INTOLERANCE (1916)

  • Director: D.W. Griffith
  • Writers: D.W. Griffith, Hettie Gray Baker, Tod Browning, Anita Loos, Mary H. O’Connor, and Frank E. Woods
  • Starring: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Fred Turner, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, Vera Lewis, Margery Wilson, Eugene Pallette, Josephine Crowell, Frank Bennett, Maxfield Stanley, Constance Talmadge, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Seena Owen, Tully Marshall, George Siegmann, and Howard Gaye
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#49), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#95), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#69)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Hoopla (library app), free streaming with ads on Tubi App, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Intolerance is the earliest movie on all three of the Top 100 lists we’ve been using as a basis for some of our film picks here, and it is also the earliest film I’ve written about so far here on Movie Valhalla. It is, in a lot of ways, the first big, anticipated blockbuster, sort of the very first version, in its day, of what Godzilla vs. Kong is to the current movie week. Yet it is somehow even more enormous than that. In today’s movies, Godzilla may be as tall as a skyscraper, but you know, on some level, that he’s not really there. When D.W. Griffith, the very first of the great Hollywood directors, in a literal sense the first Hollywood director ever (his In Old California was the first movie shot in Hollywood), swings his camera in over the great feast celebrations in the old city of Babylon, he has no computer graphics, no camera tricks really of any kind whatsoever, to fall back on. 

He built that whole insane set, possibly the most insane set ever built for a movie, and put all of those people on it. There are contemporary photographs of the full-scale Walls of Babylon he built on Sunset Boulevard, looming over the backyards of nearby houses the way you might see the smokestacks of a local factory or something. It stayed there for a decade after the movie finished shooting, reportedly because nobody wanted to pay to tear it down. When Kenneth Anger wrote his famous tell-all book about the early movie business, Hollywood Babylon, it was meant as a particularly literal metaphor.

Intolerance covers four stories of vaguely similar theme, cutting between them with abandon. Two of them, a contemporary story about a girl (Mae Marsh) whose boyfriend (Robert Harron) gets involved in a gang and is eventually sentenced to hang for murder, and that epic story of the fall of Babylon, were eventually re-cut into separate movies, in a desperate attempt to help the movie make back its enormous budget (over $200 million in 2021 dollars). The other two stories feel like they get less screen-time. One is a fairly straightforward version of the crucifixion of Jesus (Howard Gaye), while the other is a re-telling of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in 16th-Century France.  That contemporary story, later re-released as The Mother and the Law, was the one that was originally planned by Griffith, but after the runaway success of his previous movie, The Birth of a Nation, it was decided that he had to go bigger. And so we ended up with basically four separate movies smushed into one. Griffith’s original cut was apparently over eight hours long (#releasethegriffithcut), the version that was released was well over three, and what you’ll find today is generally somewhere around two hours and forty minutes. His studio, Biograph, was literally worried that people’s eyes could not handle a movie that long, because nobody had ever tried it before.

One might sense, even without any backstory, that Intolerance has something of an agenda, as there are a lot of title cards (each stamped with a “DG” trademark) and many of them tend to just be Griffith editorializing. Subtle, it is not. One might assume, based on the title, that it is a plea for greater societal tolerance of each of our differences, or something like that. Nope. The “intolerant” people Griffith is talking about are the people who did not like The Birth of a Nation. What he means is people he sees as “busy bodies,” willing to destroy what he sees beauty and goodness for the purpose of aggrandizing their own personal names. Or as someone in 2021 might say, this is a paean against “cancel culture.”

The Birth of Nation was the first runaway hit feature film, “inventing” (if you’ll listen to Griffith himself, though in more recent years film historians have tended to differ with him) a wide variety of basic movie techniques on its way to making everyone involved all of the money and popularizing big-budget feature movies as a popular art form in America. Unfortunately, it is also wildly racist, even by the standards of its day. The heroes of that movie are the Ku Klux Klan, racing to save the white ladies from being raped by the evil Black people. It’s not a case of modern eyes seeing into things that were considered normal at the time. The NAACP picketed many theaters showing the film, and Griffith was forced to hire extra security for screenings. I’ll write about that movie in its own article at some point soon, but suffice for now to say that Griffith deeply resented the criticism he received from many quarters, even while raking in the cash.

