By Alan Mattli
Considering the spotlight Andrew Stanton’s John Carter is in at the moment for becoming one of Disney’s biggest flops of all time – some people estimate the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, which by the way is a perfectly decent movie, might end up costing the studio around 200 million dollars –, it seems like now would be a good opportunity to talk about one of the biggest box office bombs in the entire history of cinema, D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance from 1916. When this film came out in cinemas, it didn’t come anywhere near making back its enormous budget (two million dollars) and Griffith, whom you might know as the director of the 1915 silent Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation, spent the rest of his life paying back the debts his opus magnum left behind. However, Intolerance is probably the best example that viewers’ tastes don’t always do a movie justice.
While The Birth of a Nation was a resounding success, Griffith was widely criticised for his insensitive portrayal of racial and female stereotypes, and his heroisation of the Ku Klux Klan, whose resurrection can at least partly be attributed to its role in the film. For this reason, he remains to this day one of the most controversial figures of cinema; Orson Welles called Hollywood’s reservation towards him the one thing he hated about Tinseltown, which, according to him, owed “everything” to this one man. Griffith himself was frustrated by the heated debate, so he decided to address the allegations made against him in an even more titanic film. Intolerance consists of four parallel storylines in four different historical periods, each one dealing with the excrescence of the titular subject and chronicling “love’s struggle through the ages”, hence the film’s subtitle.
The “Babylonian Story” retells the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylonian Empire to the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, in 539 BC, fueled by the jealousy between the rivaling devotees of the gods Bel-Marduk and Ishtar. Amidst all this we find a poor girl from the mountains who is put up for sale in the marriage market, freed by Belshazzar, and who decides to fight alongside the Babylonian soldiers against the Persian aggressors. In the “Judean Story”, Griffith reimagines Jesus’ mission and death focusing less on Pontius Pilate and more on the arrogant Pharisees as villains. The third one, the “French Story”, takes place in 1572 and examines the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots commissioned by the Catholic elite under Catherine de’ Medici. The final tale, set in circa 1914 – the “Modern Story” –, was originally intended to be a stand-alone film named The Mother and the Law dealing with how a workers’ strike forces several individuals to move to the city where their lives are threatened by criminals, moral puritans, and capitalist selfishness. Eternal Motherhood, played by Lillian Gish, forever rocking the cradle of humanity serves as a thematic link between the four intercut episodes.
If one had to describe this film using only one word, chances are that word would be something along the lines of “gargantuan”. Intolerance is a colossal work of art in every respect. The stories, sprawled over two and a half millennia, bring the film’s length up to an imposing 197 minutes during which you will find yourself hopelessly engrossed with the multi-layered human tragedy that unfolds before you. The great number of acting characters brings to mind a monumental novel of epic proportions. The score, composed by Joseph Carl Breil and Carl Davis, fittingly carries a lot of weight, but can also be peaceful and intimate. The editing is remarkably refined, immensely aiding the film’s rhythm, specifically in the thrilling climax where the events of 539 BC, featuring horses, and 1914 AD, featuring a train, are brilliantly parallelised, forming a fantastic dramatic crescendo. The heated battles that are fought in Intolerance also shine brightly, thanks to their sheer scale, the superb direction and expert execution, including some truly noteworthy stabbing effects. And finally, the sets are among the most impressive you’ll ever see in any movie from any era – the opening shot of the walls of Babylon is nothing short of breathtaking –, especially bearing in mind that the film was made a mere twenty years after its medium’s invention.
Although the film’s reputation has been salvaged over the years, some modern critics still hold Intolerance in lower esteem than The Birth of a Nation, criticising for instance the lack of clarity with which the concept of “intolerance” is presented. But it is exactly that ambiguity, that uncertainty about what the word actually means – and incorporates, for that matter – that makes Intolerance such an enthralling exercise. Griffith treats intolerance as a vicious Hydra embedded in man’s nature that pops up in every epoch, every cultural, social, and religious setting. This is particularly striking in the way the famous Babylonian law – “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – is reused in the French Story, where it is used by the royals to vindicate the slaughter of innocent civilians, and in the Modern Story, where the line “a murder for a murder” is added, thus indirectly scrutinising the death penalty. Furthermore, many of the main stories are imbued with smaller vignettes of intolerance and other social commentary – such as an ever so slight allusion to class struggles in the industrialised world – that are only subtly hinted at.
But for all its grandiosity, the film works on the small scale as well as it does on the big scale – from cinematographer Billy Blitzer’s huge establishing shot of Babylon, which is peopled by literally thousands of extras (over 150,000 were used altogether), to the numerous close ups and the detail views of hands and coins. The stories, too, are fascinatingly cyclical. While the “big picture” forms an episode’s thematic framework – and even has protagonists and antagonists of its own –, personal tragedies and love stories constitute its emotional centre. For instance, after the bloody confrontation between Belshazzar and Cyrus, a truly grandiose sequence, we turn back to the 1914 storyline, which relies heavily on its female hero’s heartbreaking struggle to retrieve her infant child from a state home where it has been taken after she has been deemed an unfit parent by the “meddlers”, as the hawkish puritan moralisers are called in dependence on the Judean Story’s Pharisees. It’s in those scenes where we get a glimpse of the romantic, yes, actually sentimental side of Griffith. Even when making a sardonic joke about employed ersatz mothers (“Of course, hired mothers are never negligent”), he subverts any bitterness by having the baby’s mother, The Dear One, exchange loving looks with her child through a window. A similar emotional investment can be found in the Babylonian Story when we follow the adventures of the feisty Mountain Girl, who, among other things, serves to rectify the sexism charges raised after The Birth of Nation. Not only is she a ton of fun to watch – her scene in the marriage market provides some wonderfully good-natured humour –, she is a thoroughly strong female character as well. This constant dualism of irony, maybe even cynicism, and romanticism alone illustrates perfectly why directors like John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) or Alfred Hitchcock name Griffith as their prime inspiration.
Indeed, to think what doors this film opened is staggering. Without it, there would be no genre of historical epics championed by Cecil B. DeMille (The King of Kings, Cleopatra). Film scholars agree that the Modern Story’s harrowing strike scene was one of the important factors that helped create early Soviet cinema by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, Battleship Potemkin) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Mother, The New Babylon). One can even make the case that the refined editing techniques used in The Birth of a Nation were ultimately perfected here, thus paving the way for what we now know as “classic Hollywood”. But even if you ignore the impact Intolerance had on future films, it remains a stunning achievement, a towering pillar of cinema. It is a fully shaped masterpiece, from the tiniest titbit to the vastest set structure. Spending almost three and a half hours watching an almost 100-year-old silent film might not sound appealing. But engage in the mesmerising magic of Intolerance and you will witness the timelessness of truly great cinema.
★★★★★★ (out of six)