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This silent film by director D.W. Griffith is well known to serious
movie buffs and historians, but not to today's general public. I doubt
that a lot of people these days would have the patience to sit through
a film that contained three hours of silence. Nevertheless, the film's
technical innovations inspired filmmakers in the 1920's and later,
particularly in Russia and Japan. It also inspired filmmakers in the
U.S., including Cecil B. DeMille and King Vidor. For this reason, and
for other reasons, "Intolerance" is an important film.
The film's four interwoven stories, set in four different historical eras, are tied together thematically by the subject of "intolerance", a word which could be accurately interpreted today as "oppression", "injustice", "hate", "violence", and mankind's general inhumanity.
Griffith's narrative structure, though innovative, is uneven, because he gives more screen time to two of the four stories (the "modern" and the "Babylonian"). Equal time for three stories, thus deleting the fourth, might have worked better.
To me, the Babylonian story is the most interesting one because of its more complete coverage, and because of its elaborate costumes and spectacular sets. Even though there is no script, the viewer can easily discern the plot, which suggests that some of today's films might be just as effective, or more so, if screenwriters would downsize the dialogue.
What "Intolerance" offers most of all to contemporary viewers is a sense of perspective. Someone once said that despite the enormous advances in technology, society itself has advanced not at all. That may be true. In the eighty plus years since the film was released, technical advances in film-making have been obvious and impressive. But we are still plagued with the same old human demons of oppression, injustice, hate, violence, and ... intolerance.
This mammoth production and DW Griffith's 1916 masterpiece was his
followup to The Birth of a Nation. Intolerance blends 4 stories of
historical intolerance as a warning against the current-day evils of
war. The French and Judean stories are OK. The Babylonian and Modern
stories are spectacular. Where Griffith experimented with closeups and
intercutting stories in Birth of a Nation, these techniques are
mastered in Intolerance. Griffith also continues his incredible eye for
composition and scenery and costumes in this epic film.
The sets and costumes for the Babylonian story are among the best in film history. And the battle scenes equal anything in Birth of a Nation. Griffith's Babylonian set is so huge it allows for horse-drawn chariots to ride side by side on the road at the top of the towering walls. The camera shot that shows the chariots and the battle many stories below is astounding. There is also the famous camera shot that slowly moves closer and closer the the city steps and gates where hundreds of dancers perform a pagan production number. Just amazing.
The emotional oomph of this film comes from the modern story where a young couple living in a tenement apartment almost gets destroyed by society do-gooders. The intercutting of scenes here is masterful as the rescuers race to save the hero who is about to be hanged. Melodrama to be sure, but in a form never seen before 1916.
And as usual Griffith assembles a terrific cast and elicits great performances from many of them.
Constance Talmadge plays the cinema's first feminist heroine as the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian story. She's wonderful as the saucy girl who eats onions while on the block to be sold as a slave. As the men come near to examine her (she's dressed in a pelt) she shakes her onions at them and kicks at them. Hilarious. The story is complicated but she overhears a plot to attack the city and the ruler (who set her free) she adores. Great scenes of Talmadge racing a chariot through the desert. Great battle scenes that are unforgettable. Great orgy scenes. This is just a wonderful story that is so eye-filling, you have to watch it several times to take everything in.
The modern story boasts a perfect performance by Mae Marsh as the "Dear One." Robert Harron is the husband, and Miriam Cooper (very underrated) is the "bad girl." One of the most harrowing scenes I can remember is when the "do-gooders" (headed by Vera Lewis) come to take Marsh's baby after Harron is falsely arrest for murder. Marsh is so realistic in this frenzied scene that your heart just stops. Harron is also excellent as the hapless boy who gets framed for murder. The editing of this arc of the film sets the standard for decades to come.
Intolerance must be seen by any serious film buff. It's a long film but is unforgettable. The cast list is impressive and includes the above-mentioned Constance Talmadge, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish, Vera Lewis, Ralph Lewis, Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Wallace Reid, Elmo Lincoln, Elmer Clifton, Mary Alden, Constance Collier, Carmel Myers, Erich von Stroheim, Donald Crisp, Carol Dempster, Marguerite Marsh, Tully Marshall, Natalie Talmadge, Alma Rubens, Seena Owen, Margery Wilson, Eugene Palette, Ethel Grey Terry, Owen Moore, Alfred Paget, Joseph Henabery, Josephine Crowell, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Mildred Harris, Walter Long, Sam De Grasse, Monte Blue, Kate Bruce, Nigel De Brulier, Pauline Starke, Lillian Langdon, and future directors King Vidor, Frank Borzage, and Tod Browning!
