The Assassination in “The Birth of a Nation”

In 1915, D. W. Griffith released his film, The Birth of a Nation. The silent movie told the story of two families, one Northern and one Southern, during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. The second half of the film, which revolves around Reconstruction, depicts the hugely inaccurate formation and glorified rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Though considered an influential and important piece due to its groundbreaking cinematic techniques for the time, the racist content of the film makes it very uncomfortable to watch.

While not the first film to depict the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Birth of a Nation brought the event to the widest audience due to its commercial success. The scene itself was even used on some of the movie posters for the film:

Birth of a Nation Assassination Poster

The depiction of Lincoln’s assassination comes at the end of the first half of the film. What follows are some stills from that part of the film. Also, since the film is in the public domain, you can watch the assassination scene here, just start it at the 1 hour and 21 minute mark.

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The man who played Booth was Raoul Walsh. Walsh served as Griffith’s assistant director and editor for the film. He would go on to become a legendary director in Hollywood directing films until 1964. Walsh died in 1980 at the age of 93.

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6 thoughts on “The Assassination in “The Birth of a Nation”

  1. Richard Sloan

    There is something gripping about watching the assass. sc. in “Birth.” It is so well mounted that one almost forgets that it is just a re-enactment. It has an authentic look to it, and due to its primitiveness, it looks as tho Mathew Brady might have filmed it. That event took place a mere 50 yrs. earlier. Think about it — It’s been almost that long since JFK was shot. The assass. sc. was filmed on an outdoor set (which I stood on about 14 years ago; it’s a parking lot at a strip mall now!) David Wolper utilized the restored thea. when he recreated the scene in his TV docu, “They’ve Killed the President!” He tinted the film somewhat sepia and had lots of blurred camera shots to make it look real.. And yet, Griffith did a better job of capturing the mood than Wolper, in my humble opinion. Wolper’s execution was terrific; I don’t mean to take anything away from him. It’s just that the mood created by Griffith is astounding, when you consider how primitive the medium was back then. WHat a genius. It is amazing how poorly his re-enactment of the assass. was in comparison, fifteen years later, in his first talkie, “Abraham Lincoln.” . By the way, two of my neatest acquisitions are a still frame from “Birth” that only shows Raoul Walsh preparing to leap to the stage, which he autographed in his last years for somebody, and a check signed by Jos. Henabery, who played Lincoln.
    .

    • I agree, Richard, that the assassination scene in The Birth of a Nation seems so real. It’s definitely worth watching.

      One continuity error I noticed when I was getting screen grabs for this post, however, is the fact that Booth takes his gun out twice. Once outside the box before going in, and then again from his shirt pocket after he gets up behind Lincoln. Nevertheless it’s very well done.

  2. Sharon

    Wow–not more than a week ago I bought the book Dark Lady of the Silents, Miriam Cooper’s 1971 autobiography. Cooper played the Southern ingénue Margaret Cameron in this film.
    In her book she mentioned that Walsh played JWB, which surprised me since I’d only known of him as a director. Then a few days later–this post! 🙂
    Cooper eventually married Walsh, though they divorced later. In her book there’s a nice photo of the young Walsh under which Cooper writes “You can see why he was irresistible to women,” which seems to have been the consensus about JWB too.

  3. Thanks for the info on the Archival site for Silent Movies, Dave! LOVE it – there are many good old Civil War silents that I was unaware of! Great to add to any collection!

    • I love archive.org. I’m always finding something new (technically old) there. It’s a wonderful database of all things public domain. Enjoy the silent movies, Betty!

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