My reaction to D.W. Griffith’s masterwork Intolerance has always been one of wonder, and that feeling increases each time I see the picture and as I discover more about film history, Griffith himself, and the conditions of American filmmaking during this astounding period. Based on budget-to-profit figures, Intolerance may be considered a failure, but as an artistic achievement, it is colossal.
Seen by many as a rebuttal (or apology) for its tumultuous predecessor, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance does, at the very least, seem to have a clear message; at the most it’s a roundabout plea for understanding. Throughout the picture we are called upon to reflect on the development and consistency of intolerance and ignorance through the ages. Comparisons are drawn and encouraged to see the past in the (then) present. As the non-diagetic joining scene proclaims, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” Griffith is suggesting that such views and ideals have always existed and will continue to do so. The film, more than operating as a defense, works as a sociohistorical commentary about the human condition. As with Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), the film that would sink United Artists, ironically the studio Griffith helped to create, I feel that many of the disparaging remarks about Intolerance, based as they were on either financial attributes, or on the idea that Griffith (like Cimino) was an egocentric, unmanageable, directorial force, have overshadowed the quality of filmmaking displayed in this picture – as has, in Griffith’s case, the controversy over The Birth of a Nation.
It’s difficult to find where to begin when it comes to this picture; it would be easy to go off on a tangent about the film as a historical document or to approach it critically – I’ll try to write by slightly doing both.
“Celluloid Mavericks” author Greg Merritt calls attention to the film’s initial length and its four story structure. Indeed, much has been made, for better or worse, of these elements. I find the structure to work very well. The juxtaposition of scenes, time periods, and locales – even with the so-called “forced convention of Lillian Gish rocking in a chair,” as Merritt puts it (though she’s actually sitting stationary, rocking a cradle) – do not hinder continuity of scene progression nor does it distract from or deter character relations. In fact, granted from a modern view point, I would argue the opposite. By having the four parallel tales, the spectator is to some extent forced, even if subconsciously, to draw comparisons between characters through the periods depicted as well as the varying mise-en-scéne formulations of each segment: What are their similarities? What does it mean? What is Griffith trying to say? A theme is established and Griffith, through cinematic techniques, and the audience, through the already established (even in 1916) modes of filmic comprehension, draw the connections and deduce the relevance and meaning.
Griffith’s attention to detail, his obsession over “historical minutia,” to quote Merritt, from the realistic street scenes of the contemporary story to the textured set pieces of the Babylonian tale, is a marvel. Each segment has a realism that gives the film an additional depth, certainly compared to other films being done at the time. I find Intolerance to also be an interesting example of the merging of pre-existing genres and styles of film, most of which Griffith had done before, together into one. There is the urban melodrama, the Biblical tale, the historical action/drama, in this case based around the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and the massive set-driven, Italian spectacle-influenced B.C. tale, here revolving around Belshazzar's Babylon. Griffith takes the normative generic conventions of each and works them as a back-drop in which to paint the larger picture of intolerance’s progressions and manifestations. It’s a way of signaling that not only have these themes crossed time periods, countries, and continents, but they too have appeared throughout cinema’s (albeit brief) history.
Intolerance is also worthy of note in the ways in which it references those films done previously and points the way towards pictures to come. The rapid cutting, especially towards the end, was clearly an authority on French Impressionist directors like Abel Gance with La roué (1923) and on the editing of Soviets such as Eisenstein and Dovzhenko (with different intentions and results in this case however). Through a horizontal masking method, emphasizing the grandeur and expansiveness of the sets and actions, Griffith also alludes to widescreen techniques to come, including the triptych sequences in Napoleon (1927), again directed by Gance. The melodramatic aspects of the contemporary story hint at features to come, as in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms for example. Looking back, we see allusions to Griffith’s own The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Mario Caserini’s The Last days of Pompeii (1913), as well as the most obvious – Pastrone’s film Cabiria (1914).
While Griffith did not actually invent the filmic techniques he so exhaustively liked to proclaim (intercutting, a mobile camera, and close ups, for example, had been done before, particularly by the so-called Brighton School in England and Edwin S. Porter here in America), he did utilize said techniques, and more, in ways and to degrees unprecedented at that time. Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941) after him, Griffith not so much created the language of film, as he constructed it in astonishingly innovative forms.
