Intolerance (1916)

D.W. Griffith | 3hr 17min

Intolerance is not quite the apology for The Birth of a Nation that it is often considered to be, especially given that within it D.W. Griffith is ironically framing prejudice as an evil force that was levelled against his own racist ideologies. Without the extratextual background though, his targets appear just vague enough that interpretations could sway either way. Between the two masterpieces, there is no real solid defence of him as a sociologist, philosopher, or prudent intellectual of any kind, and yet as a filmmaker composing fables of historical magnitude that could only ever be represented on a cinematic canvas, a select few directors have ever matched him in grandeur and coordination. Peter Jackson, David Lean, Abel Gance, Francis Ford Coppola, Christopher Nolan, and James Cameron are among those bold visionaries to take on pieces of his genius, and while The Birth of a Nation is where it all started, Intolerance may be the even more technically refined and ambitiously executed accomplishment. In wrapping up four parallel narratives stretching from ancient Babylon to the present day, cycles of human redemption and transgression are masterfully painted out with joy and sorrow, and in the middle of it all sits “The Eternal Mother” – a maternal figure gently rocking a cradle to the ceaseless rhythms of time.

Lillian Gish as the Eternal Mother, a strong motif carried through Intolerance as a single, unifying thread in its complex tapestry.

Around the Mother, history swirls and pulses to an accelerating beat, framing her as a stable, ageless centre upon which everything else pivots. She is a key formal marker of Intolerance, and is played by Lillian Gish no less, following on from her breakout role in The Birth of a Nation and preceding her fruitful period of stardom in the 1920s. Her presence in this tapestry of narrative threads carries archetypal significance as a nurturer of humanity, and while she is initially used to segment each individual narrative, eventually Griffith weaves in her cutaways so seamlessly that she no longer stands merely as a bookmark, but rather a meaningful piece of the overall structure.

From there, the groundwork is set for an entire collection of character archetypes defined by their straightforward names. In the modern-day storyline, a romance blossoms between the Boy and the Dear One, both of whom must contend with criminals, capitalists, and leaders of the puritanical “Uplifter” movement to live a happy life. The “Man of Men, the greatest enemy of intolerance” embodied by Jesus Christ comes next, whose final weeks of life becomes Griffith’s focus here. Though leading the shortest of the four threads, Christ, like the Eternal Mother, is an instantly recognisable emblem of righteousness, sacrifice, and salvation, through which each other subplot connects to a transcendent spiritualism. The storyline of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestant Huguenots by the Catholic monarchs in 16th century Paris is comparably abbreviated in its length, and again religion is depicted as a socially dominant force which fuels what Griffith labels a “hotbed of intolerance.” The sweet, innocent Brown Eyes is the primary victim in this strand, meeting a grisly fate at the hands of a soldier on the day of her wedding, while her fiancé, rushing to save her, meets a similar tragic fate.

Accomplished production design across the streets of Renaissance Paris and 1910s America, starting small but impressive before we reach the huge set pieces.

And finally, there is the fall of Babylon, spurred on by the conflict between devotees of rival gods Bel-Marduk and Ishtar, and within which Griffith crafts set pieces that make other epic films look like chamber dramas by comparison. It isn’t enough for him to simply build giant, detailed sets with ornately carved city gates, colossal city walls shrinking people to the size of insects, and magnificent stone idols of worship overlooking them all. Nor is it enough for him to perfect the art of the establishing shot, setting the camera back far enough to capture thousands of extras moving in formations down giant steps or through gaping arches. Here, in what may be the film’s single greatest sequence, Griffith plants his camera on a crane and swoops it from high up above the ancient court down to the ground, directing us through the magnificent scenery to narrow in on its occupants. Within Babylon, our primary character is the headstrong Mountain Girl, who pledges her allegiance to Prince Belshazzar upon being freed from the marriage market, and later becomes her civilisation’s would-be saviour in a race against time to warn everyone of Cyrus the Great’s surprise attack.

The largest set of Hollywood’s silent era, one of the greatest crane shots in film history, and simply an astonishing feat of filmmaking in its pure composition.
Beyond the great feast of Babylon, this narrative strand is filled with colossal sets, from the towering city walls to its ornately detailed gates.

Before Babylon’s devastating downfall in Intolerance’s climactic finale though, Griffith stages another mammoth battle scene leading into the film’s intermission, which sees Belshazzar pull off a rousing victory over his enemy. While the parallel cutting between storylines is indeed a major strength of Intolerance, here Griffith wisely chooses not to let it interrupt the vigorous flow he builds in his action editing. The tactical progression of each attack within this conflict carries the scale, suspense, and coordination of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings, of which this is a precursor, expertly keeping track of individual characters within the spectacular chaos. From Mountain Girl’s high vantage point, she fires off arrows into Cyrus’ army far below. Down on the ground, soldiers viciously bite into each other’s necks, impale enemies with spears, and cleanly slice off their heads. Within Babylon’s temple, priests fall at the feet of their gods, praying to be saved. And through it all, Griffith inserts long shots of the city walls, his frames filled with fire, smoke, catapults, and battering rams, flinging assaults back and forth between both sides. From the one-on-one combats to the toppling siege towers that crash forcefully to the ground, the stunt work is simply incredible, like a thousand Buster Keaton gags strung together with significantly less humour and a great deal more violence.

A feat of action editing and choreography, setting the stage for The Lord of the Rings in its scale, scope, and thrilling coordination.

