Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Though the South ultimately loses the Civil War, Griffith exploits every opportunity to present the Southern forces as heroic underdogs. Because the South embodies honor and nobility, every defeat the South suffers is redeemed by the courage and grace the Southerners display. Ben Cameron’s troops are defeated only because they haven’t eaten in days and the Northern army greatly outnumbers them. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, his troops manage to take two entrenchments and willingly risk their lives in a final attack, in which Ben jams the Confederate flag into a Union cannon. The North stays behind their own lines, safe in their numbers. Ben, meanwhile, comforts a fallen foe and survives a wound to his head. Though the South loses the battle, its honor and glory are maintained and impressed upon the minds of the Northern invaders. In this sense, Southern honor goes far beyond the battle scenes, motivating everything the Southerners do. When Flora falls to her death, this too is described in the intertitle as a preservation of Southern honor: “For her who had learned the stern lesson of honor, we should not grieve that she found sweeter the opal gates of death.”
The Birth of a Nation features a number of developing personal relationships—Ben and Elsie, Phil and Margaret, Stoneman and Lydia—as well as relationships that are pursued but never consummated in any way—Lynch and Elsie, Gus and Flora. The film separates the relationships into two distinct kinds: those borne from a divine plan and those borne from evil. The film condemns relationships based on physical attraction. Stoneman becomes sexually intimate with Lydia after glimpsing and then touching her naked shoulder, and Lynch lusts after Elsie. The film also condemns any biracial relationship. Gus’s pursuit of Flora violates this code and is thus depicted as disgusting and horrifying. Both Gus and Lynch propose marriage to the objects of their desire at a rushed pace, which, in contrast to the protracted courtships of the good characters, is a symptom of an unnatural relationship.
The film suggests that proper relationships take time to develop and require gentleness. Ben sees a photograph of Elsie and dreams of her for two and a half years. Ultimately, it takes a war injury to bring them together. Phil and Margaret forge an instant connection when they are first introduced: they pursue gentle flirtations but respect traditional mores enough to leave it at that. Longing eye-to-eye stares, as opposed to ogling each other furtively, and warm handshakes held a few beats too long communicate their honest desire for each other. Time is the true test of love, and so, despite the pain of differing experiences during the war, each couple rekindles its antebellum love during Reconstruction.
The Birth of a Nation depicts the tragedies of the Civil War beyond the battlefield. Boyhood chums are split apart and reunited only in death. Blossoming loves end abruptly. War turns governments against each other and makes leaders prime targets for the expression of discontent. Even after the war, Ben Cameron’s soul remains tortured. At one point in the film, Griffith and Bitzer present a tableaux in homage to the Civil War photographs of Mathew Brady, in which piles of dead men stretch off into the distance, having found “War’s peace.” The film effectively demonstrates that once two armies are on a battlefield together, the reasons for being there become irrelevant. Each man must fight for his life, no matter whom he’s fighting against.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The film frequently returns to the street in front of the Cameron house in Piedmont, South Carolina. Each time we see the street, its appearance changes, mirroring the political and social mood of a given moment. When times are good, the street feels lighter: flowers are in bloom, families gather on front steps, the sun shines, and the street fills with horse carts, respectful slaves, and playful pets. The breeze brings life to characters’ faces as strands of hair dance back and forth over their eyes. Ben walks proudly and opens white fences, while others pick flowers and give them as gifts. In this harmonious Southern world, the Camerons brim with familial love and devotion.
When the passion of war fuels the town and the South starts off strong, the street transforms into a scene of passionate release. Bonfires light the street, and silhouetted revelers run up and down the block, jumping and waving flags. When Ben returns home from the war, however, his formerly bustling street has been transformed. The homes are broken and burned, the bushes are trampled, and nobody but Ben walks on the street.
Griffith loved the rolling natural landscapes of the South and therefore set many of his most tender moments there. Both relationships that end in marriage blossom during strolls through the flowering trees, soft hills, and lazy shores of the South. Away from social and political stresses, these idyllic landscapes become paradise on earth. Doves and squirrels frolic, and women stroll with parasols, arm-in-arm with their men. In one scene, an agonized Ben retreats to a picturesque hillside and sweeps his arms over the vast river below. The preservation of Southern ideals begins with the land.
Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer employ the use of irises in The Birth of a Nation repeatedly. An iris is a black mask placed over the frame that creates a circular field of view as opposed to the traditional, rectangular frame. An iris can narrow to a small point, leaving most of the frame black, or it can open up nearly as wide as the frame itself. An iris acts as a spotlight, thereby highlighting a select portion of the frame. It can also function as a zoom lens or telescope surrogate, narrowing the audience’s field of vision to one point (or, conversely, widening it out from one point), as in the shots of John Wilkes Booth lurking in Ford’s Theater. In 1910, the iris reminded audiences of the ovular frames of photographs, cameos, and brooches, especially when combined with a soft-focus shot, in which a face looks healthier because wrinkles and signs of age are less visible. The iris shot of Elsie as Ben Cameron awakens in the hospital serves a variety of functions: it highlights her as a “vision” of his semiconscious state, it emphasizes her beauty, it singles her out as the most important thing in the room, and it serves as a visual reminder of the daguerreotype in which Ben first saw her face.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Costumes are essential parts of how characters are realized in The Birth of a Nation. When “renegade” blacks rampage the Cameron home, one man featured on camera wears only a torn scrap of shirt, exposing his bulging muscles. The man’s clothes effectively symbolize his savagery. Likewise, in the South Carolina legislature, the newly elected black representatives kick their shoes off and throw their bare feet up on the desk. When Ben returns home to Piedmont to a degraded plantation, Flora wants to greet him with her best dress, but the Camerons have little left. She improvises a white fur draping out of cotton from the fields (“Southern ermine,” quips the intertitle). This costuming symbolizes not only her bravery but also the devastated economic condition of the South, which has nothing left except its honor.
Contrary to what one might expect from a pro-Southern telling of the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation portrays Lincoln with respect, associating him with near-divine goodness and gravity. The film’s characters treat Lincoln almost as a Christ figure. Mrs. Cameron, for example, appeals to him to save her son’s life, as a supplicant would appeal to Jesus for healing in the Bible. Congressional representatives who meet with Lincoln always agree with him and treat him with reverence, with Austin Stoneman as the lone exception. Lincoln’s life becomes a symbol of hope for a peaceful reunification process. In the five days between Lee’s surrender to Grant and Lincoln’s assassination, the South begins to rebuild itself with hope and dignity. Southerners react to his assassination as if it were a crucifixion, and as soon as Lincoln dies, criminals from the North immediately overrun the South.
The way each character treats animals corresponds to a certain quality in his or her personality. While Silas Lynch throttles a dog by the throat and tosses it aside, Elsie and Ben caress a white dove, the greatest symbol of purity and inner peace. Flora plays with a squirrel in the forest, a symbol of her communion with the lush natural landscape of the South. When the film introduces Dr. Cameron, he tickles a pair of puppies lying by his feet, which suggests his paternal gentility. The puppies also serve a further symbolic purpose: one is white and one is black. A character off-screen drops a kitten into the mix and stirs up the placidity of the scene, suggesting that everything was fine between white and black until outsiders dropped in from the North.