Everything about this movie is fascinating, even its numerous flaws. It
is as ambitious a movie as has ever been made, and if you adjust for
the era, it might also be the most lavish, expensive, and painstaking.
Even today the scope and detail stand out, despite the many technical
limitations in its era. Likewise, the enormous cast list contains many
names that silent film fans will recognize at once, with well-known
performers even in some of the minor roles. Then, you could write many
pages about the stories, which are filled with weaknesses, but which
are also so interesting that you never want to miss what will happen
The concept behind "Intolerance" is as enterprising as it gets: no fewer than four complete, independent story-lines, with the movie switching back-and-forth among them, not necessarily in consecutive order but with a definite plan in mind, all in order to get across the idea suggested by the title - that is, that intolerance of others' beliefs or lifestyles has been a destructive force throughout history. It is generally understood that there is a strong dose of defensiveness behind this plan, since the ideas promoted in Griffith's previous film had earned for him some severe and well-justified criticism. This personal motivation could well explain why "Intolerance" is often so overblown, and it also is interesting in light of the stories chosen to illustrate the main themes.
The two most straightforward stories - the persecution of the Huguenots in 16th century France, and the persecution of Jesus Christ by the religious leaders of his day - are also the most believable, and yet they do not seem to get quite the screen time or the lavish detail of the other two. The contemporary story may have been the most important to Griffith, and it is a full-scale melodrama, full of heavy-handed developments and very unlikely coincidences, yet certainly a story that will hold your attention. The Babylonian story is at once the strangest choice, the most extravagant, and the most fascinating of all. As history, it is as distorted as (or more so than) any of today's movies. Trying to pass off Belshazzar of Babylon as a model of justice and tolerance is just weird, and the entire historical scenario is at best an imaginative embellishment of the truth. But the involved story that Griffith tells in this setting is so exciting and entertaining that you just can't take your eyes away from it.
Much, much more could be said, but anyone with an interest in silent movies or in cinema history will want to watch it and draw his or her own conclusions. Whether you want to analyze the vast array of themes, events, and ideas, or whether you just want to sit back and enjoy a fascinating spectacle, the three hours fly by very quickly, and it's a movie you won't forget.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Intolerance" is D.W. Griffith's apologia for "The Birth of a Nation"
mostly in that it surpasses its predecessor's epic scale, thus replying
to his critics. "The Birth of a Nation" was a racist film, and nothing
in "Intolerance" proves otherwise, but I don't think that's the point,
either. And, while Griffith calls his critics hypocrites, it's just as
easy to call Griffith one for his racism. Yet, I have no disagreement
that his films are art despite their messages. "Intolerance" contains
much more agreeable views than "The Birth of a Nation", anyhow:
Christian pacifism; support of labor; moderated progressivism; and
condemnation of intolerance, hatred and inhumanity throughout the ages.
The narrative structure of "Intolerance" was revolutionary and particularly surprising for a filmmaker who had cemented in cinema a traditional and theatrical form of linear storytelling with his previous work. In "Home, Sweet Home" (1914), Griffith linked four separate stories with a single theme, but with each story told in full before proceeding to the next. With "Intolerance", he employed parallel editing, thus continually crosscutting between time, suspending plots and commenting on stories with other stories, and I think it's ingeniously congruent considering the stories are supposed to run parallel in their morals, or messages on the general theme of intolerance.
The four stories include a modern story, which features a fictional representation of the Ludlow massacre of strikers and a progressive era foundation of busybody reformers that indirectly causes the massacre and directly applies suffering on the central characters. It was originally intended as a complete film in itself and was later released as such under the title "The Mother and the Law". Then, there's the Babylonian story, which was also released by itself, as "The Fall of Babylon". It almost seems to be more likely to have been directed by Cecil B. DeMille than by D.W. Griffith, for all its sex and exotic set design against a historical setting. A contemporary of Griffith, however, DeMille had not yet figured out that formula and may well have been thinking of the Babylonian sequences in "Intolerance" when he did; one of his early pictures and first attempts at an epic, "Joan the Woman" (1917), does demonstrate Griffith's influence on him. Additionally, the sequence features the best performance in the film by ingénue Constance Talmadge as the "Mountain Girl". She, too, seems out of place in a Griffith production, with her sexuality, impropriety and independence. The lesser stories of Christ's life and his crucifixion and the events leading up to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre aren't especially interesting in themselves, as many have panned. Yet, I don't think that's essential, as they don't stand by themselves, but are part of a whole where they comment on and run parallel to each other and the other narratives.