The lighting in Intolerance, for example, aided in large part by hugely crucial cinematographer G.W. (Billy) Bitzer, adds dimension and richness to the scenes shot from a distance and highlights emotions and expressions in the closer set-ups. Griffith’s employment of rhythmic editing, pacing the film in accordance to audience emotion and character action, keeps the picture dynamic despite its length.
Emotionally powerful is one key scene in the modern story, after the mother has her baby taken away from the “uplifters.” She reaches for a swatch of fabric (the baby’s sock?) and grasps it in her hand – it’s a fantastically powerful shot, in close up, notably without a human face, the normal object of focus for emotional attraction. This particular scene is also a unique one in that after this close up, we get a title card reading “suffer little children,” and then an isolated image of Jesus surrounded by kids. This stands out because we are seeing a scene from another one of the tales, but it’s done in such a way that it appears to be unrelated in terms of story progression (for either segment) and emerges more as narrative-delaying authorial commentary.
One other scene of note (out of many possibilities), here of fantastic technical relevance, is near the end, in act II, when, through a crane contraption (a mobile elevator device), we see the bustling hall in which Belshazzar is hosting the noblemen, the camera slowly pushes in and moves down, getting closer and closer to ground level. This set, this maneuver, is breathtaking. Maybe not the “single greatest jaw-dropping sight on celluloid,” as proposed by Merritt, this moment is, to be sure, sensational. While the crane/track is slower than that which we are accustomed to today, the gradual pace actually works quite nicely in allowing time to soak in the immense detail of the location.
It is staggering to think of Intolerance as a sort of independent film. While the colossal sets, copious extras, star employment, and technical traits make the film appear to be more in the vein of a massive studio production, where I think Intolerance gains most prominently its “independent” stature (using a variation of the term’s multifaceted definition) is through the single-mindedness, the drive, and the passion displayed by Griffith. So much of independent cinema is driven by one person’s enthusiasm for their subject matter (indeed, for the medium itself) and in this is where Griffith achieves so much. While it may have conceivably ended up being unbearably long, it is most certainly a shame that a full, eight-hour cut of the picture does not exist. Whether or not the film could have maintained its pace, regardless of if the stories could have supported such a length, as a text of a filmmaker’s vision the total film would have been invaluable.
Intolerance is not without it faults through. The Biblical story, and especially the French story, ends up as slightly extraneous segments only just supported by the benchmark Babylonian tale and the more relatable modern section. The themes are there, and in that they prove worthwhile for comparison’s sake, but as stand-alone moments there is just not the same degree of excitement or quality; no doubt about it, none of the segments match the Babylonian one for sheer visceral reaction and spectacle. Certain scenes, however here mostly in the modern and Babylonian parts, seem so obviously designed for reaction that they, in effect, lose some of their impact. The modern story, in particular, is rather heavy-handed in its approach to intolerance and societal influences. In a similar vein, though surely a wonder, the already much-lauded Babylonian set appears to be so overly-expansive and elaborate, the techniques so noticeably intricate, that one can’t help but think that Griffith was simply trying to out-do other films, attempting to capture the audience through mere form. The end of the film, too, in keeping with Griffith’s penchant, is perhaps overly sentimental; though as a whole it is nonetheless satisfying.
Intolerance is, any way you look at it, a great film, one of silent cinema’s best, and it stands, if nothing else, as a tremendous example of directorial work and as a testament to the capabilities of early filmmakers. To think that this film was made within the first 20 years of cinema’s existence is to appreciate how far along the medium had so rapidly come. Independent or studio, it is almost unfathomable to think that anyone involved in films who saw this picture at the time of its release was not thoroughly influenced and bowled over. Griffith would continue to make films, some very good – Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921) are among his finest – and as if he wasn’t already, Intolerance did firmly cement his role as a figure (like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean-Luc Godard) who would change cinema forever. The biggest tragedy of Griffith’s career is that it, like many others, did not adjust adequately to sound.
Finally, in watching Intolerance again, the one thought that this time kept running through my head, on the heels of having recently watched Terminator: Salvation and Up in theaters, is to imagine what such an innovator and visionary as Griffith could have done with today’s technology. It is, of course, sheer imaginative speculation, but it is definitely an enjoyable thought.