American Movie: Intolerance (1916)

After the success of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, D.W. Griffith could make any movie he wanted. After the wide-spread criticism of that film (and its director), the only movie he wanted to make was Intolerance. The film, which grew exponentially in scope during production, was nothing if not ambitious. In budget, in scale and in length, Intolerance dwarfed Griffith’s first feature-length film, just as The Birth of a Nation had, in its turn, dwarfed everything that came before it. The film cost in the neighborhood of $2 million (some twenty times the cost of its predecessor, and largely funded with the profits from the same) and the initial cut ran at about eight hours (although most widely-available versions of the film today come in at about a third of that length).

Griffith had initially conceived, and begun work on, a much smaller film entitled The Woman and the Law, but as the work progressed he identified in it certain broad, universal themes which he felt merited a more holistic treatment. He added three more stories to the mix, set throughout the whole breadth of recorded human history and united by the common denominator from which the film draws its title. One story is set in ancient Babylon, another in Judea at the time of Christ, and a third in 16th-century France. All three are based (at least loosely) on historical accounts, while the fourth segment, set in modern times (that is, before 1916), is fictional; a contemporary fable of sorts.

The stories, which are woven carefully together by some very imaginative editing, are linked by a recurring visual motif: an archetypal vision of a woman (played by Lillian Gish) rocking the cradle of humanity with an intertitle from Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The editing of this massive feature is indeed very impressive. Almost non-existent at first, allowing long segments of each story to develop and establish characters before transitioning, the cuts between stories become more rapid and abrupt as the film picks up speed during the climax. This serves to build suspense with even greater intensity than the action-packed scenes of Griffith’s previous opus, and the situations seem almost to blend together into one great, overarching story that transcends human history (which is precisely the director’s intention).

The biblical portion is the least-developed (and shortest) of the segments. The story of Christ’s final days is lifted in its entirety from the four gospels and dropped into the movie, dressed up in conventional period garb amid some fairly unimaginative sets. The French interludes are hardly more interesting, and the story they tell is somewhat clumsily assembled. It depicts the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots by Roman Catholics in 1572. Catherine de Medici incites her son Charles IX to instigate the atrocity, which spoils (to say the least) the wedding day of Brown Eyes and Prosper Latour, a Huguenot couple. In this segment, even more than the others, the scenes involving the heroes and the villains are almost totally disconnected from each other until the tragic final moments, which slows the pace considerably.

The Babylonian section, which concerns the heroic Mountain Girl’s doomed efforts to warn Belshazzar of the impending betrayal by the priesthood to Cyrus of Persia, is most notable for its impressive sets. Nothing like it had ever been seen before then, nor would be for many years after. Griffith constructed a massive outdoor replica of ancient Babylon and populated it with over 16,000 extras. The set, with its gargantuan elephant statues and walls on which a full-sized chariot could be driven, towered 100 feet into the air and could be seen at an immense distance. The raucous, orgiastic banquet scene remains, nearly a century later, one of the most impressive spectacles Hollywood has ever produced. After filming wrapped, Griffith found he didn’t have enough money to dismantle the set, and it remained for several years as a notable landmark until it had deteriorated to the point of being declared a hazard by the LA Fire Department. By then, it was dilapidated enough to be demolished at a reasonable cost.

The modern story, out of which the rest of the film eventually grew, remains the most absorbing and well-developed of the four. On a narrative level, the characters capture our sympathies and the story generates a great deal of dramatic tension. As a tale of social injustice, the story also has a great deal to tell about the time in which it was made. In this segment, a sanctimonious women’s reform movement wreaks havoc on the lives of the working classes in the name of cleaning up the streets. As a result of their efforts, a large number of factory workers and their families are fired and are forced to move to the inner-city where they take up all manner of vices to combat poverty, including prostitution and organized crime.

Mae Marsh (of Birth of a Nation) plays the naive, innocent Dear One, a girl orphaned after her father loses his job at the factory. Barely scraping out a living in the city, she falls in love with the Boy, a petty criminal (orphaned in a strike on the factory) who cleans up his act after meeting her. However, the Boy is framed for the murder of his former boss, the Musketeer of the Slums. Meanwhile, the meddlesome women reformers swoop in to take away the Dear One’s baby, claiming she is an unfit mother. As the day of the Boy’s execution draws nearer, things look bleak indeed, coinciding with the increasing unrest among the Babylonian priesthood and the approach of Passover in Judea and St. Bartholomew’s Day in France.

As all four stories near their climax, the real killer in the modern story (the dead man’s mistress, who had tragically turned to prostitution after the lay-offs at the factory) confesses to the crime. In a thrilling sequence, the Dear One races by automobile to catch the governor’s train so that he can sign a last-minute pardon in time to save her husband from the gallows. By the time the modern story is nearing resolution, the historical segments have ended badly with the deaths of the heroes, and it seems that this will be the case once again. Just when it appears that the Dear One will arrive moments too late to prevent the hanging, the movie’s lone happy ending rides in to save the day.

I say “lone” loosely, as the overall film ends happily, as well, in a very similar fashion to Birth of a Nation. Everything dissolves into an idealized vision of a future world without sickness, war, poverty or trouble of any kind as Griffith’s earnest intertitles sermonize rhapsodically about the beauty of a world without intolerance. The final shot is of the rocking cradle, which now feels like a symbol of hope for the future of civilization as much as anything.

Intolerance is aptly described as “Griffith’s colossal spectacle.” So much so, in fact, that it rarely transcends the level of a brilliantly-conceived visual stunt to connect with the audience on a more human level. Length is definitely a problem, as it is almost inevitable that the film should drag in places (and the version I saw was far from the longest known cut). It is not unjust to say that, from time to time, continuing to watch is something of a chore, but it would be unjust to pretend that this is the case throughout. There is a great deal to marvel at here, even for a jaded viewer of the present.

The chief problem, as one might expect despite the attempt at thematic unity between the stories, is a lack of focus. Our attention is simply pulled in too many directions. Despite the grandeur, in particular, of the Babylonian portions of the film, it is difficult to believe that Griffith would not have done far better had he simply retained the germ of his original idea: The Woman and the Law. American audiences at the time seemed to agree, and Intolerance failed completely to recuperate even a reasonable fraction of its costs. Overseas, however, particularly among up-and-coming filmmakers in countries like Russia and Germany, Intolerance was quite well-received, and would ultimately prove to be enormously influential over the development of world cinema. Meanwhile, although he continued to make films in America throughout the silent era, he never again achieved success on a scale that could compare with The Birth of a Nation, or attempted a project as grandiose as Intolerance. These two films remain, for better or for worse, his most lasting legacy.

~ by Jared on June 12, 2008.

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