INTOLERANCE (D.W. Griffith, 1916, USA, 178m, BW)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Written by D. W. Griffith
Hettie Grey Baker
Mary H. O'Connor
Frank E. Woods
Starring Vera Lewis
Frank Bennett (actor) (fr)
Music by Joseph Carl Breil
Carl Davis (for 1989 restoration)
Cinematography Billy Bitzer
Edited by D. W. Griffith
Distributed by Triangle Distributing Corporation
September 5, 1916
210 minutes (original release)
197 minutes (most surviving cuts)
Country United States
Language Silent film
Intolerance is a 1916 epic silent film directed by D. W. Griffith. Subtitles include Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages and A Sun-Play of the Ages. Widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era, as well as one of the first art films, the three-and-a-half-hour epic intercuts four parallel storylines, each separated by several centuries: a contemporary melodrama of crime and redemption, (2) a Judean story: Christ's mission and death, a French story: the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, and a Babylonian story: the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 BC. Each story had its own distinctive color tint in the original print. The scenes are linked by shots of a figure representing Eternal Motherhood, rocking a cradle.
Intolerance was made partly in response to criticism of Griffith's previous film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), which was criticized by the NAACP and other groups as perpetuating racial stereotypes and glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It was not, as is commonly implied, an apology for the racism of his earlier film. In numerous interviews, Griffith made clear that the film's title and overriding themes were meant as a response to those who he felt had been intolerant of him in condemning The Birth of a Nation. In the years following its release, Intolerance would strongly influence European film movements despite its lack of commercial success domestically.
Storylines / Story
This complex film consists of four distinct, but parallel, stories—intercut with increasing frequency as the film builds to a climax—that demonstrate mankind's persistent intolerance throughout the ages. The film sets up moral and psychological connections among the different stories. The timeline covers approximately 2,500 years.
The ancient "Babylonian" story (539 BC) depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia. The fall of Babylon is a result of intolerance arising from a conflict between devotees of two rival Babylonian gods—Bel-Marduk and Ishtar.
The Biblical "Judean" story (c. 27 AD) recounts how—after the Wedding at Cana and the Woman Taken in Adultery—intolerance led to the Crucifixion of Jesus. This sequence is the shortest of the four.
The Renaissance "French" story (1572) tells of the religious intolerance that led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots fomented by Catholic royals.
The American "Modern" story (c. 1914) demonstrates how crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers help ruin the lives of marginal Americans. To get more money for his spinster sister's charities, a mill owner orders a 10% pay cut to his workers' wages. An ensuing workers' strike is crushed and The Boy and The Dear One make their way to another city; she lives in poverty and he turns to crime. After they marry he tries to break free of crime but is framed for theft by his ex-boss. While he is in prison, his wife must endure their child being taken away by the same "moral uplift society" that instigated the strike. Upon his release from prison, he discovers his ex-boss attempting to rape his wife. A struggle begins and in the confusion the girlfriend of the boss shoots and kills the boss. She escapes and The Boy is convicted and sentenced to the gallows. A kindly policeman helps The Dear One find the real killer and together they try to reach the Governor in time so her reformed husband will not be hanged.
Breaks between the differing time periods are marked by the symbolic image of a mother rocking a cradle, representing the passing of generations. The film simultaneously cross-cuts back and forth and interweaves the segments over great gaps of space and time, with over 50 transitions between the segments. One of the unusual characteristics of the film is that many of the characters do not have names. Griffith wished them to be emblematic of human types. Thus, the central female character in the modern story is called The Dear One. Her young husband is called The Boy, and the leader of the local Mafia is called The Musketeer of the Slums. Critics and film theorists maintain that these names reveal Griffith's sentimentalism, which was already hinted at in The Birth of a Nation, with names such as The Little Colonel.
