situation – Lynch’s militia lay siege to cabin where the Cameron entourage are hiding in.
3. 2nd rescue situation – Elsie Stoneman held captive by Lynch’s servants.
4. 3rd rescue situation – white townsfolk victims of a crazed mob.
Action Structure

Notable Action Sequence: Clansmen Rescue

Duration: 00:34:51

Act: 4th

Action Scenarios:

Capture

Escape

Fall

Fight

Heist

Rescue

Pursuit

Speed

Description: To fully understand the climactic Clansmen Rescue sequence in The Birth of a Nation (1915) it is necessary to first situate it in relation to the film’s overall racist ideological project. As a Civil War film, it overlooks the socioeconomic and political differences between the North and the South. Instead, the film proposes that the seeds of the conflict rested with the racial difference between whites and blacks and when the natural right of the former to rule over the latter was challenged by radical and misguided politicians. The Clansmen Rescue sequence supports this project by exploiting the moral valence of the rescue scenario. The sequence portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force that vanquishes Silas Lynch and his Black militia from control over the town of Piedmont.1

Running over 34 minutes in length, the Clansmen Rescue sequence still stands as one of the longest action sequences in film history. As discussed in the action profile X-Men (2000), filmmakers often engage in specific strategies to sustain viewer interest during long stretches of action sequences. Such strategies typically entail multiple plot lines that focus on different sets of characters, with parallel editing shifting across different plots. D. W. Griffith had mastered these strategies before making The Birth of a Nation through his silent short films that possessed a last-minute rescue that cross-cut between the plot lines of the rescuer and the captive. Griffith built on these techniques by multiplying the plots involved. Instead of featuring just one rescue scenario, the sequence presents three separate rescue situations, creating four distinct plot lines. The first plot line depicts the summoning of the Clan forces, and when they meet at the agreed gathering point, they depart at speed to Piedmont to liberate the town [Figure 1]. The second plot line concerns the rescue situation of the Cameron family, who escape from capture and end up under siege by Lynch’s militia in an isolated cabin, with their circumstances become more desperate over time [Figure 2]. The third plot line centers on Elsie Stoneman’s captivity inside Lynch’s home, and the implied threat of rape that she faces [Figure 3]. The fourth plot line focuses on Piedmont’s white citizens, who are lynched and attacked by a violent and out of control black mob [Figure 4].

These separate plot lines converge and are narratively resolved. The Clan forces reach Piedmont and first disperse the militia and the mob, who retreat in fear, thereby emancipating the white townsfolk from immediate threat. The Clan forces next arrive at Lynch’s residence and place him in captivity, while releasing Elsie and her father from captivity. Finally, the Clan forces reach the cabin and rescue the Cameron family, while the besieging militia make a hasty retreat. With Lynch and his black militia now vanquished, the Clan forces are therefore presented as a victorious force and future protector of the White South.

  1. This sequence is discussed at greater length and detail in my book Action Scenarios: The Essential Guide to Action in Film. New York: Superchamp Books. ↩︎

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