In 1915, D.W. Griffith made major waves with the release of The Birth of a Nation. It was far from his first film and far from his last [he’s credited for directing 520 films over his long career, most of them shorts], but the epic tale of the American South entrenched his place in the history of cinema. As has been nervously discoursed by film writers over the years, the film was both lauded for its extraordinary cinematic craft and despised for its portrayal of African Americans. A year later, Griffith responded with Intolerance, a 3-hour epic spanning thousands of years through the prism of love and hate. As film lovers have distanced themselves from the controversial Birth of a Nation, the follow-up has been embraced---the films swapped places on AFI’s revision to their top 100 list in 2007 [The Birth of a Nation initially came in at #44, but dropped off the list entirely while Intolerance entered at #47]. This makes some sense, as Intolerance offers many of the same groundbreaking formal elements without the icky social politics. Aside from this, Intolerance has aged incredibly well even in its 100th year. It is as grand, as moving, and as technically dazzling as ever.
Intolerance involves four stories tied together by the film’s central image: a woman [frequent Griffith collaborator Lillian Gish] sitting idly as a baby carriage gently rocks beside her. The image obviously evokes a spiritual presence [possibly God, more likely a Mother Earth figure] that overlooks, even tells, the doomed stories as they unfold. The four stories: a poor Babylonian woman disguises herself as a soldier in order to get close to the Prince; the oft-told tale of the Nazarene, leading to the crucifixion of Jesus; the bloody uprising of the French renaissance; and a modern story, the least defined by historical events, involving a young couple’s ill-fated love amidst a new puritanical moral code.
Each story is devastating in its own way, but they aren’t created equal in terms of narrative resonance or importance to the whole. Overall, the tale of Christ is the shortest by far, though it is a necessary component. Perhaps this was different in 1916, but there have been so many versions of this story told on film that most viewers [regardless of their religious affiliations] have a decent accounting. This actually benefits the relatively short runtime. The story is familiar, so it doesn’t need to overstay its welcome, rather make the obvious thematic link and move on. Jesus’s presence also raises the stakes for the other doomed lovers across the other stories. Especially in the modern tale, we are asked to look at the struggling young mother in the same light.
Overall, the two stories which remain the most interesting [albeit for different ways] are the modern and Babylonian tales. For the modern story, it is the most like the type of morality melodrama Griffith would continue to revisit throughout his career---it could have certainly stood alone alongside Broken Blossoms or Way Down East. It is also the most narratively complex of the bunch, with subplots involving a women’s rights group, how that leads to a devastating child custody battle, eventually a murder, and last-second grasp to free the man wrongfully accused from the gallows. Actress Mae Marsh ties the story together with a devastating performance, enhanced by Griffith’s many tight close-ups on her young and expressive face.
The Babylonian story stands out for two reasons: the incredible production design and the strangely alluring performance of Constance Talmadge as the mountain girl who gets tied up in war. Talmadge is delightful, but definitely seems out of place---like a flapper girl in 500 BC. Even if the character isn’t historically accurate, she is a lot of fun in scenes like the marriage auction as she thwarts her possible suitors. As the story progresses, it shifts away from the mountain girl to focus on the war between Babylon and Persia reaching an epic scale. Overall, more than 3,000 extras were used in the production and full-scale sets were built to create a historically accurate environment. The battle sequences are incredibly gruesome and realistic with all the energy of modern action scenes.
As each story comes to their rousing conclusions, the film becomes a whirlwind of editing. If Griffith created the modern form of editing with The Birth of a Nation, he’s already refined it in the last half of Intolerance. After setting each story up independently, the walls between them evaporate, with Griffith cross-cutting at times without even an intertitle [though this is his best way to keep the viewer’s focus]. With more technology, Griffith may have filmed each story in a distinct way, but the elaborate sets, costumes, and identifiable characters help the viewer keep straight as the pace picks up. The impact of this editing is fairly obvious. The links between the tragic stories become stronger as the stories become more tragic. A modern viewer, hipper to hand of the filmmaker, may feel hit over the head by this. But it remains a fascinating and innovative piece of filmmaking, 100 years old and still masterful.
What to expect this week:
- Filmography highlighting the work of filmmaker D.W. Griffith
- Essay on the film's theme of history repeating itself
- Related Review of another silent anthology film: Fritz Lang's Destiny
- Streaming recommendations of silent films from throughout the years
- And more!