The stories are connected by explanatory, as well as moralizing and poetical, intertitles and by glimpses of Lillian Gish endlessly rocking the cradle (taken from Walt Whitman). Reportedly, tinting also separated the stories upon initial release. Nearing the climax, however, these separations and transitions evaporate for an ever more merging and rapider plot. "Intolerance" is the apex of Griffith's innovations and developments in editing--the culmination of his achievements in "The Birth of a Nation" and his last-minute-rescue pictures and other Biograph shorts. Along the way, it was usually James and Rose Smith who aided him in the editing room. Doubtless, these achievements, especially in "Intolerance", greatly influenced the Soviet and European montage filmmakers, as well as subsequent filmmaking in general.
With the astounding success of "The Birth of a Nation", Griffith had the opportunity to make almost any film he wanted, and with "Intolerance" having cost nearly $400,000 to make, he did. (The some $100,000 budget for "The Birth of a Nation" had been unheard of in Hollywood.) The film's failure financially ruined Triangle Studios and considerably altered and limited Griffith's filmmaking career from thereon. As "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated to Hollywood and the world how profitable and popular cinema could be, "Intolerance" told another important lesson on the risks and limitations involved.
Consuming much of the film's budget were Walter L. Hall's Babylon sets, and they are spectacular. They're also surprisingly imaginative and elaborate for D.W. Griffith, whose stagy, open-air sets in previous productions were generally unremarkable--besides those in "Judith of Bethulia" (1914), which pale in comparison. The influence of "Cabiria" (1914) is very evident, but where that film failed to equal the brilliance of its sets with the filming of them, "Intolerance" succeeds. The legendary crane shots are standouts.
Throughout the film, cinematographer "Billy" Bitzer masks the camera lens--more extensively than ever before--creating iris shots, a moving iris shot within a stationary shot and small-scale widescreen effects. Griffith and Bitzer are very much in control of the images, establishing us as spectators. The Babylonian scenes where characters look down at miniatures of the city, I think, also add to this emphasis. And, "Intolerance" is quite a spectacle, especially the Babylonian scenes. Overall, the cinematography, such as some extreme close-ups, is innovative and advanced. Additionally, Griffith and Bitzer once again proved themselves masters of filming battle scenes.
"Cabiria" and the other Italian epics were a great impetus for Griffith to have embarked on his own two epic masterpieces, but the Italian epics were merely super-theatrical, with "Cabiria" as its apex and somewhat of a bridge to Griffith making the epic a cinematic art and a cornerstone of the industry. Moreover, from his pioneering short films at Biograph, to the epics "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance", and to a lesser extent, his work thereafter, nobody has had a greater influence on the course cinema would take than D.W. Griffith.
I first saw this picture as a teenager some thirty years ago. I had no idea what to expect; all I knew was the famous still of Belshazzar's feast which has become one of the best known icons depicting the extravagance of crazy old Hollywood. But I was astounded and bowled over by what I saw. I will make no attempt at a plot synopsis here, since several other reviewers on this site have done so. Most readers already know that Griffith set out to tell four separate stories, laid in four widely spaced historical periods, and that he intercut freely between them, increasing the tempo as the film proceeded, and attempted to bring all four to a climax simultaneously. Clearly he bit off more than he, or anybody, could chew; but the fact that the limits of what cinema could do were being pushed so hard so early is what fascinated me then, and still fascinates me now. I wish to heaven that college film courses would just blow off "Birth of a Nation" and consign it to the oblivion it largely deserves, and show "Intolerance" instead, for this indeed is Griffith's monument, despite its poor state of repair; and at the risk of being technical I would like to address this. I have noticed that the one negative comment running most consistently through the reviews posted on this website is the relative lack of weight given to the French and Judaean sequences relative to the Modern and Babylonian narratives. This is largely the fault of the movie's checkered preservation history. When "Intolerance" failed to make huge sums at the box office, Griffith released the Babylonian and Modern stories as individual features in 1919, reshooting some scenes along the way. He cut up the original negative (gasp!) to do this, and by the time he decided to reassemble the whole movie in 1926, it turned out that all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't quite put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There was never a shooting script, or a written continuity; Griffith kept the whole thing in his head, and moreover could never stop tinkering with it while it was