D.W. Griffith's ("The Birth of a Nation"/"Broken Blossoms"/"Judith of Bethulia") influential landmark epic silent film intercuts four distinct tales from history about intolerance that signals an attitude of inhumanity to others. The stories are linked by the image of an eternal mother rocking her baby in a cradle. Three stories are based upon history--one covers the events in Jerusalem that led to Christ's crucifixion (told as a Passion Play), especially pointing out those Pharisees who were hypocrites; the second tells of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, that has Catherine de Medici, a Catholic, persuade her son, King Charles IX of France, to murder the Huguenots (Protestants); and finally, in 539 B.C., in ancient Babylon, the evil High Priest of Bel schemes with Cyrus of Persia to take over the empire from the decent Prince Belshazzar.
The fiction story is set in 1914 in California, where the unmarried elderly sister of the local mill owner Jenkins, gets her brother to bankroll the reformers. The Jenkins foundation tries to reform the mill workers so they have less leisure time to be better prepared to work. When the uncaring mill owner Jenkins cuts the workers' wages by ten percent to fund the reform movement, the workers strike. It leads to some of the workers relocating to a nearby city after the violent strike is put down by the army. The Boy, a former mill worker, whose father was killed during the strike, is now an exploited member of the slum Musketeer gang. When he tries to leave the gang, the Musketeer boss has him arrested on false charges and his wife, The Dear One, loses their child after she's declared an unfit mom by the Jenkins foundation. The Boy is eventually released from prison, but when the Musketeer is killed he's charged with the murder. The Boy is spared from execution when the Friendless One confesses and the governor grants an 11th hour pardon.
The film was made as a rebuke against evil and injustice, and as a rebuttal to the severe criticism that Griffith received from his controversial smash hit previous picture, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith wanted to make sure he was not thought of as a racist and wanted the public to be tolerant of works of art, believing without such an attitude freedom of expression would be curtailed.
Intolerance was shot on a vacant lot in East Los Angeles, and its sets are are all massive and stunning. But the Babylon set is the pic's true marvel. It was the work of chief carpenter, Frank "Huck" Wortman, who gets credit for many of the innovative ways the set was so beautifully and enormously built (bending thin boards and coating them in plaster gave the appearance of the set being larger than it was).
The execution of the pic appears stiff and the storyline somewhat silly for modern times, but despite being a tough watch it remains a great epic film because of the potency of its visual poetry, the intensity of its sincere message for people to learn how to live together in harmony and the enormity of its production extravaganzas. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made, and it was rewarded at the box office as well as much acclaimed by the filmmakers and critics of its day.
The film is something of a darling of critics and film historians, and while I don’t personally like it that well, I have to admit it has been seen as important and influential. The question of how, and whether, it “bombed” is a somewhat thorny one. Most historians would agree with David A. Cook’s assessment that it was a “commercial failure” in the sense that it cost more money to make than it made back in initial release. William Drew does offer some interesting counter-points to this argument: huge audiences did go to see “Intolerance” in the theaters, and in his narrative it was successful in the USA until the end of World War I and the rise of anti-labor sentiment and the decline of Progressivism, and afterwards it became a hugely popular international hit, particularly in the new Soviet Union, where it influenced Sergei Eisenstein among others. As far as the question of whether it made a profit, Drew cites an early interview with Griffith in which he as much as admits that even if it were a bigger blockbuster than “The Birth of a Nation,” it still could never make back what he spent on it. In other words, it wasn’t designed to make a profit, and therefore shouldn’t be judged as “failing” because it didn’t.
To some degree, that argument is a question of “moving the goal posts,” but it does raise the fundamental point of movies as art rather than business, which Silver Screenings wrote about so eloquently on the first day of this blogathon. Many historians have a narrative of D.W. Griffith as the great champion of film-as-art, and in this narrative the “failure” of “Intolerance” is his great vindication. I have some problems with this. First, I’m not convinced that Griffith’s claim to artistry was more than a pose. He was first and foremost a showman, which to my mind is somewhere between businessman and artist: the carnival barker as opposed to the aesthetic genius.
Like a lot of works that innovate, "Intolerance" fades a bit now that the things that were done here first have become relatively common. The flip side is that as an early work, it can just go for things in a way that later movies can't - the Pharisees thanking God for making them better than everyone else is perfect in how direct and on-the-nose it is. So while there are things Griffith does in this movie that would certainly be refined later, it's still got the vital energy of innovation, and that makes it highly watchable, even almost a century later.
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