D. W. Griffith’s first Blockbuster Movie

English: Lesson 125

Birth of a Nation (1915), Directed by D. W. Griffith 

Why was this movie the first blockbuster?

Blockbusters are those movies everyone goes to see and talks about for weeks in advance. They are epic, filled with drama, tension, special effects, an incredible score, and of course a star-studded cast. Hollywood and other big movie companies try to pump out a blockbuster every year, and every time it has to be bigger and better. When someone thinks of their favourite blockbuster movie, I highly doubt it is a silent film made in 1915. But, Birth of a Nation directed by D. W. Griffith in 1915 is without a doubt one of the first blockbusters ever made. And it was epic.

First, let us list out the main characteristics of a blockbuster film:

  • An epic battle scenes
  • Enemies turned friends
  • Dramatic death
  • Suicide
  • Damsel in distress
  • The big rescue
  • Epic score
  • Special effects

Some of these are optional, but they frequently appear in big blockbuster movies. Birth of a Nation is over three hours long, so it had time to fit everything in.

An epic battle

The movie is set during the Civil War, so that already covers the epic battle scene. D. W. Griffith was the first director to film intricate, detailed, crazy shots that no one had thought to do before. The battle scenes span well over an hour of the film. Hundreds of extras were used to create the battles, and beautiful locations and props, plus special effects were used to make the battle as realistic as possible.

Enemies turned friends

The drama of the battles intensifies over the three years of the civil war, till it finally peaks when two men, one from the North and the other the South, meet each other in battle and are about to fight when they realize they are best friends from before the war. Both suffering from fatal wounds they die in each other’s arms.

Dramatic death

After the war, the plot follows President Lincoln and the days leading up to the assassination. The scene where he is killed was beautifully shot in a gorgeous theatre, with all the extras in spectacular costumes and an engaging play happening on the stage. The tension builds as the camera follows the Presidents bodyguard leaving to watch the play and the killer taking aim at Lincoln. The whole theatre erupts into chaos when Lincoln is shot, and everyone scrambles to escape, with some of the women fainting into their partner’s arms.


In the South, the story follows one family who is scraping to make a living and rebuild their lives that was before the war. Flora, the youngest daughter of the family, goes off to fetch water from a spring in the forest when she is approached by a black officer who proposes marriage to her. She refuses and slaps him when he doesn’t take no for an answer. The officer then chases her through the woods and up a mountain to a cliff edge. The officer promises he will not hurt her, but the girl says if he comes any closer she will jump off the cliff. Instead of letting him catcher her, she jumps to her death.

Damsel in distress

Elsie, daughter of a rich man and most important man in America after Lincoln’s death, is approached by Lynch, a governor, who asks her to marry him, saying he will make her queen of the black empire he’s making. Being in love with someone else, Elsie refuses, but Lynch has other plans. Lynch locks all the doors and proceeds to chase her around the room to rape her until Elsie’s father knocks on the door. Lynch grabs Elsie and hides her in a back room, where she faints in an armchair.

Big rescue 

With Elsie being held hostage by Lynch, who is ready to force her to marry him that hour, the noble Klan gathers and comes to the rescue of Elsie and the entire town, which has been under Lynch’s tyrannical rule for some time. Elsie is then reunited with her lover, and they live happily ever after.

Epic score and Special effects

What truly made Birth of a Nation a blockbuster movie, was the epic score and special effects. Both were virtually unheard of by the public and never used in a film. D. W. Griffith had a score made specifically for the film and used many special effects for the numerous battle scenes, which left the audience in awe.

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