Within the context of all four stories, this is intolerance writ on the largest scale film can capture, and there may indeed be a greater number of shots in the film depicting crowds filling out Jerusalem’s streets, Parisian palaces, worker strikes, and brimming court trials than any depicting named characters. Griffith is not one to let the personal stakes disappear within the cacophony of humanity’s self-destruction though, as it is in the personal struggles of innocents trying to live quiet lives that his stories are centred in a recognisable heartache. The Musketeer’s attempted rape of the Dear One, the struggle that ends up framing the Boy for murder, and his eventual death sentence piles the misfortune up in one long string of injustices, and Griffith’s in-scene editing moves briskly through each new development with lively indignation. With comparisons being drawn between the Uplifters and the Pharisees of the biblical era early on, Griffith lays foundations for further connections between narrative threads, intercutting the Uplifters’ unjust seizure of the Dear One’s baby with the scene of Christ speaking warmly to Jerusalem’s children.

The seizure of the Dear One’s baby juxtaposed with Christ speaking to the children of Jerusalem. Powerful form in Griffith’s editing.
Griffith is more known for his long shots, but he is just as much an innovator of the close-up, here softening his camera’s focus on the Dear One as she wrestles with her husband’s death sentence.

Astonishing displays of detailed mise-en-scène are consistently built in the halls of power across the ages, where monarchs, priests, and business owners exert great authority over the lives of common people, determining who lives and dies based on petty disputes and broken allegiances. It is particularly those who wield religion as a weapon who are often the most insidious of them all, as is plainly evident in the Babylonian, biblical, and Parisian settings, but which is even there in the subjugation of the Dear One. When the Dear One’s father unjustly demands she pray for forgiveness, a sculpted icon of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus reminds us of his pure message of grace, which each storyline otherwise sees corrupted by self-righteous believers.

The ancient Babylonian palace, the royal court of King Charles IX, the ball at Miss Jenkins’ manor – the depth of field, staging, and elaborate production design echoes across the halls of power through the ages.

Through all these strands weaving around each other and gradually merging into a singular story of historical prejudice, Griffith steadily maintains a finely orchestrated display of parallel editing for over three hours, demonstrating a level of stamina that calls to mind similar accomplishments in Battleship Potemkin and more recently, Dunkirk. As the final act approaches and several violent actions of injustice loom over our four sets of character though, he just keeps on stepping up the pacing and exchanges, choreographing an accelerating sequence of intercutting that surpasses anything even from The Birth of a Nation. The fall of Babylon, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the crucifixion of Christ, and the hanging of the Boy are all imminent, and the lead-up to each sees epic battles for the soul of humanity ring out across time like a stone rolling down a hill, picking up speed and knocking down others until it spirals into a devastating avalanche.

It begins quite simply with the Boy’s death sentence being drawn directly next to Pontius Pilate’s sentencing of Christ and the subsequent procession to Calvary, seeing two innocents bearing the sins of others. Just as the three crosses stand tall up on the hill outside of Jerusalem, the gallows set menacingly squares up to the camera, and much like the dash of the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation to rescue Elsie Stoneman, here Griffith cuts between the prison and the Dear One’s frantic rush to deliver the evidence of her husband’s innocence. Meanwhile, Mountain Girl is also racing back to the city of Babylon to warn Prince Belshazzar of Cyrus’ oncoming attack with the camera aggressively rolling alongside her, the Royal House of Valois sends out its soldiers to slaughter the Protestant Huguenots of Paris, and the Eternal Mother keeps rocking her cradle, each narrative and symbolic counterpoint supporting each other’s progression as they collide in spectacular fashion. The complex interplay of Griffith’s editing goes beyond the four-pronged structure, but even within individual story threads he cuts between multiple characters spread across locations, chasing each other down in chariots, cars, and trains to beat the last few sands of time trickling away.

A collision of narrative threads unfolding through Griffith’s remarkable parallel editing, as each one rushes towards its conclusion with haste and suspense.

With intertitles growing scarcer, Griffith fires off each shot with greater velocity and dexterity, building and sustaining suspense across the final forty minutes until, one by one, the final dominoes of each narrative thread topple over. “Intolerance, burning and slaying” reign across scenes of Mountain Girl being shot with arrows, Brown Eyes’ death by sword, and Christ dying up on the cross, and with this symphonic tragedy echoing across millennia, our expectations are set for the culmination of the Boy’s execution. For better or worse, Griffith is a sentimentalist at heart who cannot bear letting such a dour conclusion have the final say on humanity’s great potential, as in the very last seconds before the Boy’s hanging, the Dear One arrives with the Governor, carrying evidence of her husband’s innocence. Violent hatred may slaughter entire cities and even the son of God, and yet in the tiny pockets of society where lovers push on, Griffith formally earns this tiny shred of justice dealt out to the characters who ironically hold the least power out of anyone in this entire ensemble.

But Intolerance is ultimately not a film about characters, but rather about those large, overarching humanistic values which we can aspire to embody in even the darkest times, hoping that another era will eventually emerge that will see compassion conquer cruelty. Not the sort of director to let his massive canvas go to waste even in the closing minutes, Griffith delivers one last giant set piece of a battlefield, superimposing heavens in the skies far above, and shedding light upon the soldiers laying down their weapons. It is a grand experiment in narrative structure he conducts here, and not one to be taken for granted or downplayed for its maudlin idealism. Within the intricate harmonies of layered plot strands and the trailblazing pioneer’s staggering formal ambition, Intolerance demonstrates the immense potential of this young, nascent art form, and sets a cinematic standard of epic filmmaking that has rarely been surpassed.

Heavens opening up above a battlefield, shining peace down across humanity.

Intolerance is in the public domain, and available to watch on many free video sharing sites including YouTube.

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