in release! Consequently, while the Babylonian and Modern stories have survived largely intact, the French and Judaean episodes were depleted by about half. So when we see it now we must recognize that we are viewing a broken sculpture. The movie is a restorer's nightmare; almost a third of its 2000- plus shots exist in variant versions, and the captions were rewritten more than once. But, broken as it is, it's still magnificent. There has never been, and will never again be, anything like it. It has all of Griffith's inconsistencies: subtle and naturalistic acting from Mae Marsh and Robert Harron as the luckless couple in the Modern Story are seen cheek by jowl with outrageous mugging by Walter Long as the Musketeer of the Slums, or Josephine Crowell's Catherine de Medici in France; but no masterpiece on this scale is ever consistent, after all. I love Connie Talmadge's Mountain Girl from Babylon; smart, funny and crazy. Other favorites: Tully Marshall as the villainous Priest of Bel; Seena Owen as the Princess beloved, my personal nomination for Most Fabulous Body of the Hollywood 1910s, never mind the deranged costumes; Alfred Paget as a genuinely humane Belshazzar; Howard Gaye as a believable and totally unforced Jesus. Everything the silent screen of 1916 could do, good, bad, subtle, overblown, crazy or glorious is embodied here; and Griffith never rode so high again. The most satisfactory version currently available, in my opinion, is the Kino on Video edition on vhs and dvd, the one illustrated when you first call the picture up on this site. There are some problems and a few missing bits that I take exception to, but overall this is the version that first time viewers should try.
In accordance with 'The Heritage Illustrated Dictionary of the English Language International Edition', intolerance means '(1) the quality or condition of being intolerant.; (2) inability to withstand or consume. D.W. Griffith, the creator of the cinematographic narrative, extends this definition, presenting a masterpiece along four marks in human history. The first one is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Then, the fall of Babylon, though the betrayal of the high priests to the King Belshazzar and his beloved princess and the conquest of the city (presently Iraq) by Cyrus. This set was the largest ever built in Hollywood. The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, in France is the third story. And a contemporary drama in 1916, with the story of the Dear One and The Boy and his involvement with The Musketeer's of the Slums, showing the fight between classes in the beginning of the Twentieth Century. In the end, a beautiful message of peace. The VHS copy I watched was restored and presents the music composed and conducted by Carl Davis and The Live Cinema Orchestra. An outstanding movie, recommended to those viewers who love cinema as art and mandatory for any collector. My vote is ten.
I saw a four hour, ten minute version of this as the University of
Ida Noyes Hall in February, 1993 -- restored with stills and copyright
photos, with a new score by Gillian Anderson, featuring the composer
conducting the University Symphony Orchestra -- what an experience!
And where, oh where, is this restored version to be seen today?
Somebody get on the copyright owner's case to release the 4:10 version, with Gillian Anderson's score!
This fine film, possibly the quintessential Griffith, has been in the shadow of the notorious Birth of a Nation too long. (Of course, without Birth of a Nation's controversy, this might never have been made). Intolerance has more spectacle than Birth, far more "speaking" parts (if that's not an oxymoron, I don't know what is!), and is far more PC -- but not in a negative way.
See it, in any form you can!
I put off seeing "Intolerance" for years, fearing that the bloated, silent epic would be more of a punishment than a reward. I was surprised by how intelligent and spectacular a movie it was. The parallels between the ages ancient, present, and in between are fascinating, and it's a shame to think that no filmmaker since 1916 has attempted a historical, epic, poem so grand. It would be easy to dismiss parts of the film, but that would be treason to its creator. It is a comment on the eternal struggle of goodness against it's adversary intolerance, a message to the future that we will never evolve without admitting this. Ninety years later,it seems that we haven't come that far, if we've made any progress at all. Some of the sights are remarkable: Babylon, the heavenly final sequence, the worker's strike, Christ, chariots... Too bad Griffith is mostly remembered for his vision of Klan and black culture in "Birth of a Nation".
"Intolerance" (Wark Producing Corporation, 1916), directed by D.W.
Griffith, became an immediate follow-up to the director's previous
effort, a civil war story titled "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), using
many of the same actors including Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Miriam
Cooper, among others. Of the two, I find "Intolerance" the most
interesting, mainly because of its advance style in story telling. Yet,
"Intolerance" did not become as successful nor controversial as "The
Birth of a Nation" when first released.
