America: D.W. Griffith’s Silent Epic

D.W. Griffith’s silent movie, America, an epic spectacle about the Revolutionary War, was based on his play, War, written in 1907.

Shot on location, in Farmington and Summit, New York, America features fine battle scenes and period flavor. The noted G. W. Bitzer served as cinematographer; he shot most of Griffith’s films. The movie stars Neil Hamilton, Carol Dempser, and Lionel Barrymore.

David Wark Griffith is one of the great masters (some critics say the most important director) of the American cinema.

Born in Crestwood, Kentucky, in 1875, his doctor father was a colonel of a Southern cavalry regiment in the Civil War, a war that destroyed his family. Griffith began his career as theater critic, actor, and writer (poems, short stories, and plays). Some of his early writings were later used in his films.

Griffith directed hundreds of films (short and feature length), of which the best-known are: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Many of his movie starred Lillian Gish, the first lady of the American cinema, and the oldest (96) working actress today.

The Birth of a Nation, Griffith’s epic story of two families during the Civil War and Reconstruction is still fascinating. In 1915, serious race riots followed the showing of the movie. His attitude toward Ku Klux Klan has kept this film a center of controversy to the present day.

Griffith is also known as one of the founders (along with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks) of the studio United Artists, in 1919. Griffith’s last film, The Struggle, was made in l931. He died as a recluse in l948.


These notes were written for a film series, The Native American In American Film, shown at Arizona State University in 1995.