He was from Kentucky, raised by a former Confederate officer, and insisted that he had just told the truth about what had happened and had no racist intentions. Dubious though this might be, one of the ways he responds in Intolerance is by “showing his work,” so to speak. A surprising number of the title cards literally have footnotes. It’s a very weird relationship to have with a movie, where it’s poking you about how its sets are based on what was really there, while also giving you plot information.

The thing about this movie is that there is just so much of it that there is probably something in it for everybody. Epic battles, chases, love stories, murders, weird comedy moments, it’s all here. If you don’t like the story that’s going on now, another one will be along in a minute. Honestly, it could lose the two “shorter” stories in France and the Holy Land for me, but maybe you’re into that. The Babylon story is what people who haven’t actually seen this movie still know about, though, because it’s just so completely insane on the visual level. Nothing quite like it has been pulled off to this degree, before or since. The central figure of that story, the “Mountain Girl” (Constance Talmadge), is the best thing in the movie. Her brother (Frank Brownlee) tires of her talking back to him, so he tries to sell her in “The Marriage Market,” but she spends the whole time casually eating an onion and yelling at all the men for not buying her. Then Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) shows up, gives her a “seal” that says she doesn’t have to marry, and even without words her exit is hilarious. You can almost see her yelling “Peace out, bitches, I got my seal, byeeeee!” Then she ends up running back to the city in a chariot to try to warn the Prince of coming invaders, perhaps the very first female action hero. It’s all great.

I get completely that for some people silent movies, or really old movies in general, can be hard to get through, particularly a long, dramatic one like this. I’d say that physical comedy translates through the years better than drama. At one point in the mid-20th Century Orson Welles did a narrated intro to a TV showing of the film and noted that there is a lot in it that comes from “the late 19th-century theater,” that movies were being invented out of whole cloth and so we have to forgive some anachronisms in terms of presentation. “There are many things in it that feel old and dusty, but there are many other things that would feel new tomorrow.” And honestly, it is remarkable, I think, in how modern the language actually feels. Griffith’s claims of “inventing the close-up” are certainly overblown, but it is true that many silent films up until this time were basically stage plays where they pointed a camera at the actors and said “action.” Intolerance is using a recognizable version of modern film language, which is pretty remarkable. I said that comedy translates better than drama across the years, but the parts that are supposed to be exciting here really are exciting. The scenes of Cyrus attacking Babylon seem a bigger influence on the battle scenes of my favorite epic, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, than anything I’ve seen from the decades since. Dudes are getting stabbed, blood everywhere, there are these giant siege towers pushed by elephants.

There are things you haven’t seen before in anything, too. Belshazzar is just petting a leopard at one point. Definitely just a leopard they brought in, totally fine you guys. Around the same time the princess wants to do something nice for him so she has two doves pulling a tiny chariot bring him a single flower. The version you’ll find on Amazon claims to have been “re-tinted in accordance with Griffith’s original version.” So it’s more “black and random color” than “black and white,” because I can’t see any rhyme or reason to the tinting. At first I thought it was going to help discern between storylines, like one would be blue and one would be yellow, but that’s not it, and there are more than four color schemes. At one point as the battle for Babylon rages through the night, the smoke is bright pink. Nowhere else in the movie is that tinting used. It’s really interesting.

As you may be able to tell, I could keep going and write a book about this movie, and maybe someday I will, who knows. There are some movies I write about here where I struggle to get to my minimum length for these articles (four pages in Google Docs, if you want some inside baseball), and it doesn’t seem to be related to how long the movie is. As I recall, Ben-Hur was one of my barely-four-pagers. But for Intolerance, I seem to have way more things to say.

2 thoughts on “INTOLERANCE (1916)

  1. It really quite ludicrous to have the ambition to create this movie 105 years ago and actually pull it off. Everything about this movie is nuts right on down to the footnotes on the title cards.

    Liked by 1 person

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