"Intolerance" consists of four separate stories into one movie, but what's unusual about it is that the stories are not told episodically, but presented simultaneously in parallel action, linked together with Lillian Gish as the mother rocking her cradle. The stories consist of THE MODERN STORY, THE JUDEAN STORY, THE FRENCH STORY and finally THE BABYLONIAN STORY. Of the four, only THE JUDEAN STORY is the shortest and less detailed, featuring the life of Jesus Christ, as played by Howard Gaye. THE MODERN STORY, starring Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, finds the young couple getting married, followed by the husband resorting to life of crime when unable to find work, and later accused of a murder he did not commit; THE FRENCH STORY is set during the Middle Ages with Brown Eyes (Margery Wilson) and Prosper Latour (Eugene Palette) of religious intolerance under the regime of Catherine De Medici (Josephine Crowell); and THE BABYLONIAN STORY finds the Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) treated kindly by Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) when she is forced by the judicial system to appear on the marriage market, and falls in love with her prince. The battle scenes in this segment are well staged, considering the time of when this movie was produced. The Belshazzar's Banquet Hall set is the most famous sequence of all, shown many times as a film clip segment in several documentaries about silent films. The sets are lavish and the expense of this production shows. In spite of some hokey acting and title cards, which was taken seriously by 1916 standards, it's still a worthy viewing, especially for film scholars. Of all the actors who have appeared in this production, and there are too many to mention, the one who's most remembered long after the film is over is the one with less footage, Lillian Gish.
"Intolerance" is available on video in several different versions. Besides public domain videos with bad copies and no music score whatsoever, the three noted mentions include, (1) The former Blackhawk Video Company distributed it in the 1980s at 135 minutes accompanied with clear picture, an organ score and intermission. The opening titles of that print claims it to be the most complete copy, which includes the list of cast actors and their roles. (2) When Blackhawk merged with Republic Video several years later, it presented another copy, a shorter but almost clearer print running at 121 minutes accompanied with a good piano score and tinted picture, but minus the listing of the cast of actors and their roles. This was the copy used for the Public Television presentation of "The Silent Years" (1971), as hosted by Orson Welles. (3) Then there is another video copy, compliments of Kino Video, which runs at silent accu-speed, making it as long as three hours, color tints, accompanied with organ score, this version which can be seen on Turner Classic Movies. With several video copies currently available, it would certainly make a difference as to which one would make watching this movie enjoyable. On a personal level, I'd recommend No. 2, the Republic Video copy with the piano score.
"Intolerance" can almost be said to be the first all-star movie production. But for what it's worth, this epic should rank as one of the greatest of all silent films. It's amazing that it wasn't named as one of the 100 Greatest American Movies of the twentieth century by the American Film Institute. Maybe a proposed TV special on the selection of 100 Greatest Silent Movies of All Time will amend that (****)
It's very hard to review INTOLERANCE today, as the film is so old
fashioned that even comparing it to films made just a decade later is a
problem. When it debuted in 1916, it was a technical masterpiece due to
D. W. Griffith's insane spending habits--with the millions he sank into
the film with these extraordinary sets, it couldn't help but knock the
socks off the audience. The film featured live elephants (plus a few
papier mache ones that were well camouflaged), thousands of extras and
sets that even by today's standards are amazing. The huge walls of
Babylon and the enormous statues are NOT matte paintings but were
actually built for this amazing film. The problem, though, is that
although people DID come to see the film, they never came in large
enough numbers to recoup production costs and it was a huge box office
failure. I think part of this might have been because while the film
was beautiful to look at, the narrative was very confused (being made
up of four separate films inter-spliced together) as well as extremely
preachy AND sexy (now THAT's a unique combination).
A lot of these problems could have been avoided by simply making four separate films--or at least filming one or two of the best sequences only. Plus, two of the sequences (the story of Jesus and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre) seemed too choppy and incomplete--like they were more afterthoughts of Griffith. The two remaining sequences, the Babylonian and the one set in 1916 had much more merit. While the Babylonian one was pretty silly in many ways, it was by far the most visually appealing and just overwhelms the viewer. The 1916 sequence had simple contemporary sets and had an excellent story that paralleled the stingy Puritanism of John D. Rockefeller--and this alone would have made an excellent film. But when all the films were combined with their tenuous and schmaltzy message, the overall picture really bogged down and is almost laughably bad in spots. What I particularly found interesting were scenes with Jesus appearing along with some very, very risqué scenes of practically naked dancing girls from Babylon! What this film DESPERATELY needed was a producer--not D. W. Griffith tossing in everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into an overblown mega-picture that couldn't help but fail.
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