H. B. Stowe's Cabin in D. W. Griffith's Movie

    There are many connections between Stowe's hugely popular and deeply controversial 19th century novel and The Birth of a Nation, Griffth's hugely popular and deeply controversial 1915 film.

    The film is an adaptation of Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman (1905), second volume in the "Clan Trilogy" that, according to Dixon, began growing in his imagination while he was watching a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Leopard's Spots, the first novel he wrote, even contains several characters from Stowe's novel -- see DIXON HOMEPAGE.

    Like Dixon, D. W. Griffith was a Southerner who wanted to revise Stowe's depiction of slavery and race. The most resonant evocation of her story in his film, as Linda Williams has noted,* is the cabin that serves as the scene of the movie's ultimate dramatic climax. Consciously or not, contemporary movie-goers could not have missed the physical resemblance between Griffith's cabin and the popular representation of Tom's (see pictures above), a similarity that is only partially explained by the fact, as Griffith's assistant cameraman later said, that nearly all the workers on the film's set construction crew had previously worked for Tom Shows.* When Griffith's camera takes us inside the cabin, it reveals many of the same elements that Stowe used to make her readers feel at home in a slave's cabin -- children and cooking, for example (below).

    What Griffith's cabin symbolizes, on the other hand, deliberately inverts most of Stowe's meanings. The slaves whom she sought to depict sympathetically as victims become, as emancipated blacks in the film's second half, the evil force that threatens families and women and children. In the film the victim is the Southern (former) slave owner, who must now unite with former Union soldiers to fight against a common racial enemy When the Ku Klux Klan comes to the rescue, the re-united white America is purged of the black Other, and the cabin that had once divided North and South now becomes the specific place at which this new "Aryan" nation is born.

    Birth of a Nation provoked protests from groups like the recently-formed NAACP, and was banned in a few cities, but it was critically hailed as a work of genius, as the greatest, most innovative movie ever, and it also quickly became the single most financially successful silent film of all time. You can see what those audiences saw for yourself in the three clips below. To 21st century audiences it will probably seem hateful as well as artful. Its depictions of the black mob threatening the cabin and the white-robed KKK redeeming it are brutally racist. But like Stowe, the film insists that the story it tells was historically true. Given its use of Uncle Tom's cabin and its impact on American culture, the film unquestionably belongs in the archive.

9.8MB FILM CLIP 1.   After the KKK kills Gus, Mr. Cameron, former slave-owner and father of the movie's hero, is arrested by white "scalawags" and black Federal soldiers as a member of the outlawed Klan. Along with two loyal former slaves, his daughter and her lover (a northerner), he escapes, but when their wagon breaks down they seek safety in a "little cabin" occupied not just by two Yankees but also a little girl whose presence can be accounted for only by thinking of how Stowe used children to manipulate her audience.
            (click on title to play clip)
6.3MB FILM CLIP 2.   This sequence is made up three different clips, spliced together. What I've cut out is the film's larger climax: the KKK's rescue of the white heroine from the clutches of a mulatto who wants to marry her and its triumphant assault on the rioting black troops and ex-slaves to reclaim the streets of Piedmont, the South Carolina town in which the Camerons live. Interspersed with those actions are these scenes of the threatened party in the cabin and its assailants.
            (click on title to play clip)
20MB FILM CLIP 3.   This is a long clip, a slight abridgement of the way Griffith depicts the desperate final battle of the white race against its black antagonist. Note that Mr. Cameron and one of the former Yankees stand ready to kill the females in the cabin rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the mob breaking in. Stowe's cabin made readers cry. This scene, as we know from many contemporary reports, made audiences across America cheer.
            (click on title to play clip)

Anna (Lilian Gish) wanders onto the icy river

She is rescued by
David (Richard Barthelmess)

    Griffith's came back to Uncle Tom's Cabin at least two more times. His adaptation of Way Down East (1920) climaxes with a re-vision of another iconographic moment from Stowe's text: Eliza on the ice. Here the revision includes gender as well as race: instead of a slave mother bravely carrying her child to freedom, the helpless heroine is saved by a man, who carries her much as Eliza carried Harry (see images above).

    And when Griffith went to Hollywood in 1927, the first job Joseph Schenck gave him was to finish the directing of Topsy and Eva, the Duncan Sisters burlesque parody of Stowe's novel. For more on this chapter in the story of UTC and American culture, CLICK HERE.

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