Intolerance has a reputation as being D.W. Griffith's apology for the racist content of The Birth of a Nation, a mea culpa for promoting intolerant ideas and a condemnation of the horrors to which racist ideas lead. I don't know very much about D.W. Griffith or his feelings in the year between the release of this two landmark films, but I think this reputation is largely mistaken. The poorly-titled Intolerance has nothing to do with racism, and except for a few Ethiopians in a battle scene, black people do not even exist in this film. (Nor white people pretending to be black people!)
Intolerance is not an attack on racism but an expose on "intolerance," which according to Merriam-Webster is a concept meaning, "the state of being unable or unwilling to endure." There's a rather large gap between loving or embracing something and "tolerating" it. I don't love standing in a long line on a hot day, but I tolerate it because sometimes I have no other choice. I don't enjoy paying my credit card bills, but I tolerate doing so because otherwise I'll be penalized. I'm not happy that libertarians or arch-conservatives exist, but I tolerate their freedom to think whatever absurdities they want. Because what's the other option? Genocide? Violent outbursts? Lawlessness? Concentration camps? Most sensible people (though certainly not all, I'm afraid) have a pretty good understanding that these reactions aren't sound reactions. Intolerance, I suppose, is aimed at an audience whose natural reaction would be to violently annihilate whomever they disagree with (which happens throughout the film), a rather small demographic of which I am fortunate to not be a member. In all other instances, he's simply preaching to the choir.
Should the North have tolerated slavery? Was the Civil War an unnecessarily bloody act of intolerance? Should we tolerate D.W. Griffith's desire to create a bestselling, historically-inaccurate blockbuster epic that insists segregation is essential? Are people who strike these films being intolerant? Yes, I suppose so.
Intolerance, more accurately and artfully subtitled Love's Struggle Through the Ages, is a three hour and seventeen minute presentation of four thematically linked but otherwise unrelated stories: a Babylonian tale about the fall of Babylon in 539 BCE, a story of the crucifixion of Christ in 27 CE, a depiction of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre by Roman Catholics against Protestant Huguenots in France in 1572, and a modern tale about Americans in 1914 encounter temperance movements, mobsters, and injustice. The inspiration for the film began with only this final story before expanding to include the Babylonian tale, originally conceived to be a separate film. The French and Judean subplots were a later development, a fact made obvious by their limited screen time and underdevelopment. (I haven't actually calculated, but I imagine the French scenes occupy only about twenty or twenty-five minutes of screen time; the scenes about Jesus amount to only a handful of brief scenes and shots.)
The modern story is about a girl-woman who, following the death of her protective father, marries a reformed mobster and has a baby, only to have her life devastated by the intrusions of nosy prohibitionists, a gangland boss, and his jealous, murderous wife. This story--the original story--has the least to do with "intolerance." If you consider that this extremely grandiose film--the most expensive and largest of its time--was released only eighteen months after The Birth of a Nation, the supposition that the latter film is a complete reversal in sentiment and a meaningful, thoughtful apology for the former wears very thin.
And yet, unlike The Birth of a Nation, which is mostly just praised for its technical and narrative innovations and not for its actual thematic content, Intolerance is also exalted for the depth of meaning and earnest emotion that it supposedly contains. To me, the story is just as shoddy, inaccurate, and naive as the earlier film, though the presentation is certainly breathtaking and beautiful, even almost a century later.
D.W. Griffith had the resources to physically build a separate universe. What would be manufactured today using computers and trickery was actually set before the camera. Vast Babylonian walls and idols. Hundreds if not thousands of extras in exotic period dress. Elaborate recreations of ancient religious rites. D.W. Griffith, the only filmmaker of any real renown at the time, needn't have spared any expense at fulfilling his dream, and he clearly didn't. It's stunning to see the output of someone who was the undisputed god of his industry at the time, someone who could make happen whatever he wanted to happen. He wanted one of his actresses to have eyelashes so long that they would brush her cheeks, so he and one of his makeup artists invented false eyelashes. He needed to film an execution scene, so he in collaboration with the department of corrections built an exact replica of a modern gallows. He had the money to hire as many extras as he needed. It's difficult to imagine any filmmaker today being so free of hurdles, and the results are jaw-dropping.
The editing is also amazing, as the four stories cut back and forth, cleverly building upon each other's emotions and energy. As vengeful prohibitionists raid bars and gambling halls, the film recounts Jesus' first miracle, turning water into wine. As a man is sentenced to death, we see struggling to carry his own cross. As a woman races to alert Babylon that they are about to be destroyed by the Persians, a young woman races to intercept a train carrying to governor so that she can beg him for a pardon for her condemned husband. This frantic, energetic, multilayered editing had never been done before, though Eisenstein soon perfected it and now even the simplest television commercials exploit these techniques. The cinematography by G.W. Bitzer is also brilliant, as in the depiction of modern capital punishment, which despite being a violent killing is brightly-lit, sterile, cold, mechanical, and precise. A red-filtered shot of Jesus, far in the background, impossible to be rescued, hanging atop his cross on Calvary as frantic silhouettes mourn in the foreground, their arms writing in the air, is one of the most disturbing and beautiful shots I've ever seen. The extravagant costumes, the make-up, the realistic sets--all are top-notch. Even the special effects are rather shocking and effective, as in one scene when a burly warrior decapitates another on the battlefield.
Perhaps the first stunning mise-en-scène in cinematic history, couple with the most skillful editing of its time. From the unavoidable agony of Christ's crucifixion...
...to the routine, bureaucratic execution of the young husband.
The acting is mostly convincing, though only Mae Marsh as the young bride in the modern story is especially remarkable. Her odd childishness and naivete, on a crash course with a brutal reality check, is genuine and memorable only because of how consistently strange it is.
It's the story, though, so slapdash and ill-informed, that is this otherwise brilliant film's downfall. Consider the historical gaps. Griffith depicts Babylonia as an exotic utopia obsessed with romance and in awe of Ishtar, its goddess of love. Enter the Persians, led by the brutal, war-mongering, intolerant Cyrus the Great, who, according to Griffith, wipes this civilization off the face of the earth. Did Griffith know anything about history? The Babylonians were oppressive conquerors who, as seen in the Hebrew Bible, attempted to eradicate the Israelites of Judea by destroying their temple, outlawing their religious practices, and killing, enslaving, or relocating many of their people. Ishtar was as much a goddess of war as of love (and agriculture, as well), and her religious rites involved sacred prostitution, not romance. Cyrus the Great, far from being an intolerant war-mongerer, was extremely tolerant of the people in his dominion, respecting their religions, traditions, and laws and administering a highly organized government with an impeccable human rights record. The Hebrew Bible treats Cyrus as a vessel of God's will, ranking him almost amongst the prophets and the saints in terms of his importance. Without Cyrus, Judaism would have perhaps been erased. Without Cyrus, the subplot involving Jesus may have never happened.
Not too mention that without Jesus the subplot involving Catholics massacring Huguenots would have never happened either, but that's a completely different can of worms.
And what are we to make of the modern story--more about injustice than intolerance--which claims that prohibition and its dangerous trappings are the result of insecure old women who can no longer get laid, who jealously channel their sexual frustrations against beautiful, young people? What does it say about this treatise on intolerance that the motivation behind its major plot is rooted in sexism and ageism?
Intolerance is a strange film--undeniably artistic, but with obvious shortcomings. I don't consider it the masterpiece that others do, but it clearly paved the way for other masterpieces, and that's got to be worth something.
d: D.W. Griffith w: D.W. Griffith, Hettie Grey Baker, Tod Browning, et al
(Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Constance Talmadge, Alfred Paget)