Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Perseverance of Southern Honor
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 Manifold Tragedies of War
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.