D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic feature The Birth of a Nation is one of the greatest films ever made (even though I strongly disapprove of the film’s portrayal of black people as well as the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan). Griffith followed up that film with 1916’s Intolerance, another influential silent epic that was made partially in response to the criticism of The Birth of a Nation as well as Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Italian silent epic Cabiria. The scale and artistry of Intolerance simply cannot be argued against. I recently had the chance to catch a screening of this excellent film in a newly restored DCP at Film Forum courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection that looked terrific (especially for a 97 year-old film).
Intolerance intercuts between four parallel storylines, with each taking place several centuries apart: a then-modern melodrama of crime and redemption, Jesus Christ’s mission and death, the events surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572, and the fall of the Babylonian Empire to Persia in 539 B.C. The stories are linked by shots of the figure of Eternal Motherhood rocking a cradle. The production design by Griffith was excellent. Sets for the various time periods included the palace and streets of Babylon, Jerusalem in the age of Jesus, the palaces and streets of 16th century Paris, and then-modern locations in the U.S. The sets for the Babylonian story were massive and easily the most impressive. Seeing thousands of extras populate the massive sets made me appreciate Griffith’s direction even more (it’s weird that today a wide shot of that would either be done with a miniature and CG extras or entirely done with CG). It still amazes me that all of the special effects were done practically and in-camera, and the violence in the battle scenes was quite graphic for its time.
The story I found to be the most moving was the “modern”-set one. I was troubled that the efforts of a small group of wealthy women to “clean up” their city would lead to a workers’ strike, vast unemployment, death, the relocation of many, and numerous shattered lives for the lower classes. To paraphrase one of the film’s intertitles, “When women are no longer attractive to their husbands, they turn to reform.” In other words, if they were getting laid, they wouldn’t be interfering in matters that weren’t their concern. Sadly, this still partially holds up to be true for women, but in today’s world this idea can be applied to men as well (especially when religion becomes involved). Griffith’s film gives viewers a lot to think about, and offers superb performances from a cast that includes Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Constance Talmadge, and Alfred Paget. It’s also interesting that among Griffith’s many assistant directors were Erich Von Stroheim, George W. Hill, Tod Browning, Jack Conway, Allan Dwan, Victor Fleming, Sidney Franklin, and W.S. Van Dyke, all of whom went on to have directing careers (some more successful than others). The film’s influences can still be felt even today in films such as 2010’s Inception and 2012’s Cloud Atlas, and I am thankful for that.